Ethiopian Israelis take their education – and fate – into their own hands

Published in Haaretz

Having Amharic-Hebrew speakers mediate between Ethiopian students, their parents and school faculty boosts educational achievement, reduces culture clashes and prejudice and revives self-belief in the Israeli-Ethiopian community.

The Fidel Association, one of the first Ethiopian-led NGOs in Israel, just celebrated its 15th anniversary. Fidel, which means “alphabet” in Amharic, was the brainchild of Dr. Nigist Mengesha, who reached Israel in 1984 with four children and a social work degree. Mengesha believed that if the next generation’s experience was going to be any different from that of her own, Ethiopian immigrants would need to help themselves.

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(Full disclosure: I am the Israel program director for the Moriah Fund which has supported Fidel from day one, and direct an NGO, the Israel Association for Educational Innovation (ICEI), which partners with Fidel.)

While working at Shatil, the technical support organization for NGOs, Mengesha was recruited to the Mandel Leadership Institute, a program to transform midcareer professionals into educational leaders. Despite the fact that seven years had passed between Operation Moses and Operation Solomon in 1991, Mengesha believed that Israel’s school system had learned little about addressing the needs of Ethiopian children, an intuition reinforced by her informal survey of Ethiopian parents at temporary caravan camps. She became convinced that education was the top priority for the new immigrants, and that special education was being used as a dumping ground for Ethiopian children whom the school system did not know how to serve.

As her final project at Mandel, Mengesha tried to re-envision the role of the school-based megasher (from the Hebrew, to bridge), a liaison who functioned primarily as an Amharic-Hebrew translator. In Mengesha’s view, the megasher would instead mediate between three groups: the Ethiopian students, their parents and school faculty. They could provide on-site emotional support for Ethiopian students, boosting their self-image and confidence, and help each party navigate the mutually misconstrued Ethiopian and Israeli cultural codes.

The misunderstandings were many, and they fostered bad feelings and bad policy. School faculty, for example, were ignorant of the strict rules dictating Ethiopian children’s interactions with adults; in conversation, Ethiopian children are taught to face down rather than look adults in the eye, to answer when spoken to but not to initiate exchanges, and to respond in a soft voice, all out of respect to their elders. Teachers and principals routinely misinterpreted these behaviors as reluctance to engage, disrespect or stupidity.

Equally baffling to educators was the disappearance of children for several days as their families attended funerals or weddings of even distant relatives. Megashrim help faculty understand that absence from such events leads to extreme social ostracism within the Ethiopian community, and helps parents grasp the need to notify the school in advance, so that children can make up missed instruction.

Another example involves children’s names. Very young Ethiopian children are called by a different name by each adult member of their family: Mom might call you Shoshana, while Dad calls you Esther, and your grandmother calls you Talia. Children who were asked their names (“How are you called?” in Hebrew) sometimes did not know which name to give, and were then referred for special education. Had the question been framed differently – What does your father call you? What does your mother call you? What does your grandmother call you? – the children could have rattled off a list of monikers used by specific relatives.

Mengesha was encouraged to think big by two “mentors”: Ariel Landau, the vice president of Elbit, who read an interview with Mengesha in Haaretz and insisted on helping her found her own NGO, and Mary Ann Stein, president of the Moriah Fund, who believed in Mengesha’s idea and provided the seed money for the new organization.

When the new megashrim training program was launched at Beit Berl, nobody was sure enough qualified Ethiopian candidates – they needed at least a high school diploma – could be found. When the time came, Landau, lawyer Miki Safra and businessman Nochi Dankner joined Mengesha to interview the 70 applicants, 30 of whom were accepted.

To date, Fidel has trained 144 megashrim, more than 80 percent of whom remain involved in the field. The importance of their role was eventually recognized by the government, and the majority of megashrim now working in schools are employed by the Education Ministry through a steering committee.

The training program has also spurred higher education; graduates earned a full year’s credit at Israeli colleges and universities, and Fidel arranged for scholarships to continue their studies. Most megashrim have at least a bachelor’s degree. While prejudice has not disappeared, megashrim have dramatically affected the expectations between school faculty and Ethiopian parents.

Fidel has also scored some big wins on the advocacy front, notably the requirement to have an Amharic-speaking megasher or social worker present at all special education placement hearings for Ethiopian pupils, so parents can understand the proceedings. Parents also learned that they don’t have to allow their children to be assessed. While the initial crisis was largely resolved, as the number of Ethiopian children referred to special education dropped dramatically, a new challenge arose for megashrim, if on a smaller scale: some Ethiopian kids who need special education don’t get it because their parents are so suspicious they refuse to allow them to be assessed.

Seven years ago, Fidel led the fight to re-open the Hadarim School in the isolated neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe in Rehovot and the school, renamed for Ethiopian Jewish leader Yona Bogale is considered a success, and an example to Ethiopian activists about their capacity to influence policy.

At the fifteenth anniversary celebration, Mengesha recalled desperate attempts to get the Education Ministry’s attention and marveled at the roster of speakers, which included former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and recently retired Air Force Maj. Gen. and former head of Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin – one of several pilots so affected by taking part in an Ethiopian airlift that he joined Fidel’s board. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a video-taped message.

Mengesha herself went on to earn a PhD, and to be the first head of the Ethiopian National Project, a large scale joint venture between the North American Jewry and the Israeli government. But she lamented that her initial prediction – that Fidel would help solve the community’s educational problems within a decade – has not proven accurate.

The community’s needs have diversified; new immigrants are arriving, many of whom are illiterate, but there are also young parents who were educated largely in Israel who have completed army service and college degrees. Alongside numerous individual success stories are the symptoms of incomplete integration, including high dropout rates and a disturbing gap between Ethiopian students and their non-Ethiopian peers. Anyone trying to close these gaps must find a way to inculcate a culture of literacy and expectation early, and raise achievement levels to them a fighting chance in competitive, high-tech Israel.

As other agencies were charged with supervising megashrim, Fidel refocused on empowering young people and parents through youth centers and leadership programs. They have also partnered with my own organization, ICEI, in a turnaround program for underachieving elementary schools with high concentrations of Ethiopian students. They are also considering training a new cadre of megashrim, focusing on parents’ empowerment within schools.

Fidel is now led by Michal Avera Samuel, who also arrived in Operation Moses as a nine-year-old village girl who had spent a full year in Sudan. Samuel was separated from her family at age 10 – to her regret she was sent to boarding school as part of a blanket policy applied to Ethiopian immigrant children – and went on to earn a master’s in guidance counseling. After confounding visitors as a delegate to the Israel pavilion at Epcot for a year (“They couldn’t understand that I was a black Jew”), Samuel joined Fidel, providing guidance and support to megashrim in the field. In 2011, she was named the fourth director of Fidel, embodying Mengesha’s dream that the next generation would help the community take its educational fate into its own hands.

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