Dana is a current fellow with the Yahel Social Change Fellowship 2019-2020 cohort, living and volunteering in Lod.
I volunteer at a place called Tesfa - meaning hope in Tigrinya. It’s a little classroom situated in the middle of our neighborhood, enclosed behind a white metal door with a lock. Apart from hearing the laughs of children as you walk by in the evenings, you would never know it was there. Tesfa was created by Michael, a refugee from Eritrea who saw a need to build a haven for the children in his community. Every day between 5-7 pm, they come to learn Tigrinya and English, to stay connected to their heritage and move beyond.
This placement was most intimidating to me. I have never taught English before and could not imagine teaching a classroom of 30 children. As I approached Tesfa on my first day, I heard the laughter emanating from that door. Upon walking in, we were greeted immediately with smiling faces and jumping feet. The kids were running around playfully, waiting to eagerly meet their new English teachers. Many quickly gave us hugs, as if they already loved us unconditionally. Some were excited to use their English, asking my name and complimenting my glasses and shoes. My intimidation was calmed and ignited at the same time. How can I cater to such loving and ambitious kids, whom I know almost nothing about?
One week before this encounter, I had no knowledge of Eritreans living in Israel. Upon hearing their story, I felt that it mirrored those of refugees in America. Their parents came with hopes of a new life, one where they could live more freely. Before the Israeli border was closed six years ago, they made their way through Sudan, Egypt, and Sinai to the Holy Land - a land that will not grant them citizenship but a temporary residence card that has to be renewed every two months. A land that will not recognize their children as citizens despite being born here, who go to a Jewish school although they are Christian. A land that will not provide them with a community center - instead, their parents have to pay for a little room behind a white metal door.
I come from a country where refugees are seldom welcome by policy, where you hear racist rhetoric spewed by the government and echoed by half the nation. I come from a country where if you are born on it, you are at least granted fundamental rights. Now I live in a place where I can receive citizenship based on my Jewish heritage but these young children, who speak the language, who were born here, who are so hungry to learn, cannot claim that right. I think of their little hands, bright big eyes, smiles, laughter, and tears. I think of the trading card games they play, as I did as a child, of their backpacks with Elsa and Olaf, the latest obsession. I think of their endless energy, the words they continuously babble, just like my cousins, with endless thoughts and questions and trepidation.
What makes me better or greater or more righteous that I could live here and not them? I didn’t fight to come here as their parents did, I didn’t walk day and night in fear of hunger, of being captured, of being turned away. I didn’t even try. I bought a ticket and hopped on a plane. My hands hold less weight than theirs but my blood is valued at a higher price. I think of every nation and every border and the struggles that could be prevented - that only exist because of the constructs we have made for ourselves over time - that we now consider legitimate and right. Borders are being restricted because another human being said so or maybe because God said so and it is justified - confirmed on paper and enforced by men in uniform and gun at hand.
Now, I think of the song we would sing in fifth grade - when times were simple, where I would run home to trade my Pokemon cards and hope to get the latest Disney backpack for my birthday. When I truly believed that “this land is your land, this land is my land,” when the word border held no meaning and when land ownership meant nothing more than the sandcastles I made at the beach.