The preschool on Netanya’s Zangwill Street is in a dilapidated area near the city's neglected open-air market. The sidewalks are filled with the wares of a makeshift flea market - clothing strewn about alongside some old kitchen utensils. The air smells of urine.
Parents of children attending the preschool – all of them asylum seekers from Eritrea – are more worried about the segregation foisted on their children. Netanya’s municipality moved some 70 children to the new preschool this year, forcing them out of the Israeli preschools they had attended last year.
In protest, the parents have refused to send their children to the separate preschool. The boycott has been ongoing since the beginning of the school year, or about two months, but local authorities seem to be in no rush to resolve the issue.
The building has a huge metal gate covered by plastic sheeting. The yard is very small, with a small strip of synthetic grass and two or three playground pieces outside, with no space to accommodate even half of the 70 children enrolled.
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City representatives tried to calm the parents at the meeting last week, telling them that the Education Ministry had approved of their building and the surroundings. It’s not clear how such a permit meets with ministry requirements for a minimum of 130 square meters of inside space and another 200 square meters of yard space.
“What did we do to you? Our children are good, they don’t make problems. Why are you segregating them,” a concerned parent told a city representative at the meeting.
Five year old Milcha is the daughter of Evet Amisom. “She had a lot of good friends in the previous kindergarten,” he said. “She loved to go to their birthday parties when she was invited. She doesn’t understand why she now has to go to a different kindergarten with no Israeli children."
“This isn’t even a school, it’s a mess, with all the noise and mice on the streets. You can’t have a school here. My daughter says she misses Gavriel, Aaron, Jonathan — her friends from the previous kindergarten,” Amison added.
Dibora, Pikariya Tesfemikal’s oldest child, spent two years in a regular city preschool. The little girl was celebrating her fifth birthday, dressed in a frilly white dress, standing near a festively decorated cake.
“If there’s no problem with the new preschool, why haven’t they enrolled any Israeli children living nearby? How will my daughter adjust when she goes to school with Israeli children next year,” said Tesfemikal, one of the main spokespeople at the meeting with city representatives.
“We work at the hardest jobs, garbage removal and dishwashing, to raise our children in the best of circumstances. So why are they being segregated? What have they done?” he asked.
“Nobody has complained about us, we did whatever the teachers asked. The children bonded with each other. So what if we come from elsewhere? For that reason, you put us on the sidelines in the worst part of Netanya? I don’t want my daughter to think she’s different, for her to feel racism. She still hasn’t opened her eyes to these things,” Tesfemikal said.
'Separate cannot be equal'
The Netanya Municipality says the segregated preschool was established for the refugees’ welfare, near where most of them live.
“True that it’s inside the market, but you also live there,” a city worker said.
A parents’ representative replied “there’s no room for play, you can’t even move in there. We don’t want a situation where overcrowding leads to kids hitting each other.”
In a recording of the meeting obtained by Haaretz, the city told parents, “It’s not the best spot but the only option we have.” They were also told, “Other kindergartens are full,” and “The staff was trained to respect your culture,” and “It’s easier to provide the proper education when you’re in one group,” and “You’re fighting an unnecessary war. Someone is trying to make you feel important."
Parents replied that nobody had asked them what they wanted.
The city said further that some of the children had gone to religious preschools last year and the ministry had requested they be removed from that system.
At the meeting, city representatives sought in vain to persuade the parents to send their children to the separate school. “We are required to provide you with an education and you must send your children to kindergarten,” they said.
The coaxing didn’t work. Some parents replied that they were ready to go to prison for refusing to send their children to the segregated preschool.
“I have lost a lot of money by staying at home with my child, but he will lose more if he goes to a segregated school under such poor conditions,” one of the asylum seeker parents said.
Haran Reichman, an attorney with the legal and educational policy clinic at the University of Haifa wrote to the head of Netanya’s education department, Shmuel Abuav, “the main difficulty with the conduct of the local authority is their segregation of registration by ethnic group. The other problem is the condition of the kindergarten facility.”
“There’s a clear link between these two problems: in a place that segregates children by ethnicity, it is little wonder that the conditions provided to the weaker group would be inferior. No Israeli parent would agree to this. Separate cannot be equal," he added.
The Netanya Municipality replied, “we are making every effort to integrate foreign children and about 100 attend city preschools. This year, due to a rise in the number of children who we were not aware of before beginning preparations for the new year and due to Education Ministry demands not to integrate them in religious schools, the city was forced to find an immediate solution. We decided to prepare two kindergarten facilities, which were upgraded. It should be noted that the Education Ministry approved of these facilities.”
The ministry chose not to express any position on the principles behind the issue of segregated kindergartens for foreign workers, but said that “the placement of children in kindergartens is done by the local authorities who have been so authorized under the law.” The ministry added, “in accordance with the U.N.’s charter for children’s rights, Israel provides educational services for all children residing in the country for more than 90 days."