Israeli-born children of African migrants and asylum-seekers protest against segregated education in Tel Aviv, September 1, 2021, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. (Courtesy, Levinsky Garden Library)
Israeli-born children of African migrants and asylum-seekers protest against segregated education in Tel Aviv, September 1, 2021, Tel Aviv. (Courtesy, Levinsky Garden Library)
Reporter's notebook

First year of integrating migrant children with Israelis in Tel Aviv schools ‘a success’

Municipality, Education Ministry announced integration pilot for first-graders days before High Court was to discuss petition against segregation

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Israeli-born children of African migrants and asylum-seekers protest against segregated education in Tel Aviv, September 1, 2021, Tel Aviv. (Courtesy, Levinsky Garden Library)

It’s 6.30 a.m. in the Hatikva neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, and few people are around aside from a man walking his dog in the park.

A minibus appears next to the park, and little Isak, 6, appears, neatly dressed for another day at the A. D. Gordon School in north Tel Aviv.

Emanuel and Osana, also six, are already on the bus.

Their mothers, Loam, Mitzlal and Rashan, stand on the sidewalk to see them off.

Every day around the world, children get onto school buses. However, these three pupils are Israeli-born children of Eritrean migrant workers, and this is the first year that the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality has agreed to bus them out of their migrant-majority neighborhood so they can study with their Israeli peers.

The two-year pilot program to integrate several dozen children of migrants and asylum seekers into first grade was approved by the city and the Education Ministry last year, just days before the High Court was to discuss a petition against segregation.

Loam’s son Isak, aged six, pictured outside the park in the Hatikva neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, June 13, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Several cities with migrant communities, such as Netanya and Petah Tikva in the center and Eilat in the south, have long since agreed to integrate following legal challenges.

Tel Aviv-Jaffa is the last city to do so, although it prefers not to use the word “segregation” but to repeat that school registration is based on residential address, per the law.

All three mothers at the bus stop that day have other children in the de facto segregated local school ironically called Gvanim — the Hebrew word for shades, as in color.

The three mothers told The Times of Israel that the integration pilot was a huge success.

Loam knitted her fingers together to emphasize how “they receive us with love. The pupils, Israeli parents, teachers — it’s like one big family.”

From left: Rashan, Loam and Mitzlal, three Eritrean mothers of 6-year-olds attending schools with Israelis peers in Tel Aviv, pictured outside the park in the Hatikva neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, June 13, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Mitzlal said her six-year-old son Emanuel’s Hebrew level was better than that of her 11-year-old son Netanel, who learns at Gvanim. She added that on Fridays (a short school day), Israeli parents often took the African children home to play and later brought them back to the Hatikva neighborhood. (Most migrants are not allowed to drive.)

Dafna Lichtman, director of the Levinsky Garden Library in south Tel Aviv, which supports the community, has long campaigned alongside it against segregation.

“I knew this [pilot] would succeed and that the Israeli parents would support it, but I was amazed at just how much they wanted to accept the children,” she said.

According to the latest official figures (in Hebrew), Eritreans account for 17,380 out of just over 23,000 migrants and asylum-seekers. This latter figure also includes 3,231 Sudanese.

A father and his child outside a bicycle shop in the Hatikva neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, February 14, 2024. (Dor Pazuelo/Flash90)

The vast majority have no status. They have temporary visas allowing them to stay in Israel for a defined period. But they do not qualify for any benefits and are not allowed to work, although the state generally looks the other way.

According to a report published in April by ASSAF (the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel), 8,200 of the community are children — 0.27 percent of the country’s child population as a whole.

A long time coming

After years of fruitless campaigning against segregation in Tel Aviv, the migrant and asylum-seeking community, backed by supportive NGOs, appealed to the Tel Aviv District Court. That court ruled in 2021 that the city was following the law by registering children in schools according to home address. It did not relate to the de facto segregation that results in neighborhoods where migrants make up the overwhelming majority.

For this reason, the petitioners appealed to the High Court. The case there is still ongoing.

Members of the migrant and asylum-seeker community attend a session of the High Court in Jerusalem, June 11, 2024. (Courtesy, Levinsky Garden Library)

The children — around 80 out of an initial 95 — are spread among 11 pilot schools during the current year, with three to four African pupils in each integrated class.

As for the majority continuing in segregated frameworks, the Ministry promised an “adapted learning program,” with additional instructors provided in math, Hebrew and science from first to sixth grade.

Out of roughly 160 migrant children going into first grade next year, 80 have already registered to be integrated.

Stunted development

Organizations working with the community say the educational progress of the children is slowed by the fact that most are still segregated before they reach first grade, either in city kindergartens for ages 4 to 6 or in unregulated frameworks for toddlers, many of which offer little to no stimulation.

Children of African migrants and asylum-seekers from Eritrea and from Darfur, Sudan, attend a Passover dinner in Tel Aviv, organized by social action groups working on behalf of African refugees and the New Israel Fund, April 17, 2008. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

The lucky toddlers reach the community-based UNITAF organization, supported by private funds and the Social Welfare Ministry. UNITAF works with status-less women to provide early childhood programs.

According to the ASSAF report, though, at least half of status-less toddlers still attend unregulated babysitter frameworks, pejoratively known as “baby warehouses” for long hours because their working parents cannot afford anything better.

These services are run by immigrant women, most of whom are not trained to care for toddlers. The report said that the physical, safety, and educational conditions were often subpar, while the ratio between the number of children and carers did not meet the required standards.

Once these children start school, they are already two to three years behind their Israeli peers, the ASSAF report charged, and their grasp of any of the languages they have heard — a mishmash of Hebrew, Arabic, English, and Tigrinya (from Eritrea) — is poor.

An African boy at a Passover dinner held for migrants and asylum seekers from Darfur, Sudan and Eritrea in Tel Aviv. The even organized by a coalition of social action groups working on behalf of the refugees and the New Israel fund, on April 17, 2008. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

The report said that when these difficulties were combined with the cultural challenges that Israeli teachers experienced, the result was often frustration and poor behavior on the part of the pupils and disproportionate and inappropriate referrals of them to special schools.

A shrinking community in Tel Aviv

Migrants and asylum-seekers from Africa entered Israel illegally from Egypt between 2006 and 2013 when Israel completed a wall along the border. The majority settled in south Tel Aviv.

Those from Eritrea fled the dictatorial regime of Isaias Afwerki, with its demands for indefinite military conscription.

Like other cities with substantial Eritrean communities, Tel Aviv has become a battleground between supporters and opponents of the Eritrean government.

Several members of the community, from both sides, have been killed in the infighting, most recently in May, during a brawl that left one dead and five other people wounded, three of them seriously.

Eritrean asylum-seekers mourn after a member of their community was killed in riots between supporters and opponents of the Eritrean regime, Tel Aviv, May 28, 2024. (Itai Ron/Flash90)

Asylum-seekers from Africa and their supporters in Israel say they fled for their lives and face danger if they return.

Their opponents, including many in the right-wing governments that have dominated Israeli politics for the past 20 years, say they are just looking to improve their socio-economic situation, threaten the Jewishness of Israel, and have brought crime to south Tel Aviv.

State authorities define them as “infiltrators,” and many are subject to racist abuse by Israelis.

South Tel Aviv residents and activists protest following violent clashes between Eritrean supporters and opponents of the Eritrean regime, Tel Aviv, June 2, 2024. The sign says, ‘Danger, infiltrators.’ (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

According to an Interior Ministry response to a Freedom of Information Act request, between 2006 and mid-April this year, 7,361 Eritreans and 4,636 Sudanese had requested asylum. That status has been granted to around 30 Eritreans and just one Sudanese.

Children born to status-less parents are not given the identity number all Israelis and permanent residents get. This is the key to rights and services in the country.

A child born to a status-less mother gets different numbers for education and early childhood health services. There is no central system for keeping data on residence, educational placement, etc.

When Israeli teens get their ID documents at age 16, status-less youngsters get a “Temporary Visitation Permit” (Visa 2/A/5) saying they are infiltrators who can live in Israel temporarily. They no longer have any right to education or health insurance, are barred from army service or national service, and cannot obtain a driver’s license or study any profession that requires state licensing. Tuition fees for academic study are higher than those for Israelis and permanent residents.

The ASSAF report quoted Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, a former head of the Population and Immigration Authority, who warned, “These children, under these conditions, are pushed to the margins of society… so instead of being adolescent children in a society in which they can be helpful, they are entering into a society in which they will be on the fringes by definition.”

Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, seen at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting on February 12, 2014. (Flash 90)

Problems from back home migrated, too

Last month, according to the three mothers, regime supporters (who wear red) distributed leaflets around the Hatikva neighborhood warning that regime opponents (who wear blue) had 24 hours to leave.

Loam, who has been in the country for 14 years and works as a cleaner, has just moved from the neighborhood to the nearby city of Rishon Lezion. She now leaves home at 5 a.m. to get Isak to the school minibus in the Hatikvah neighborhood on time.

“It [the fighting] is giving our community a bad reputation,” she said. “Write that we just want [a good] life for our kids. We don’t want this balagan,” using slang for a mess or disorder.

She added that Isak frequently cries when he thinks of moving to a different school next year.

Osana’s mother, Rashan, said she and her husband were looking for an apartment in Bat Yam, also near Tel Aviv. Like Loam, Rashan is a cleaner. She has lived in the same Hatikva neighborhood apartment in Israel for 13 years.

Mitzlal, a cashier at a laundry who has been in Israel for 12 years, said she was not prepared to move house.

Eritrean migrants who oppose and support that country’s regime clash in south Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023. (Omer Fichman/Flash90)

But, she added, she checked the area carefully for regime supporters before her husband left the house or returned home. “The police could stop it in a minute, but they only get involved when someone dies,” she claimed.

Other Eritreans are moving to Canada, a country that has absorbed thousands of these migrants from Israel.

None of the women could explain why supporters of the Eritrean regime had not returned home. “As an opponent of the government, I’d be jailed if I returned to Eritrea,” said Mitzlal.

Still, how many of the community’s children will still be in Tel Aviv when classes restart in September remains unclear.

“There will be no kids left here next year. People are scared. The reds can wait for them with knives,” said Loam.

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