Welcoming the Stranger

This post was written by Gina Milano after her second volunteer experience with Skilled Volunteers for Israel.

After completing my wonderful volunteer project with low income Israeli teens at the Youth Education Village of Nitzana in the heart of the Negev desert, I geared up for the next assignment: conducting an English as a Second Language (ESL) methods workshop to teachers of ESL in both Tel Aviv and Eilat for African refugees and displaced persons.  Over the years, I’ve worked in the United States with many Africans from Burkina Faso at Seton Hall University where I teach and though I don’t like to make generalizations, I particularly enjoy working with members of that community- their stories, their interesting backgrounds, their appreciative sentiments, their connection with their past. I therefore told Marla Gamoran, the director of Skilled Volunteers for Israel, that I would love the opportunity to work with the African population in Israel, having heard that there are growing numbers of Africans there. I had also recently seen Israel’s inspiring, award winning short documentary “Strangers No More” which further bolted me forward.

Joel Moss, the Director of HIAS-Israel, spoke to me at length before the three hour English teaching workshop in Tel Aviv.  He educated me on many interesting facts about asylum seekers from Africa who cross the border into Israel, and had an admonishment for Israelis about the need to recall the commandment to “welcome the stranger.”  The background information before the workshop was very helpful and shed light on some of the challenges African refugees face after harrowing journeys in which they fled for their lives, primarily from Sudan and Eritrea.  The Africans came to Israel via Egypt and encountered many dangers en route.  Jewish and other humanitarian groups have come to their aid in Israel, but my sense is that the current government seems to fall short of adequately addressing the issue and the Africans are left in a kind of limbo.Thanks to Skilled Volunteers for Israel, I had the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of “Hachnasat Orchim-welcoming the stranger,” even through my involvement was brief.  The workshops were arranged with the utmost care by Marla in the US, Judy Gray , Skilled Volunteer’s Israel Coordinator, and Sara Stern, a dedicated employee of HIAS.  Their goals were clear – to serve the needs of the community and facilitate my preparation for the challenge.

The workshop was held at the offices of Meslia in South Tel Aviv.  Judy Gray helped me copy, staple, organize and lug all of my materials.  No expense was spared to ensure that these participants had what was needed for a successful training.

The students streamed in – a variety of Africans, American volunteers, a Thai teacher and others, eager to learn new teaching techniques.  The group was receptive and participatory, contributing valuable insights and lots of laughter which eased the progress of the workshop.  We warmed up with introductory icebreakers, discussed the teaching of grammar, conducted values clarification and got to know each other well within the limited time we were together.  In one activity, we simulated a press conference and the HIAS director played the role of the Israeli Prime Minister.  The questions flung at him by the “journalists” were quite provocative, especially in light of the recent social revolution in Israel, but HIAS Director, Joel,  responded with articulate gibberish, in the manner of most present day politicians!

One very reflective African philosophy student commented that he would love more intensive English to improve his knowledge of the language so that he would be well prepared to teach.  At the end of the evening, HIAS’s Sara Stern asked whether the workshop had met the students’ needs.  The response was that it had exceeded expectations and that the participants would greatly appreciate more immersion in teacher training techniques.

I did a similar workshop in Eilat at the refugees’ home base and felt equally welcome and valued.  After the workshop, we sat together and at first, the chat was casual and photos were taken.  Eventually a few of the participants became more open and described their painful journeys to the Promised Land.  I was moved by their stories and once again, grateful to Marla for her vision and expertise in assessing my skills, supporting my choices, and providing me an opportunity to guide and connect with my colleagues in Israel.

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