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World ORT schools in Mexico, Bulgaria offer education and empathy for Israelis traumatized by war

The month-long program at Colegio Olamí, geared for students aged 12-16, provided teens with plenty of opportunities for learning and socializing

Colegio Olamí ORT in Mexico City has introduced a transformative program for 25 Israeli high school students who were evacuated from their communities near Gaza, in the wake of the war in Israel.  The initiative, the brainchild of Olamí school principal Avi Meir, is part of global Jewish education network World ORT’s broader mission to support Jewish students, providing stable educational environments during challenging times.

The month-long program at Colegio Olamí, geared for students aged 12-16, provided teens with plenty of opportunities for learning and socializing, in both formal classes as well as extracurricular activities and trips. None of the guests knew Spanish, but as Orly Picker, the academic director at Olami, explained, “Kids manage! Between Hebrew and English, they were able to communicate beautifully with their host families and the other students.”

Credit: World ORT

The Israeli students were matched in advance with families with a boy or girl of a similar age, giving parents and teens from both sides of the globe the opportunity to become acquainted over the phone. The Israelis joined their Mexican peers for many of the classes and after-school activities. Spanish classes, activities at the local Jewish sports center, and Mexican cooking classes were big favorites.

Some programs, though, were geared to the Israeli guests only, such as the group sessions led by a Hebrew-speaking psychologist, designed to give the teens space to express themselves freely. “Sometimes they wanted to talk, and other times they sang or wanted to just hang out,” said Picker.

There were a few cases of children who were still traumatized by the events of Oct. 7. “We had one girl who had trouble sleeping; and she didn’t have much of an appetite. We arranged professional, one-on-one help with an Israeli psychologist. By the following week, she was feeling better.”

Credit: World ORT

It wasn’t always easy for the teens, accustomed to the relative freedom they enjoyed as Israelis and as kibbutzniks, to adjust to the life in Mexico. “At first, they couldn’t believe that we wouldn’t allow them to go out alone.” said Picker. “We had to explain to them very clearly, ‘No, you cannot travel on your own. This is Mexico City, and you are our responsibility.’”

One of the highlights was the visit to the synagogue on Friday night for Shabbat services, followed by a beautifully catered meal.  “They were especially moved by the prayer for the soldiers, and four students asked to stay overnight at the home of the rabbi so that they could attend services the following day.”

Picker points out the generosity of the Mexican community, who picked up the tab for all outings and meals, and particularly the host families, who treated the teens as if they were their own children. The entire program was free of charge.

In January, Colegio Olamí will be welcoming another delegation of students from World ORT Kadima Mada’sKfar Silver Youth Village near Ashkelon, Israel, for a two-week program.

The school has also absorbed a group of 22 students from Israel on full scholarships. According to Amelie Esquenazi, the World ORT representative for Latin America, these are children of Mexican families who had previously made Aliyah, but have now fled war zones and who will be remaining indefinitely in Mexico.

Welcome to Sofia

Mirroring the efforts in Mexico, the ORT school in Sofia, Bulgaria, under the leadership of Director Plamen Petrov and Hebrew Coordinator Stella Dinkova, has also become a haven for children of Israeli families fleeing conflict. Following the outbreak of war, Bulgaria, long a popular destination for Israelis, has seen a significant influx of families, particularly from southern Israel.

“The local community in Sofia has provided families with an outpouring of essential support including food, clothing, toys, and housewares,” said Dinkova. As part of those efforts, ten children, aged 6-13, have been integrated into the ORT school, and have started to learn Bulgarian while continuing their Hebrew education and Jewish cultural studies.

Credit: World ORT

This is a similar arrangement to one put in place by Dr. Petrov and his team after the outbreak of war in Ukraine last year. ORT students from that country were also absorbed into the Sofia school after being displaced by the violence.

Both the Mexican and Bulgarian schools highlight World ORT’s focus on education as a means of stability, growth, and healing for young individuals and families facing adversity. The network’s commitment to global solidarity and empathy across its schools, universities and extra-curricular programs in over 40 countries, stands as a beacon of hope and collaboration in challenging times.

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