It was with the help of a children’s book that Ornit Yehushua found JACC. A few years ago, she went to an event celebrating the publishing of a new children’s book, called Mulou and Tsagai, about two refugee children who had to leave their own country and look for haven in Israel.
At the event, Ornit learned the author of the book was a teacher at JACC. Tamar Verete-Zehavi had taught 4 students (two Sudanese and two Eritrean) and, as a learning exercise, had asked one student each week to write down the story of how they had come to Israel. Their combined stories became the plot of the book. After hearing the story of these refugees and the mission of JACC, Ornit decided to begin volunteering her time at the organization.
“I came to the celebration and didn’t leave it,” she said.
Upon her arrival, Ornit joined JACC’s board and founded a tutoring program designed to pair the children of asylum seekers with young Israelis who can aid them academically, socially and emotionally as they adjust to Israeli society. “Like an Israeli big brother,” she called them.
Ornit described a “cultural gap” that many of these children experience. Because they absorb different languages depending on whether they are at home, at the playground or in school, they end up knowing fragments of multiple languages rather than knowing one language well. This, Ornit said, makes it difficult to learn to read and write.
Furthermore, she said many parents struggle to supplement their children’s learning of Hebrew in school because they do not know the language well themselves.
“It feels for the parents that they are helpless,” she said. “That they cannot help their children with what they are supposed to.”
When she started the program, Ornit found out where the children of the community went to school, developed a list of priorities and began matching volunteers with children. Traveling to the student’s home each week, the volunteers meet with their family, help with homework, take them to a movie or just sit and talk to them.
“For every child it’s so important that he has someone to sit with him,” Ornit said. “It means a lot to them.”
By design, JACC’s tutoring volunteers are the eyes and ears in the community. In addition to spending time with the children, tutors sit with the parents and discuss issues the family is facing. Based on what the tutors report back, JACC can figure out how to best address a problem.
Beyond the work the volunteers do, the tutoring program is a network of support for the students involving their parents, school teachers, principals and JACC. Throughout the year, Ornit often travels with parents to meetings with teachers to help parents navigate the school system. And, beyond that, her presence brings attention to these students.
“Many times, the children of the African community disappear,” she said. If she visits the school twice a year and asks about a specific student, however, then teachers will begin to notice those students more.
In the future, Ornit hopes to expand JACC’s classes for children to include music and dance classes that expose students to different cultures.
JACC’s tutoring program aims to use the children’s presence in the Israeli school system as an educational opportunity for the rest of Israeli society. While many Israelis either know little about asylum-seekers in their country or have abundant misconceptions, using the classroom as a place to share the music and culture of the places these student’s families come from is an opportunity for Israelis to better understand and see this group of people living in their society.
And, for Ornit, who has three children of her own, her commitment to JACC and this community that began at a book party has come through a simple concern for young people.
“They are children and I want to help them.”
This month, JACC is raising money so that JACC can continue to provide asylum-seeking children with tutoring and mentoring services that will help them grow and mature. As of now, 65% of the asylum-seeking community’s children in Jerusalem do not receive services from JACC because of limited resources. Help us expand our children’s programming today.
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