Semhar Mengstu originally trained as an engineer specializing in urban development, expecting her career to take her in the direction of tall buildings and city streets in her hometown of Asmara. But after fleeing Eritrea and arriving in Israel in 2010, Semhar traded developing cities for developing the minds and futures of children in the asylum seeker community in Rehovot.
Semhar, a community activist and a Refugee Outreach Volunteer with the UNHCR, now manages a city-supervised day care for children of asylum seekers in cooperation with the city of Rehovot. “Previously, the (asylum seeker) community in Rehovot was not aware of the possibilities regarding small children,” Semhar explained. “The asylum seekers’ infants in the city, including my own, went to a privately-owned babysitters. When the babysitter closed down, I contacted Unitaf and together we arrange a meeting with the municipality, Unitaf, and parents from the community.” Unitaf is a community organization that provides early childhood education for status-less children. UNHCR has been a supporter of Unitaf since 2013, and last year paid the tuition fees for 32 children.
Privately owned babysitters have long been the only option for asylum seekers who work long hours and need childcare, but they are unregulated and can be unsafe. Asylum seekers have not been able to enrol their children in public, state-funded childcare programs due to their lack of legal status, even though their children were born in Israel.
International Women’s Day is marked globally on March 8, celebrating women around the world who are effective and powerful leaders making tangible changes in the world. The United Nations is marking International Women’s Day with the theme “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow.”
In Israel, UNHCR cooperates with Unitaf because early childhood education is so crucial for that generation of tomorrow, explained Damtew Dessalegne, the UNHCR representative for Israel. “UNHCR promotes and advocates for quality early childhood education and care as an essential measure for the development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs, in order to build a solid foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing,” he said.
Semhar and other women in the community worked long hours to ensure that the asylum seekers children in Rehovot enrolled in local public day care, but eventually their hard work paid off. “All the community together worked with Unitaf and the municipality, and this was the beginning of the process to open a municipality day care for asylum seekers with the support and guidance of Unitaf,” she said. “At the same time, other parents approached the municipality regarding the education of the older children. These two pathways joined together to form the new options for children of asylum seekers in Israel.”
“When the municipality looked for women from the community to join the staff, I thought this could be my opportunity to give more to my community and for the children,” Semhar added. “I didn’t choose it at first. I wanted to be an engineer, but working in early childhood education gives you a way to change lives and make them better. If I had the opportunity today, I would go and study early childhood education. I feel so satisfied with this work.”
Semhar entered Israel in 2010 and was immediately imprisoned in the Saharonim detention center, where she assisted the other asylum seeker detainees with translation for the Israeli authorities and the humanitarian organizations. Semhar said her work during this period, when she was able to provide valuable assistance to her community, encouraged to her stay in an active leadership position by acting as a bridge between her community and the organizations trying to help.
She has been active ever since, including serving as a Refugee Outreach Volunteer for UNHCR. There are currently seven Refugee Outreach Volunteers in Israel, living all over the country, who help the UNHCR stay connected to the community and highlight areas of concern and people in immediate need.
Semhar said she feels the time she most notices the success of their work is when three-year-olds now seamlessly transition from early childcare to nursery school without having to fight for their right to enrol.
“Our collaboration with the municipality is very good,” she said. “The people in the municipality, including the mayor, care for our children. Most of all, the children from the day care are wonderful. I teach them, and they teach me.”