Youth Movement Offers Refugee Teens More Than Just Survival

A youth movement counselor giving a class last week on "leaders who sought revolution and were assassinated" held up a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. "Who did he fight for?" the Hanoar Haoved v'Lomed counselor asked in Hebrew. "He fought for black rights," answer the twenty students - teens who fled from wars and repression in Africa and are seeking asylum in Israel - in Tigrinya, English, Arabic and broken Hebrew. "And what happened to him?" counselor Hadar Naim asked. "He won but was assassinated," says a refugee from Sudan. When Naim gets to the idea of "equality," the teens nod at his explanations, in Hebrew and English. A few translate for those who do not know either language. When Naim asks what the word "war" means, the teens answer as one, in Hebrew, "balagan" (mess, or chaos).

The youths, 16- and 17-year-old political asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan (including Darfur), are studying in an ulpan intensive language school the youth movement recently opened in a former school in Jaffa. The classes, held three days a week, from 9 A.M. to 1 P.M., are given by movement members. Project coordinator Gony Lavi said there are an estimated 50 teenage asylum seekers in Tel Aviv who are not studying in any educational framework. According to the Education Ministry, other refugees their age have been placed in various programs.

Lavi says that in addition to Hebrew and activities such as music and basketball, the teens will study math and English. Two counselors are in charge of monitoring their after-ulpan activities. The authorities have not allocated a budget for the 20 ulpan students, Lavi complained. She added that many refugee children have not been placed in a framework and that some cannot study because they are working in order to support themselves.

Survival mode

Hanoar Haoved v'Lomed members found the teens at Tel Aviv shelters for African refugees. According to Lavi, some "began to cry when someone came and asked about them. These boys have escaped war zones and repression, made an arduous and dangerous journey and came here alone, without parents, with nothing, with no [immigration] status, no language and no adult to look after them."

Lavi added that most of the teens do not know what has happened to their families and they live in "survival mode" - trying to find work to get food and stay alive. "As teens, they become the easiest victims. We report violence against them and exploitation by employers."

S., a 17-year-old boy from Eritrea, came to Israel alone two months ago after fleeing "the threat of being drafted" into his country's army. He recounts his long journey through Sudan and Egypt, including hunger and violence from criminal gangs. Today he works in a restaurant seven days a week from the afternoon until midnight. S. says he will return to Eritrea when conditions allow, but for now, "I dream of studying like any other teen in Israel, and not just working."

A., 16, fled Darfur five years ago and came to Israel a year ago. Speaking in Arabic mixed with English he tells how, after being granted refugee status and obtaining a work permit, he began working in a restaurant. He moved in with roommates in south Tel Aviv because he could no longer stand the poor conditions in the shelters. But he probably will not be able to stay in the new ulpan. "I miss studying but I have to work to pay my rent," A. says.

G. came to Israel two weeks ago and already attends the ulpan. Unlike his fellow students, who know some English, G., who is from Ethiopia, speaks only Tigrinya. "I cannot get along, I need constant translation and I am often embarrassed to ask."

In a vocabulary review lesson, K., who is 17, says he already knows how to say "I work much fast" in Hebrew.

After a basketball break, the youths return for a music class. P. from Eritrea yawns with exhaustion. He is 17 and came to Israel seven months ago. He says he works 12-hour days in a restaurant. In addition to knowing Arabic and English, he is proud of his fluent Hebrew. "The studies are important to me," he says. "I live without parents or family. I am alone in the world and have to work, but I insist on the studies and know they will help me to get ahead in life."

Lavi says the ulpan is a nice solution, "but these teens need to study without having to work and without having to fear for their survival. The best solution is to place them in a boarding school or with families who would volunteer to take them in for weekends."

The Education Ministry said in a statement that in the Tel Aviv district all the teens known to the city were placed in the school system or other educational framework. The ministry added, however, that "More refugees are arriving in the city now, housed in temporary quarters and immediately going to work, without the municipality or the ministry receiving any data on them. We try to locate them."