As a Yahel fellowship alum (Lod ‘18-19) and a current staff member, I’ve been able to see how both our staff and current fellows are doing their best to step up for communities during the Coronavirus, and how our alumni are creatively serving in their work around the world. I’d like to take the opportunity to dig deeper into an initiative from the current fellows and Yahel alumni for one of our partners in service that is particularly close to my heart: supporting asylum seekers in Lod.
If you are not familiar with the situation, the Population and Immigration Authority reported in December 2019 that there were 29,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan in Israel. Most (99.5%) people in this demographic are not refugees but asylum seekers, meaning that they are stuck in a sort-of purgatory status -- their asylum applications unprocessed, they are neither deported nor absorbed, permitted to stay but kept on the fringe of society. Most asylum seekers are given a temporary status visa which states it is illegal for them to work, but the government has taken up a policy of non-enforcement. While a positive step that asylum seekers thus hold jobs and can maintain income, the lack of proper legal employment opens the door to exploitation and all but ensures low social status. In 2017, the government enacted a policy to deduct 20% from most asylum seeker’s paychecks to put in a fund released to the asylum seeker upon leaving Israel (“Deposit Law”). Beyond obviously reducing wages for asylum seekers, this practice is unsupervised and many never actually see this money if they do indeed exit the country. I’m happy to share that yesterday this practice was deemed unconstitutional -- and I hope for quick compliance from employers. Finally, as non-citizens, asylum seekers do not receive social benefits. They are generally only provided medical care from the state in life threatening situations, and even then are not given follow-up care. Insurance through employment (common practice in Israel) is frequently not provided or is inadequate.
The present day situation of course exacerbates these existing struggles. While treatment for Coronavirus has been deemed emergency and medical care will be provided at no cost, asylum seekers do not qualify for unemployment and are now facing zero income and no financial support. Since many asylum seekers work low-paying jobs and have been subject to the aforementioned Deposit Law, it is next to impossible to have saved money for an emergency such as this. Many non-profits and international aid organizations are mobilizing to provide public health information in appropriate languages, organize massive grocery deliveries to families, and work in overdrive to increase release of detainees in health-hazardous facilities. But it is far from enough, and these efforts are concentrated in South Tel Aviv; in Lod, the small community of asylum seekers does not have this level of support and is in dire need of basic supplies such as food, diapers, and formula.
So where do I fit into this? Aside from being invested in social issues in Israel, why do my peers in the Yahel community and I hold any stake in the asylum seeker experience specifically? The answer is Tesfa, a small house in a quiet residential area, very unremarkable save for the waves of cheerful kids running to its heavy metal door come 5pm. One of the smallest pockets of asylum seeker communities outside of South Tel Aviv is a group of families in Lod, and for the last few years Yahel fellows have volunteered in their small community school in the evenings. When I was a Yahel fellow, this was one of my volunteer placements and one of the brightest spots in my entire Yahel experience. The school’s name, Tesfa, means “hope” in Tigrinya (the language spoken in Eritrea and at home for most of the students). Families each contribute funds to cover rent and program costs for the school’s different objectives. Aside from providing a safe and engaging environment in the evening for the kids while their parents are often working late hours, the school is an opportunity to practice Tigrinya. The children, ages 5-12 and most of whom were born in Israel, attend school in the Israeli education system and generally speak Hebrew with each other. They are falling behind in reading, writing, and fluently speaking Tigrinya as their parents do. Tesfa lessons are thus an opportunity to practice their family’s language while they increasingly assimilate into Israeli society. Secondly, Yahel fellows come to Tesfa a few nights a week to teach English. Every evening is coordinated by their teacher, Tadese, who came to Israel from Eritrea nearly a decade ago. He speaks Tigrinya, Hebrew, English, and Arabic and has a stunning level of energy and humor. I feel that Tadese was quite literally born to work with children, and the fact that he usually has upwards of three kids climbing on him, holding his hands, or otherwise clamoring for his attention indicates that they feel that same connection. He works an ungodly amount of hours in Ramle six days a week and zips back to Lod on his bike in the evenings straight to class, then often to drop kids off individually at home.
When I first started volunteering at Tesfa in October 2018, students knew a lot of letters and greetings, and I was surprised by the barely contained excitement at having new teachers for English, having grown accustomed to the wary looks and sudden mutism of many of the other students I had been teaching in Lod. I do not blame kids for their hesitancy -- learning English, especially if it is your third or fourth language, is intimidating and exhausting. But the kids at Tesfa wanted wholeheartedly to learn with us, shouting out vocabulary and boldly trying out new phrases and carefully writing down anything I wrote on the whiteboard. We very slowly built a classroom culture. I committed only to a consistent opening and closing of class, picking a few letters of the alphabet to master, and as many games and art projects as possible. Things picked up considerably when I was joined by my fellow Yahel volunteer Caroline who, like Tadese, has an unquestionable ability to pour love into kids exactly how they need it. Some evenings were more academic than others, but all were hilarious, noisy, and lively. Caroline’s endless energy and enthusiasm balanced my seriousness and classroom systems; my very foreign Responsive Classroom routines were made possible through the kids’ trust in Tadese to try something new. We worked as a team despite the chaos -- blank stares when Caroline and I attempted to translate instructions in our broken Hebrew, earsplitting high notes as they mastered a song about rainbows, and never, ever enough pencils or erasers. There was a lot of love and an overwhelming feeling of family and community.
I don’t know too much about the personal lives of the students, and many logistical realities prevent me from getting involved in them. But the identity-related aspects of their lives were always hovering a few feet above our cheerful evenings. On more than one occasion, a student quietly confided to us that kids were throwing rocks at him while he walked to class. We often let a few visibly sick kids sleep through lessons, knowing that it was not an option for them to stay at home to rest. We were frequently interrupted by a neighbor who was so disturbed by the kids playing during breaks that she would blow through the door and scream insults and physically intimidate six year olds. I get ticked off by noise sometimes too, but at appropriate hours is it really that bad to hear some cute kids laughing together? I wonder how she would have reacted to playful sounds coming from kids who looked more like her, or like me, or just less different. That woman actually eventually called the police this year, and for the past few months the school has been scrambling to find a new location or change its services to avoid too much police or municipal attention. It’s such a painful embodiment of the broader asylum seeker experience -- a life in the shadows, swallowing blatant offenses in the name of maintaining the peace, keeping the crumbs of dignity given to you. It’s a delicate balance to stay compliant in the society graciously permitting you to stay alive, but just barely.
There is not a lot that my Yahel peers and I can do to help this community at the moment. What we are doing is utilizing our networks so that we can provide support to help get our beloved students and their families through this unprecedentedly difficult time. Raising funds is the most direct way we can show up for our community and so far, I feel that the Yahel community is stepping up. An hour after opening our GoFundMe, we had $100. After one week, we reached over $1,000 and have raised our goal to double that at $2,000. I hope that sharing my experience with Tesfa adds life to our cause, showing you the excitement, curiosity, and joy of the real children behind a donation link. Thank you so much for your support - whether through any financial contribution you are able or by just sharing our fundraising link to others. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have more ideas for support (firstname.lastname@example.org) and thank you for being a part of our community.