Savvy And Seventeen
Ethiopian-Israeli teens dispel stereotypes in visit to immigrant high school in Long Island City.
About halfway through her day visiting Newcomers High School in Long Island City last week, Afrat Sibhat and her student escort, Ursula Borova, were bonding in the way that only teenagers can, when a few hours of hanging out can seem like the basis for a lifelong friendship.
“I love your braids,” said Ursula, a spunky 17-year-old from Poland to Afrat, also 17, and one of six Ethiopian-Israeli teens visiting New York as part of a program sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.“You like it? I’ll show you how,” offered Afrat shyly, dexterously twisting a portion of Ursula’s hair into a style that got nods of approval as the duo circled the halls at Newcomers. “Now everyone wants hair like mine and Afrat’s,” said Ursula with a smile.
Sibhat and Anat Nadaw, 17, were here as part of Children of the Dream, a 5-year-old ADL program created to expose American teens to Ethiopian-Israeli students. While here, they were hosted by area families, visited the Empire State Building, enjoyed plenty of free time for shopping, and saw an OffBroadway play. But the majority of their days was taken up sharing their stories of immigration and absorption into Israeli society with kids at area schools.
One day last week, they attended classes and met with students at Newcomers, a high school of nearly 900 immigrants from more than 50 countries whose goal is to integrate its students into American society while helping preserve pride in the traditions and cultures of their native countries.
While the population at Newcomers provided a natural fit for its Ethiopian-Israeli visitors, the school was chosen to host the girls for other reasons as well: For four years, Newcomers has participated in A World of Difference, another ADL program which works with schools to provide peer training that enables students to teach their own classmates about the ills of discrimination and to work on prejudice reduction.
Julie Mann, 30, has been the World of Difference coordinator at Newcomers for four years. “It’s amazing what these kids can accomplish in their own classrooms,” said Mann. “They learn about different religions, about the benefits of diversity and tolerance, and have so much to share themselves.” Mann’s Twenty World of Difference Students, recently arrived from such exotic locales such as Macao, Bangladesh, Peru and China, seemed able to easily empathize with the Ethiopian-Israelis’ absorption story.
But though they studied the Ethiopian-Israeli immigrant experience in advance of the visit by Nadaw and Sibhat, some misconceptions still prevailed.
“Some of them thought that we would come here in white robes,” laughed Nadaw, a cornrowed 17-year-old 11th-grader. “You can see that this is not true,” she concluded, almost reassuring herself as she smoothed her stylish pencil-thin skirt, backless black sandals and fitted white shirt.
“I thought that they might come here covered from head to toe,” said Borova, whose family was involved in the Polish resistance and helped hide Jews in their basement during World War II. “When I first saw them, I was surprised that they looked like regular teenagers, just black and Jewish.”
“I have been impressed but not surprised at how seamlessly this program works, once you get kids next to kids,” said Ed Sedarbaum, associate director of the New York Region of the ADL. “They start out by finding out all of the ways that they are alike. With the security of understanding the similarities, it gives them freedom to explore their differences.”
This was certainly the case at Newcomers, where questions from the curious began to emerge as the comfort zone expanded. “Are you allowed to have boyfriends and girlfriends?” asked Andres Ortiz, 16, from Colombia.
“Of course!” said Anat, absentmindedly humming along to the tune of a popular American R&B;song.
“If Sabbath is so important, is it the law there?” asked Kelvin Lee, 18, a native of Hong Kong.
“Everyone chooses to do what they want,” said Anat. “You don’t have to keep Shabbat if you don’t want to, but if your family keeps it you probably do, too.”
“Does everyone in Israel wear long black coats and those curly hairs on the sides of their ears?” asked Ursula.
“No,” said Anat respectfully yet firmly. “Those people, the chasidim, choose to do more than my family does.”“What kind of music do you like?” asked Sohali Manik.
“Rap and Israeli music,” said Afrat.
Then, suddenly, the conversation turned serious.
“Do you feel safe in Israel — safer than you did in Ethiopia?” asked Iek Mee, 17, whose parents sent her to live alone in the United States to evade rape and other perils at the hands of local thugs in her native Indonesia.
“Yes, thank God, we are safe,” said Afrat. “Israel is very good to us and we are thankful.”
Unlike Anat, who came to Israel as an infant, Afrat still has clear memories of Ethiopia, including her straw house, the abundant trees and the lazy river that laced its way past her family’s home.
“It was beautiful,” she told the students. Some nodded their heads reverentially in affirmation, their thoughts clearly transported to their homelands, where the terrain may have been more scenic than urban Queens, but educational, economic and political landscapes compelled them and their families to join New York’s immigrant polyglot.
Asked if she would return to Ethiopia, Afrat demurred. “Maybe for a visit, but Israel is my home. I am very proud to be an Israeli and we thank the country for bringing us there.”
“We will both serve in the army,” she added. “We don’t just have to, we want to.”
Mandatory military service, along with the fact that the buses don’t run in much of Israel on the Sabbath, intrigued the students.
“Going to the army, that’s pretty tough,” said Xiao Ying 19, from China. “Girls didn’t do that in my country.”
Still, in a school where some students walk around in traditional Muslim garb, and the hallway banners advertised an international talent show featuring everything from reggae rapping to polka dancing, the students took the differences in stride.
“I never thought that Jewish people could be black,” said Thuy Linh Le, 16, from Vietnam. “This is amazing to me. Very cool.
”And when the Ethiopian-Israelis turned the racial tables around, the crowd was blown away.
“When an Ethiopian black-skinned Jew said, ‘I didn’t know until I got to Israel that Jewish kids could be white’, we realized that we are blessed with the ability to provide this type of diversity and new understanding,” said the ADL’s Sedarbaum. “That in a nutshell is what this program is all about.”
Still, while a polite and deferential ambassadors throughout their stay, the need for the girls to firmly dispel misconceptions arose again and again. As she was introduced to yet another class full of students, a teacher made an error that Afrat could not let pass so easily.
“Class, this is Arafat,” said the teacher unwittingly, writing on the board simultaneously. “A-R-A-F-A-T.”
Afrat, her long braids swaying behind her, rose, strode to the board, and corrected the spelling of her name in clear English block lettering. “A-F-R-A-T.” She then returned to her desk. She had made her point.