October 20, 2019

Sara’s Schoolhouse for Asylum Seekers

Sara Stern sees invisible people. Those dark faces washing the dishes in the back of the restaurant; pouring cement on roads in the middle of the night; cleaning your room after you’ve checked out of the hotel. 

In 2006, while vacationing in Eilat, Stern read an article about a young student in Beersheba — Elisheva Milikowsky — who was organizing a support network for the trickle of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers crossing from the Sinai into Israel. The army would drop them off on a Beersheba street. This was before the  Holot detention center; before the makeshift camps in parks around Tel Aviv’s central bus station; before the proposed forced relocation plan to Uganda. We didn’t know much about these people who had walked across the desert to seek shelter. And we didn’t see them.

But after reading the article about Milikowsky, Stern said, “All of a sudden they weren’t invisible to me anymore.” And she knew she had to help. “I put some money and shoes [in the hotel room] for one of the women cleaning. I just wanted to do something.” 

Stern said she knows what it’s like to be invisible; to not have a voice. After making aliyah at the age of 12 with her parents and six siblings from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to the Israeli settlement of Efrat, she lost her voice. Literally. From eighth to 12th grade, she didn’t say one word in school. She now knows that she suffered from selective mutism. She didn’t know how to cope with the transition, so she shut down.

“For most [asylum seekers], their education had been interrupted by circumstances in their country of origin.”

However, over the years, Stern became proficient in Hebrew, eventually going on to become a Hebrew teacher for adult immigrants in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in special education, in 2012 she founded The Schoolhouse — an organization that offers asylum seekers in Tel Aviv classes in English, Hebrew, computer and GED studies. And beyond offering them practical skills to ease their transition into Israeli society, Stern said The Schoolhouse also offers them hope.

“I would see a black figure in the kitchen and knew the Israeli next to him was a student raising money so he could work through university, and this dark figure didn’t have much hope for his future,” Stern said. “It’s a matter of opportunity that you’re born into. It’s an injustice.” 

She added she heard time and again from asylum seekers that they had a thirst, a longing for education. “They wanted English, because English is the international language, a transferable skill, it’s the language of the internet,” Stern explained. “They don’t know their future. English is seen as a survival tool. For most of them, their education had at some time been interrupted by the poverty, instability or traumatic circumstances in their country of origin, and surely not something they had access to on their often long journey to safety.”

Although Stern may not know where her students will be this time next year, she knows that she’s helped them attain skills that they can take with them.

“Their thirst for knowledge is insatiable,” she said. “[It’s] part of what inspires me every day — the strength of these people, this positive belief that they can make an optimistic change in their lives.”

This article has been updated to include the correct spelling of Elisheva Milikowsky’s name.