If you've ever wanted to be a college lecturer and provide a much-needed service to people in need, then look no further than the Community College (CC). This volunteer-run learning group offers classes to migrant workers in Tel Aviv in order to provide them with knowledge and skills that will help them manage their lives and become productive, whether they gain legal status in Israel or choose to return to their countries of origin. Organized by the Migrant Workers' Leadership Group, CC has been developed in collaboration with the African Workers' Union and Mesila, an organization set up by the Tel Aviv municipality to provide social welfare services for the foreign community.
To understand why such an institution is so vital, I met Prof. Gideon Kunda, from Tel Aviv University, who is academic director of the MCU.
He explained that he became involved when he was asked to give a talk to a group of fifteen people in Mesila’s Migrant Workers Leadership program, directed by Ms. Yael Meir, a community worker at Mesila.
"I turned up at the meeting place and asked them what they wanted to know. "Everything," they replied. They wanted to know all about the history, the culture, the economy, and the politics of this country in which they are now living. They were hungry for knowledge.
"I spoke for two hours about the establishment of the State of Israel, its history and its culture, and at the end of that time, I was nowhere near finished. I came back twice and lectured again, and it was one of the most interesting lecture experiences I've ever had.
At the end of the course, I was invited to a party. There were chairs put up, flags, speeches – it was like a graduation ceremony. It was clear that the participants had invented a university-like environment and there was a need for this to continue. Along with Yael and members of the group, we defined the group as an organizing body for a community education center and started looking for volunteers. That was the start of the Community College."
As Prof. Kunda explains it, the situation of migrant workers in Israel is dire.
"Many of them enter Israel legally, as care workers from the Philippines and Thai agricultural laborers, but this is an industry tainted by corruption. The manpower companies, in some cases linked to politicians, charge them exorbitant fees which can take years to repay. Thus they have a financial interest in getting rid of current workers and bringing in new ones, because they get more fees that way. Those who are here are at the mercy of their employers, who can take advantage of them. Some leave their employers and join the illegal community. Others enter as tourists and stay illegally. Valid statistics are hard to come by but it's estimated there are some 200,000 migrant workers in Israel.
"When they have children, there are further problems. There are about 1,800 children of foreign workers here without legal status. The state is obliged to educate them, and is prevented from deporting them because of Israel’s international obligations and they grow up speaking Hebrew. Some years ago several hundred children received legal status as permanent residents, along with their families and some of them are already serving in the army, just like Israeli kids, after which they can become citizens. For the last eighteen months the government has attempted to implement a policy of mass deportation that would include also illegal children. Following public outcry there is a renewed process of granting some children legal status while others will continue to face deportation. A special unit, Yehidat Oz, set up last year, has been charged with locating, arresting and deporting illegal workers." In the meanwhile, as Kunda says “many people are trying to survive between the cracks. They are hunted, living in constant fear."
For such people, the opportunity to learn skills that will help them in life is as much about survival as it is about knowledge.
Says Prof. Kunda, "The first course we offered was in computer skills. An Israeli software company, Amdocs donated twenty computers to the African Workers union and we set up classes at an introductory and advanced level. When that finished, we started three more classes – another one in computer skills, one in the psychology of families and children in crisis and one in management, which I teach with another volunteer teacher, Efrat Shelach-Yeshurun. The idea of a management course was to teach about starting your own business, with the idea of to helping participants break out of the vicious circle of poverty in Israel if they are allowed to stay, or if they leave, somewhere else. It gives them something positive to take with them from their often unhappy experience here."
Additional courses to be offered starting March 2011, include the psychology of child development, Hebrew language skills, Israeli society, commercial photography and journalism. Classes are held on weekday evenings with 15-30 students in each, and are taught by volunteers, once a week over eight weeks. The participants pay NIS 100 for the entire course.
"The lessons are a real event – some even bring their kids. For the teachers, it's an amazing experience."
How can members of ESRA help?
- Volunteer teachers, who are willing to commit to eight sessions of 2-3 hours, are needed. The plan is to offer a wide variety of subjects, depending on the needs of the community and the interests and skills of the volunteers. In addition to the existing classes CC is open to initiatives and suggestions.
- On the administrative side the organization needs people who can help with management and organization of CC. Even several hours a week could be helpful.
- Financially, the college is in danger of losing its facilities, rented by the African Workers Union in a commercial building on Levanda St. in Tel Aviv (near the central bus station). The center also serves as a cultural center for the African community. Rent is supported in a small part by the students’ tuition fees but CC and the African Workers Union desperately need assistance towards paying the rent, otherwise the lease is in danger of being terminated by the end of this year. Contributions are crucial to the survival of CC and will be deeply appreciated.
Volunteers, in addition to helping others in need and enjoying a fascinating experience, gain a real insight into how those less fortunate live in our midst and what it teaches us about our society. The migrant workers may be here temporarily, or illegally, and in some cases permanently, but we should never forget that they are human beings, that their labor contributes to making Israel a better place, and that some might become under the right circumstance become productive members of our society, while others could become ambassadors of good will in their home countries.
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