Aiding Israel’s Refugees, One Class at a Time

Posted by Sara Stern, Founder & Manager, The Schoolhouse on Mon, Oct 21, 2013 at 16:05 pm

While living in Jerusalem in late 2007, I began to notice increasingly frequent radio headlines drawing attention to the growing number of African refugees crossing the border each day into Israel. I had a strong urge to help them. It was clear to me that if these people took great risks to flee their countries and were knocking on our door, we must reach out and offer assistance. For the next three years, I volunteered with the refugees and asylum seekers in Jerusalem, providing support and organizing assistance in all realms. From the very beginning, I heard a resounding call for education from the people I came into contact with daily. They saw furthering their education as key to making influential changes in their lives and their communities.

In 2010, upon moving to Tel Aviv, I was asked by HIAS’ Israel Director Joel Moss to join a meeting at Tel Aviv University on adult education for refugees and asylum seekers. HIAS committed to providing an adult education coordinator for a term in order to motivate more activity in the field, and I was rewarded with that position. With HIAS' support, I conducted a countrywide survey on existing programming in refugee adult education, researched Hebrew language books for adult learners, organized teacher training workshops for volunteer teachers, created and ran the first Hebrew class in Ashdod, recruited funds for language books for classes in Jerusalem and Arad, and began a network for those active in the field.

The job ended, and I travelled to Africa, where I surveyed the importance of education and, specifically, English language skills. When I returned to Israel, I knew the show must go on.

At that point, members of the refugee community seeking education had two options. First, for the limited number who could afford it, Israeli programs offered classes for local citizens. Though instruction was strong at these schools, the costs were high and the lack of cultural awareness posed an additional barrier. The second option was volunteer-based programs for refugees, in which the teachers had little to no teaching experience.

My vision was clear: create a unique education model in which salaried and culturally competent teachers would work within a proper school environment adapted and suited to the particular needs of the refugee community. I turned to HIAS, and Joel immediately agreed to partner with me and provide support via shared administration and accounting services for paying teacher salaries.

Meetings, planning, and broad visions followed, until I finally decided to follow the wise advice of a colleague who worked closely with me during the elementary stages. He said: "Begin with one English class."

And so, in January 2012, the first English class began with one teacher and six students.

Almost two years have passed, and today we hold education programming for approximately 50 students every semester. The staff includes four to five teachers, a pedagogical director, and an extremely dedicated management board who work with me to continue to develop the program. We focus on transferable skills and offer four English classes of varying levels; a computer class; and topic-based courses such as self-presentation in English, jobs and employment, and numeracy skills. We guide and assist students to help them reach their individual educational goals. The students pay a fee for the classes, but we accept everyone regardless of their ability to pay. We open our doors to students who've fled their countries after high school or in the middle of their university degrees, and also to those who have never attended school in their lives.

On a personal level, there are many late hours spent thinking and planning, in front of emails and Excel sheets, at meetings with staff and students, creating curricula, sitting in on classes, experimenting, dealing with financial issues, making decisions, and hoping the right decisions are being made.

But all this fades into the background at certain moments, such as at our last certificate ceremony ending the semester, when Aziz, a Schoolhouse student and student leader, stood up and in his speech said the following:

"I know we have faced many challenges. It can be hard to stay focused when there are so many things on our mind. Students of The Schoolhouse, you have the skills to succeed. I encourage you to keep going and never give up. This certificate represents more than the completion of a semester. It represents our ambition and our effort as we become the masters of our destiny."

Then I know that there's nothing else I'd rather be doing.

I'm extremely grateful to HIAS' Israeli staff, and particularly Loren, who work hard to help make this possible.

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