The cute faces of migration

I recently started volunteering in Jerusalem with Eritrean and Sudanese refugees in connection with my fellowship position in Israel through JDC. Twice a week I teach English to a group of men, and once a week I work with children aged 1-5, mostly the children of Eritreans, while their mothers are in class. I am so appreciative that I am able to work with these two distinct groups, and I think the exposure to the lived experience of an African migrant in Israel will help to deepen, enhance and potentially even complicate my understanding of some of Israel’s migration problem.

Because I have just started, I do not have much experience yet with the students and children. But, one thing has already stuck out to me as noteworthy.

The children we (myself and two Israeli young women) work with are, on the one hand, very normal kids. We are working on developing a curriculum for the kids, but often it feels like a game of 10 on 3 chase—one of the children’s’ favorite activities is to try to escape the room we use and go running and screaming down the hallways of the school that lends us space. When they consent to stay in our classroom, they like to pretend to be ninjas, do puzzles, color and generally run around and make a lot of noise. From my other experiences working with young children, I know this to be very normal behavior.

On the other hand, the kids in many ways are very unique. Most were born in Israel, have “Israeli” names like Noam and Ziona, speak fluent Hebrew (they think my accent is both perplexing and hilarious) and love Bamba and Krembos, two very Israeli snacks. But they will say things like “this is my friend from our gan (pre-school) for Africans”, and when they play with our fake telephones, they tell me that they want to call their father or other relative in Eritrea. Because they are so young, obviously the complexities and conflicts regarding their residence in Israel go over their heads. But it won’t always be that way.

The little kids and their parents are not Jewish, so they are not and cannot become citizens of Israel. Because their parents are from Eritrea and Sudan, the families mostly have temporary protected status, meaning they receive a conditional visa to live in Israel which they must renew every few months and which does not legally permit them to work. Without going in to all the complexities of refugee status determination in Israel, I think it is sufficient to say that no one imagines these families settling in Israel permanently. In fact, many of my English students say that they are learning English because they hope to be able to return to their home countries when it is safe, and that English will be useful to them there. Meaning, for all the balagan (mess) that surrounds the issue of African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, the problem of their legal status is generally an immediate, not long-term, concern.

However, these children’s future to me looks very uncertain. My understanding of the political situations in Sudan and Eritrea lead me to believe that it will not be safe for these families to return there for at least a few years, meaning that the children will likely live their formative years in Israel. And, even when (or if) they go back to their parent’s home country, what will their life be like there? With a Hebrew name and an Israeli education (the law in Israel mandates that all children, regardless of legal status, are entitled to public education until 10th grade), they will be quite different from their peers. However, they are also already able to pick up interesting aspects of their existence in Israel as refugees, and will presumably become even more aware of the complexities of “the African migrant problem” in Israel as they age. What will their relationship with Israel be like when they go back to Sudan or Eritrea? What will this mean for Israel, diplomatically and in the international community?

There are no good or easy answers to any of these questions. As part of my fellowship, I am committed to understanding the Israeli migration system from all “sides”, and I do really understand both Israel’s reticence to accept African refugees and the international community’s response to the situation. Migration is complicated, but it is part of our world. And in the meantime, I have gotten very good as saying “Wow!”, “No!” and “Stop!” in Hebrew.

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