Organizing classes for asylum seekers in the middle of the nowhere

By Sara Stern

English language and education are consistently expressed by the refugee-asylum seeker community in Israel as significantly important towards making an impact on their lives and their future.

Asylum seekers: "We want education" (Photo: The Schoolhouse)

Asylum seekers: “We want education” (Photo: The Schoolhouse)

The first time I really became aware of this was in 2008 when I was volunteering with the newly arrived Sudanese refugees in Jerusalem, and we had a meeting asking “How else can we help?” The response was loud and clear: We want Education.

After more than two years of developing adult education for the refugee-asylum seeker population in Tel Aviv through the framework of The Schoolhouse, students began to receive summons to the Holot “open” detention center. Our goal became clear: to implement an education program in the remote detention prison out in the middle of the Southern desert. I wrote a proposal for a broad education program serving the full inmate population, but many obstacles stood in the way. We sought cooperation or support from the IPS (Israel Prison Service) and the Ministry of Education, but this turned into a frustrating challenge with no positive results to come so far. Meanwhile, with lack of activity or programming provided in the detention center itself, and the prohibition to work, some 12-15 Holot inmates began teaching English inside the detention walls to their peers whose English backgrounds were less strong. This is what they chose to do with their time.

It took seven months until the first English class opened for 25 students, and in a few weeks, a Teacher Training program for these inexperienced yet highly motivated teachers will also commence.  The classes have been organized The Schoolhouse together with the nearby Nitzana youth village and the education activists in Holot, funded by UNHCR.

We face many challenges including finding qualified teachers who can commit to working  in such a remote location, transportation for students to Nitzana, where the classes are held, locating funding for additional teachers so that we might open additional classes, identifying volunteers who can assist in the classes, addressing the concerns of students whose educational needs are not covered by the current limited course selection, and finally facing the disappointment of inmates for whom there is no room to participate. Additionally, the future of Holot remains unknown, a court decision is expected this month which will decide its legality, but despite all this we move forward, the threat of encroaching hopelessness too strong on our friends.

Students studying in the English class currently offered to Holot inmates by The Schoolhouse. The class is held at the nearby Nitzana youth village, serves the highest level students, and is filled to capacity. In the next few weeks, a teacher-training course will be opened as well.

As I reviewed the results of English language assessments we gave to these Holot students joining the English class, I became filled with awe and inspiration. And this is fundamentally what again and again fuels me to do what I do.

The assessments themselves, I have to admit, were quite dry, and also difficult. But as I reviewed the completed tests,  one by one, it was astonishing to see what burst through these dry papers. The motivation, strength, desire to learn and move forward, to make something meaningful of their lives, to contribute to society and give to others, to become leaders and make a social, just or educational impact. This is what I read in between and directly on the lines of their answers, sometimes regardless of the questions. Yet,  these are the people we are putting behind bars.

At The Schoolhouse when students come to register for evening classes in Tel Aviv, they fill out a questionnaire and we ask a few questions such as: “Why is it important for you to study English?” and “What do you want to do with your future?” I’ve heard and read many variations of the answer “I want to go back to my country and help my people” or “I want to influence my government from within” or “I want to become a teacher,” or “lawyer” or “doctor” or “leader”.

There must be an alternative, humane solution for our refugee-established country, the country that was built with the very hands and minds of courageous and strong people yearning for independence, freedom, and life without persecution, individuals who fought so hard not only for their own survival, but also for a better future.

We must have another system for dealing with other refugees and asylum seekers who walk all the way to our borders and ask to be let in, braving hardships of the journey and such immense risk. Likewise for migrants who seek escape from poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity.

Maybe one idea is to turn the center into less of a detention prison and more into an absorption center, serving those who need the support and at the same time are more likely to fall burden on Israeli society. They would be permitted to work, being productive for themselves and surrounding society and an education program would provide practical and transferable language and vocational skills. At the same time, their refugee claims would be reviewed and alternative long term solutions would be researched. You say this may be costly? Check the numbers on the money invested so far to build and operate Holot as it is.

The truth is – and I speak from experience – that if the people themselves were consulted with we’d all be amazed as to the intelligent and innovative solutions they’d come up with and suggest, taking into consideration not only themselves but also the politics and complexity posed on Israel as a state.

I’ll leave you with a short composition written by Schoolhouse student Hussein from Sudan, at the opening of the Jewish year in 2013:

This year is going to be better than last year.
I’m going to improve my life.  I am also going to improve my English more and more, in some way. Sometimes  I see myself running, but why am I running?I am running for life.  I just want to be somebody. I don’t know if I can. I will try to have a better life, no reason just to run away. I just move on, I can’t sit and feel sorry for myself. Life is not that bad. There will be good and bad times, either way it’s life. I would like to change my life.

* Sara Stern is the director of The Schoolhouse, an adult education program for African asylum seekers currently running programming out of Tel Aviv as well as Holot, the “open” detention facility in Israel’s Negev desert where thousands of asylum seekers are currently detained.