Saturday, March 24, 2012

144 Languages, Nations, and Faces

Dream box
A week ago I had the pleasure of joining a group from PURSUE on part of their trip to Israel. For my part, I was in charge along with my fellow fantastic teacher in crime, Alyssa, of leading two art projects with the trip volunteers and the children in a very special school in southern Tel Aviv. This school is no ordinary school. Housed in the Hatikva neighborhood, the Yarden School has gone through a fascinating transformation. When it first opened about 60 years ago, it was a school for Israeli children. Now, following the Russian immigration of the 90's and the most recent influx of African refugees, asylum seekers, and foreign workers, the school serves quite a different population.

More dream boxes
Walking through the hallways of the school one could easily hear a minimum of four languages twirl through the air. Looking upon the faces of the children and one sees tan, toffee, dark chocolate, ebony and all the shades of skin that come in between. There are Filipinos and children from Ghana, Sudanese and Eritreans, Japanese, Russians, and more. Each of the children has a unique story of how they came to be there. And while for the past few years these children have had to endure  protests as they come to school each day, yelling for them to return to where they came from (ignoring the fact that many were born in Israel and only had the bad luck to be considered "other" by virtue of their parents' story) the beauty of this school is that once they enter the doors, none of that matters. All that matters is helping anyone who arrives at their doorstep.

Writing notes
The first day we met the a group of 25 2nd grade students who were part of a special extended day program much like the moadoniyot that I work at in Jerusalem. Alyssa and I gathered the children and Pursue participants in a circle and asked the children what their dreams are. One little girl said a doctor. Another said a hairdresser. Still another said a teacher. And the ultimate dream? To be in the army. Only then will they be considered true Israelis. As the short talk commenced, English, Filipino, Russian, and Hebrew intermingled and I watched as one little girl from Ghana leaned against her best friend from Ethiopia. Here they were just friends, nothing more. We decorated boxes to hold their greatest possessions and in which they could hold their dreams.

Finished boxes filled with notes
There was great fun and laughter as we all worked together on a plastic tarp under the Israeli sun painting, gluing down decorations, laughing and talking. And then each adult wrote a special note for each child to keep. They jumped, clapped, and squeeled as they placed their precious well-wishes into their boxes for safe keeping. One little boy hugged three boxes to his chest, beaming ear to ear. At the end of the session I told the children that this is just the beginning of a place for them to think about their great potential and the opportunities of the future. Some of the little ones pulled me into a slanted group hug thanking me for their boxes of dreams. For many of these children their fate remains unknown. Some may be sent back to their troubled countries and others will stay here struggling to integrate into Israeli society.

Final touches
I left the children and their dream boxes with mixed feelings. On one hand, I thought about how proud I was that there are schools like this that do everything and anything to help these children, that they represent the true meaning of love and gemilut chassadim to me. On the other, the reality of what may happen to these children and their families down the road, and what has already happened to bring them here both alarms and disheartens me. Like one of the little girls said to me, "why we cannot all just get along, like us here together."

Another finished box

The pep rally/soccer/basketball game
The second day began with an inspirational tour at the Bialik-Rogozin school, made famous by the Academy Award Winning documentary, Strangers No More. Because of the publicity they have received since the movie, there are one of the four places in the world to have a special Google Maps interactive touch screen station and every child at the school was given a chance to enter and zoom into the street level view of their family's hometown. We took a tour of the school, went to a kindergarten, watched a music class of swaying children, and the end of what seemed like a soccer game and basketball game simultaneously happening on the same court, to the backdrop of a huge, colorful pep rally. The same issues as the other school exist here, but like the other, once the children enter these doors, they are just children who deserve all the love, education, and kindness of any other. My favorite site was watching children of all different nationalities gather around a bulletin board of gorgeous Purim masks.
People waiting in line to try out Google World

Purim Masks
Interesting mural at Bialik
After our visit at Bialik we returned to the Yarden School from the day before to take part in another project with a group of 40 first graders. Before the project we had the chance to play with the children in kindergarten out on the sand-filled playground. I keeled over with laughter as Jimmy, one of the JSC fellows who happens to be very tall, was immediately jumped on by an adorable African boy. Jumped is probably the wrong word; it was more like the child saw him, broke into a run, and catapulted himself onto Jimmy's shoulders. After that, there was no way to stop it. I watched as children of all different shades and nationalities piled up into the air and sprung at him from every direction. And then it was my turn. I felt a confident tap on the shoulder and before I knew it the most adorable little girl sprung up into my arms. She had soft, flowing braids tied up into a ponytail and a laugh that made me want to squeeze her and take her home with me. Her name was similar to mine, just a few letters' difference, and her Hebrew was laced with an incredible African accent. She wouldn't let me go, even when I was being pulled away by two more little ones.

Day 2's Project
The dichotomy between present and future realities of these precious children is almost too much for me to bear. They are sweet and bursting with possibility and have come from struggles that we cannot understand. The existence of these schools makes me proud to be an Israeli and a Jew. But this doesn't fix the overall situation.
Decorations for spring

I was surrounded by 144 languages, nations, and faces that day. It changes the face of Israel as we know it. But it is Israel nonetheless, and when a little girl from Eritrea ran up to show me the Jewish star painted on her arm, I was able to see it firsthand.

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