Camps & Education | Teenage boys find a welcoming refuge in the Israeli desert

Some years ago, while out on jogs a mile and a half from the Sinai border, David Palmach regularly saw traumatized refugees from Eritrea and Sudan dropping to the sand in exhaustion.

The refugees had come overland from home countries torn by strife, and had made a long and dangerous journey to Israel — often by way of Bedouin torture camps in the Sinai desert and past gun-toting Egyptian soldiers.

Up until two years ago, on arrival in Israel they were taken to prison-like facilities for lack of suitable alternatives. In 2010, however, Israel’s lawmakers decided to find ways to house and educate the many teenage boys among these African refugees and asylum-seekers. Palmach was one of the first to step in.

African refugees receive instruction in everything from math to citizenship at a boarding school in the Negev. photos/israel 21c

The director of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Nitzana Educational Community, Palmach also runs Tikun Olam, a boarding school set up for teenage African refugees at Nitzana, an Israeli kibbutz near the Egyptian border.

There are 50 African teens, most of them 14 or 15 years old, at Tikun Olam. Through Israel’s Ministry of Education, the boys — ages 14 to 17 — receive an allowance for housing, food and education that must be supplemented by the generosity of donors.

“David Palmach had the willingness and foresight to help these young men,” said Karen Kellerman, delegation coordinator for the Nitzana Educational Community, which encompasses an immigrant absorption center, a military prep school and intensive ecology workshops for Israeli schoolchildren.

“There are about 80,000 refugees from Sudan and Eritrea in Israel, some escaping for their lives from genocide and religious sectarian violence,” Kellerman said. “The Israeli Ministry of Education wanted to give the young boys a chance to have a more normal life and equip them with the tools to do that.”

Tikun Olam is now is at full capacity, having designated 10 of Nitzana’s best youth hostel suites for the 50 students, who may remain there until they reach legal majority.

“By the time they are 18, no matter where they end up — here in Israel or elsewhere — they will be able to succeed and hopefully have a normal life because up until now, they have had a terrible life,” said Kellerman.

“They’ve seen atrocities at home. Some of them were captured by Bedouins in the Sinai and turned into slaves; some have marks on their bodies to prove what they have been through. We’re trying to offer them a stable, loving environment, and of course food in their stomachs every day and a place they can go to sleep every night knowing they will be safe in the morning. They haven’t had that before.”

Kellerman said Palmach’s decision to found Tikun was controversial.

“It would have been easy to say no,” Kellerman said. “We have a lot of poor people in Israel and many argue that we must take care of our own first. But on the other hand, our Torah tells us we are supposed to care for strangers and orphans. David saw the opportunity to give them new hope and a home.”

African refugees at school

In May 2011, Israel Defence Forces personnel escorted the first 24 boys to the center, where Israel’s Minister of Education greeted them along with the entire Nitzana staff.

They’d arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs. A French volunteer at Nitzana arranged for a donation from a French Christian group that allowed the staff to buy bare necessities for the boys.

And after months on the run, they were not used to rules and routines — up at 7 a.m., breakfast, school till 1 p.m., curfew. Twelve of them ultimately went back to the detention center because they couldn’t adapt to the structure.

The school’s staff also came up against huge gaps in the boys’ knowledge of concepts such as democracy.

Counselors are with the group at all times, and the boys meet with social workers weekly or monthly, depending on their situation.

“For the longest time, even now, the boys were afraid to speak about some of the things that happened because they are afraid their tormentors will find them and kill them,” said Kellerman.

Nine of the African boys are academically gifted and attend a regular school in Beersheva. The rest study subjects such as English, Hebrew, computers, math, geography, history and citizenship. Physical education is a cherished part of their daily schedule, and every week they have an opportunity to work at nearby farms.

In the evenings, two Israeli volunteers take the boys for activities such as ceramics, biking and swimming.

African refugees on a field trip to the Eilat Mountains

Kellerman arranges for groups from Israel and abroad to visit the facility with the hope of gaining volunteers, sponsors and informal spokespeople.

Finances at Tikun Olam are always precarious. “The difference in our boarding school is that our students have no other home to go to, as regular boarding school students do,” said Tikun Olam director Yair Amir. “We never shut down, and we must have electricity on and food served every day.” Not to mention clothing, shoes and spending money for each child.

The big question is what will happen when the boys turn 18.

“A few scenarios are possible,” said Kellerman. “Some might return to Sudan or Eritrea if conditions there get better. Israel might grant residency to some so they can work here legally. Or another country could open their doors, such as Canada or Sweden.

“The future is very uncertain. But as long as we have breath in our bodies, we will keep the door open for these 50 boys. Fifty is a drop in the bucket, but we hope if we are a good example to other nations maybe they will also feel a responsibility to take this on. It is too big a problem for Israel alone.”

Abigail Klein Leichman
Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is associate editor of ISRAEL21c.