Strangers in a Strange Land

What happens to children of illegal foreign workers?

It is late in the morning. At other kindergartens, the children are outside in the yard at this time. But here, at Florence Osmoa's kindergarten in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood, the rules are different.

The kindergarten is located in a small apartment with a tall, steep staircase. There is no room to play. There are no toys, dolls or blocks in the room where the children, aged two-and- a-half to seven, are sitting. The heat is unbearable.

But this kindergarten is considered one of the best among the improvised kindergartens for the children of foreign workers in south Tel Aviv, thanks to the pleasant personality and caring attitude of the woman running it. Osmoa introduces herself as a teacher, rather than as a babysitter, as in the other kindergartens. It would appear that, despite the rundown conditions she must work under, she is making a genuine effort to teach the children and let them have a little fun as well.

At 6:30 in the morning, the parents - from Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon - and children arrive. Parents pay about $100 a month per child. The children spend the morning hours sitting behind desks, like in a classroom. In Ghana, explains Osmoa, who arrived here five years ago, three-year-olds are expected to learn the alphabet, and five-year-olds are taught to read. Most of these children, she says, will soon return to their own countries, and their parents fear they will fall behind. Because she has no help, the five toddlers are also required to sit idly behind desks.

After lunch, Osmoa clears the desks, puts on music and dances and plays with the children. In other kindergartens - there are about 50 improvised kindergartens in South Tel Aviv - the children are planted for hours on end in front of television sets. The parents pick up their children at 7 o'clock in the evening - in the best of cases. Some arrive even later, and occasionally, children are left overnight in the kindergartens as well.

Tardy parents are the most serious problem Osmoa shares with other kindergarten teachers. They have raised this subject at a workshop held weekly at Bialik elementary school. Some arrived late for the workshop, bringing with them children whose parents had not yet come to pick them up.

The last workshop session was held this week. Some 20 participants, most from Africa and a few from South America, proudly received impressive-looking graduation certificates. The workshop was organized by the city of Tel Aviv through MESILA, the Foreign Workers Information and Assistance Center, HAMA, the Humanistic Education Network headed by Nimrod Aloni, and Seminar Hakibbutzim College. The purpose of the workshop was to provide the kindergarten teachers - most of whom lack formal education - with training in working with children.

They learned how to make dolls with the children, from available materials, how to stage puppet shows, how to spot developmental problems (in Osmoa's kindergarten, for example, there are three two-and-a-half-year-old children who do not yet speak), how to work with parents, etc.

Early in the year, Nimrod Aloni recruited Doron Lederer, the head of the preschool department at Seminar Hakibbutzim College, for the task of creating the workshop. Together with representatives of MESILA, they first toured the foreign workers' kindergartens in Tel Aviv. Lederer says that she has not yet gotten over "the shame that children could grow up this way in the State of Israel."

Her first instinct was to collect toys and arts and crafts materials to bring to the kindergartens. But MESILA's workers maintained that the teachers would not know what to do with them, and insisted on practical training at eye level. Lederer and other lecturers from the college volunteered their services once a week for over two hours. The college donated the materials. Next year, Lederer plans to have her students at the college take an active role in the kindergartens.

The workshop is part of a quiet revolution recently begun in the care of foreign workers' children in Tel Aviv. It includes providing them with health insurance and free education from the age of three. The revolution is taking place far from the Knesset and in total opposition to the strong-arm deportation policy that Labor and Social Affairs Minister Shlomo Benizri seeks to implement.

It is no coincidence that the workshop sessions took place in the Bialik school. Like all other Tel Aviv initiatives concerning the education of the children of foreign workers, the idea for the kindergarten teachers' workshop was also set in motion by the principal of the school, Amira Yahalom. She was the first to direct the spotlight at the need to improve the kindergartens and initiated the first contact between HAMA and MESILA.

The awareness of a need to find solutions for the children of foreign workers first arose in 1996, when they began to come in large numbers to the Bialik school, which is located at the heart of Tel Aviv's largest concentration of foreign workers, near the new Central Bus Station. The school, which already had many immigrant children and children of Palestinians that have helped Israel, suddenly had to deal with a new and unfamiliar reality, which Yahalom calls a "Tower of Babel" - children speaking 10 different languages in the same class without any recognition from the Ministry of Education.

"They were virtual children," says Yahalom. "I had classes with 40 children, of which only 25 were registered in the computers of the ministry. We got no funding for them and children had no health insurance."

Yahalom turned this complex situation into her life work, and two years ago received an education prize. Today, Bialik, with its 120 children of foreign workers (out of 280 students), takes a multicultural approach, and frequently hosts visiting delegations - from Knesset members to visitors from the countries of the children's parents, guests of the Foreign Ministry.

Instead of "converting" the children, as Yahalom puts it, the children learn their own culture and mother tongue. Most of the teachers at the school speak three languages, with math lessons, for example, being held in Russian, Spanish or English.

Next year, Yahalom plans to open an Internet site for each child, in which they will tell about their country and culture, so that the other children can get to know them better.

Yahalom has been making her strongly held views concerning the children of foreign workersknown from every possible platform: before MKs, the Knesset education committee and the city. She believes that their status and rights must be recast. The State of Israel has signed the International Convention on Children's Rights, she says, and must therefore look out for the welfare of the children of foreign workers.

Thanks to her intervention, and with the help of Yossi Sarid and the city of Tel Aviv, the Compulsory Free Education from the Age of Three Law now applies to the children of foreign workers, too. About 30 children of foreign workers register each year for the municipal kindergarten in the nearby Shapira neighborhood. Children can be found throughout the city, but most foreign workers prefer the kindergartens inside the community, both because they are cheaper and because they provide an effective solution for their long working hours. The authorities were also satisfied with the situation. But this year, MESILA and Yahalom managed to convince the city to take massive action to encourage registration at municipal kindergartens.

In order to make the foreign workers aware that the municipal kindergartens were willing to accept their children, letters were sent to the parents of schoolchildren with younger siblings. Registration centers were opened at MESILA's offices near the Central Bus Station, where the foreign workers register their children for health insurance.

About 70 children have been registered and there is already a waiting list. In order to provide for the needs of this new population, a kindergarten building is currently being renovated in the Bialik compound at considerable cost. The dilapidated building had been closed for many years because of the dwindling population. Three kindergarten classes will be opened in its next year for children aged three to six. As in other poor neighborhoods throughout the country, the kindergarten will operate until 4 o'clock in the afternoon. At a meeting last week attended by a representative of MESILA, Yahalom and the director of the preschool department in the Ministry of Education, Dalia Limor, it was decided that this unique kindergarten would be run with an approach similar to that of the Bialik school. In other words, an attempt would be made to preserve the the children's languages and cultures.

A steering committee will be formed too and it will recruit a suitable staff fluent in the various languages, but more importantly, staff who are enthusiastic about the task. Yahalom expects that within two years, the children entering the first grade will already know Hebrew and will be ready for school.

Adi Ezov, MESILA'S community worker, believes that an English- and Spanish-speaking facilitator should be placed at the disposal of the children's parents in the school and kindergarten, a common practice with the children of immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia. Ezov describes a new situation, in which many of the foreign workers who originally planned to stay for just a few years, eventually remain in Israel for lack of alternative when the economic situation in their countries deteriorates or because of an illness in the family.

She says that unlike in the past, foreign workers today rarely send their children back home to their families. "They keep saying to themselves that they will remain just one more year but end up staying on and on, needing additional services." MESILA is currently planning workshops for other services providers - nurses in well-baby clinics and social workers.

Marie-Claire O'Connor, a kindergarten teacher who took part in kindergarten teachers' workshop, is an example of what Ezov described. A native of India, O'Connor has been in Israel for 14 years and plans to remain here. After marrying a young man from Mauritius of a different religion, whom she met here, she says she can no longer return to her own country and family. They have one child, a five-year-old boy, and together run a kindergarten for children from the Philippines and South America, where 10 children, aged three to five (one of them their own), and another 10 children, aged six months to two years, are crowded into a small area.

Last week, the toddlers could be seen watching television while the older children copied Hebrew words from Hebrew language textbook for adults. Do the municipal kindergartens threaten their livelihood?

O'Connor says that the children deserve a real education, which she cannot provide. And besides, she would be only too happy to get back to working only with babies. Florence Osmoa is already dreaming about the kindergarten she plans to open in Ghana next year.