As governments around the world engage in fierce debates about immigration – determining who may come, who may stay and who must leave – children are caught in the crossfire.
In Israel, as in the United States and Europe, the immigration issue ignites passions across the political spectrum. Human rights comes to the fore when describing the thousands of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea who arrived in Israel after a perilous and sometimes horrifying journey across the Sinai. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, they now number more than 60,000.
They are relative newcomers compared to the nearly 100,000 migrant workers from the Far East who have overstayed their visas and those from other countries who entered Israel on tourist visas and remained. All are considered illegal and all risk being deported if discovered. More than half of the foreigners live in south Tel Aviv near the Central Bus Station – the Asians sharing an uneasy existence with the Africans – and all of them on the alert for the Immigration Police.
But what of the children – those who arrived with their parents and the many more who were born in Israel? After much debate, in 2010, the government decided to grant residency permits to children of migrant workers with the caveat that the children were being educated in the Israeli school system, spoke Hebrew, had ties to Israel, had been in the country for at least five consecutive years and that their parents had originally entered the country legally. At the time, the Interior Ministry received 700 residency applications for the children of foreigners; it approved 350 and refused 100. After repeated appeals, in 2014, another 221 children received residency permits.
Regardless of their legal status, according to Israel’s Education Law, children who have been in Israel more than three months are entitled to schooling.
Currently, more than 1,000 children from 51 countries have found an outstanding learning environment and safe haven at Tel Aviv’s Bialik Rogozin School.
“Along with the poor and disadvantaged, children of migrant workers and new immigrants, we have Arab children from the West Bank and Gaza and political refugees from Africa,” says Principal Eli Nechama, who appears to know every child in the school and their circumstances. “A lot of them are still traumatized by their experiences. Many of them are considered illegal and live in fear of being deported.
“We ask no questions of the children or the parents. Every school-age child is welcome here,” he says. “We don’t see borders or visas, just children.”
What sets this south Tel Aviv school apart from others in the city is more than its welcoming approach; more than its extremely diverse population with every possible religious practice; more than the educational curriculum that accommodates cultural differences; more than the afterschool programs that provide academic assistance, individual counseling and offer challenging workshops and courses – more than even the adult education classes and other evening activities for the parents.
“We treat our students as valued guests; we don’t try to change them. Quite the opposite, in fact,” Nechama says. “We try to give them a place where they are comfortable in their own culture. Yet, everyone learns together and we only teach in Hebrew. Often that is the only common language among them. All we require is that they recognize and respect the State of Israel. It’s wonderful to see the relationships that develop and it’s moving to see attitudes evolve from fear to friendship.”
Although not quite as diverse as their students, the school’s 100 teachers – Jews, Muslims and Christians, religious and secular men and women – convey the same message.
Ironically, while government policy regarding migrant workers and African refugees is neither clear-cut nor compassionate, the Foreign Ministry, the Education Ministry and other official agencies frequently showcase the school for visiting dignitaries. Often enforcing edicts that border on the inhumane – like detaining more than 2,000 Sudanese and Eritrean men in a remote camp in the Negev in defiance of two Supreme Court rulings and refusing them heaters in the dead of winter, claiming they pose a fire hazard – the self-same politicians exhibit no shame in spotlighting this exceptional school, its multicultural student body and outstanding staff.
In marked contrast, Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai has made Bialik Rogozin a personal priority, backing it with funds from the municipality and the Tel Aviv Foundation he chairs. It is the embodiment of his vision for the entire city.
Sensitive to its students’ needs and situation, Bialik Rogozin opens early and stays open much later than other schools – until 10 p.m. When school opens at 7:30 a.m., it is not unusual to find children who have been waiting outside for an hour or more because their parents leave for work even earlier – and some children stay until 6 p.m., when their parents come home from work.
All morning classes from kindergarten through the 12th grade follow the Education Ministry’s curriculum, but in the afternoon the differences in programs are demonstrable. Beginning in the sixth grade, students can participate in workshops and courses that cater to their interests and skills.
“We offer programs that aren’t found anywhere else,” Nechama says.
Beginning in the seventh grade, on Sundays students have an international day with programs in nine languages – English, Russian, French, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, Tigrayit for Eritreans and Tagalog for Filipinos.
“We have featured musicians, artists, high-tech and business experts and even held a mock Hyde Park, with a lot of high-decibel speeches,” Nechama says.
Volunteers play an integral role in the classrooms and are essential to the programs. Some sign on for the entire school year providing tutoring and counseling. Businesses and institutions, army and academia, artists and athletes contribute their time and expertise and donors support the school with money and services. Bialik Rogozin receives 150 sandwiches for the morning break and a contribution for hot lunches for 200 children.
“We sit with them, eat with them – and along the way – teach them about manners and nutrition. Most of all, we make them feel at home, in a warm home,” Nechama says.
The Bialik Rogozin warm home is almost all inclusive. Many of the children come with no medical histories from places where diseases like Ebola and AIDS are rampant – and almost none of the children have medical insurance. To ensure they receive the proper attention, Bialik Rogozin established a relationship with the clinic the Israel Medical Association and Ministry of Health runs in the nearby Central Bus Station. Often receiving calls at home for help, the school staff also helps arrange legal assistance, psychological support services and stipends for the many parents who cannot legally work.
In the evening – from 6 to 10 p.m. – the parents populate the halls, taking advantage of the Hebrew and computer classes, rehearsing with the Mamas and Papas, the multiethnic choir Nechama initiated, or enjoying ballroom dancing and other recreational activities.
Three years ago, when the principal post became open, Eli Nechama applied for the position.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he says. “The school, the students, the staff, the families—all are unique.”
Ask him to elaborate on the problems – and there are problems – he prefers to focus on the successes: the school’s graduates who are serving in the army or with the national service program; the graduates who cannot legally study in Israel but received scholarships to American universities, thanks to the efforts of Tel Aviv University professor Amy Zinger; the Bialik Rogozin cross country and track team that represented Israel in the 2014 world championships; the students who came back from the March of the Living in Poland sensitized by the experience; and especially about those who volunteer in the community.
“They know they’ve received a great deal – and they know it’s important for them to give back,” Nechama says.
In 2011, Strangers No More, a film about the school, won the Oscar for Best Short Documentary.
“We are victims of our success,” Nechama says. “It’s time to make a new movie –
we have so much more to show.”
Sarabeth Lukin is an American/Israeli journalist who lives in Jaffa.