The Ethiopian Experience

Ethiopian immigrants and the Israeli educational system have been trying to get adjusted to each other. Fidel, an Ethiopian self-help organization is helping. Any immigrants find their first encounter with the Israeli educational system to be something of a shock. But just imagine what it would be like if you came from a country where there are no kindergartens and no compulsory education at all; where some children never go to school at all, some for a few years and only a few complete high school. Or where, once having registered a child to school, parents have no further involvement.

What would it be like if no one in the school spoke or understood even a few words of your language? If you imagine the confusion that such a parent might feel, you are approaching the experience of immigrants from Ethiopia. Since Operation Moses in 1984, Ethiopian immigrants and the Israeli educational system have been trying to get adjusted to each other. The process has not been easy but the Ethiopian community is not sitting back and waiting from someone else to solve its problems. One of the leading Ethiopian “self-help” organizations is Fidel: (“Aleph Bet” in Amharic) the Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Based in Hod Hasharon, Fidel was founded in l996 to facilitate the successful absorption of Ethiopian immigrant families and improve the education that their children receive, enabling them to pursue a wider range of career possibilities, without abandoning their traditions and cultural heritage. Fidel’s flagship project is the training and supervision of Educational-Social Mediators who work in schools with large immigrant populations. All of the mediators are themselves immigrants from Ethiopia. They work on three sides of a triangle facilitating communication, interpreting cultural norms and troubleshooting problems for Ethiopians parents, Israel schools and the children who are both Ethiopian and Israel.

Many Israeli are unaware of it, but immigration from Ethiopia is continuing and most absorption centers are filled. In order to make room for future immigrants, The Jewish Agency is working to help families move into permanent housing, but after 20 years of experience, it is now clear that four walls, a roof and mortgage are far from enough to guarantee successful absorption. In order to provide much needed help, the Agency approached Fidel with the aim of helping the organization form parents groups in approximately 20 centers, in order to prepare the parents for their role in their children’s education.

This is how they work. After explaining how to contend with the bureaucratic process of registration, group leaders discuss the structure of the system and, most importantly what is expected from parents and children. In Ethiopia, a parent who inquired about a child’s progress insulted the educator’s honor by implying a lack of trust. In Israel, that same distance is perceived, not only by the teacher but also by the children who are influenced by their Israeli peers, as an appalling lack of concern. A central message is “Even you lack the formal education to actually help your child with his homework, showing an interest will make a tremendous difference.” Yet parental involvement can go beyond homework help.

Ethiopian parents from the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Rehovot, for example, are sorely dissatisfied with the education that there children are receiving and especially with the city’s integration plan that disperses their children to 13 different schools. In their search for a better way, they turned to Fidel and the New York-based Center for Education Innovation – Public Education Association (CEI-PEA) which has more than 20 years of successful experience in organizing and running community-based, public schools that strive for excellence, in difficult or immigrant neighborhoods.

Well-known educational innovator, Colman Genn, a leader of CEI-PEA, toured Rehovot, met with community leaders and accepted the challenge of transplanting their successful model to Kiryat Moshe. A few short weeks later, Genn passed away suddenly but his dedication to the belief that quality public education is essential to the health of a democratic society lives on. Fidel and the parents of Kiryat Moshe are determined that, with professional guidance and financial support of CEI-PEA, an excellent neighborhood school will open its doors, perhaps as soon as September, 2005.


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