The Ascenders

901929_10200942441148071_574531645_oA dusky hut occupies the gated yard next to a building in Mevasseret, Israel. The dark, round structure – featuring sloped sides, a thatched roof, and a dirt floor – stands apart from its bright, concrete neighbor, which boasts glass windows and functioning electricity. In Ethiopia, families conduct all of their daily activities in these huts – cooking, weaving, eating, and sleeping. In Israel, however, the building serves a purely educational purpose: showing the children of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants how their parents and grandparents lived in their home country.

The town of Mevasseret hosts an absorption center for recent immigrants from Ethiopia. Supported by the Jewish Agency, a nonprofit organization that has brought Jews from around the world to Israel for over 80 years, the center includes hundreds of one-story homes, classrooms, a computer room, a library, two health clinics, clubs, and sports fields. Such well-equipped buildings are standard in Israel, but the majority of the Ethiopian olim (or immigrants) lived in mud huts in their homeland, explains Susan Handler of the Aliyah, Absorption and Special Operations Unit of the Jewish Agency.

“Most of them have never seen a toilet, a stove, a refrigerator,” she writes in an email to The Politic. “One of the first things they are taught even before their Aliyah is what these items are and how to use them.”

Aliyah, Hebrew for “ascent,” refers to the Jewish diaspora’s journey to their Holy Land, Israel. According to the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, no one has confirmed the origins of the Beta Israel (or “House of Israel”) Jews living in some 500 villages in Ethiopia’s northern province of Gondar. They may come from a lost Israelite tribe or descended from one of three groups: converted Christians and pagans, Jews who fled Egypt after the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th century BCE, or King Solomon and Queen Sheba. Until the Middle Ages, the Beta Israel community lived relatively unimpeded by the state and other religions. And despite little connection to Jews in the rest of the world, the Beta Israel Jews remained fiercely pious.

By the 17th century, however, the Jews lost their autonomy to the Ethiopian empire (aided by Portugal). In their final battle in 1624, some Jews so adamantly resisted their enemies that they jumped to their deaths from the walls of their fortress rather than be taken captive or slaughtered. Prisoners of war were enslaved and converted. Since then, Ethiopian Jews have faced discrimination and persecution within their own country.

From the latter half of the 20th century onward, Ethiopians have taken advantage of Israel’s Law of Return, which proclaims that Jews have the right to settle within its borders and gain citizenship. Then in 1977, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam proceeded to carry out a coup d’etat in Ethiopia, imposing a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship and pursuing policies against the Beta Israel Jews that left some 2,500 Ethiopian Jews dead and 7,000 homeless. Additionally, Mengistu forced the survivors to forfeit their land to the state and share it with non-Jews. In the early 1980s, the government banned the expression or teaching of Judaism and Hebrew. A civil war, famine, poverty, and forced conscription drove the Beta Israel Jews out of Ethiopia.

Liat Damoza’s family fled the oppressive nation in 1982. Damoza, the petite woman who now acts as the donor missions coordinator in the Jewish Agency’s Resource Development and Public Affairs Unit, has big brown eyes that draw in the visitors with whom she speaks. When giving presentations on the Jewish Agency’s work at absorption centers, she scoffs the warm weather and dresses in a pastel button-down shirt over khaki pants. Damoza’s family spent two years in a Sudanese refugee camp and was smuggled into Europe before making its way to Israel. “I was only a small girl when I made Aliyah,” she explains. Damoza felt much more comfortable celebrating her faith once she arrived in the country, and she enjoyed “the freedom to celebrate the Jewish festivals openly and to help one another without being afraid of being Jewish.”

Damoza’s family members were among the earliest group of olim. The major waves of immigration from Ethiopia to Israel occurred in two parts, and the current and final wave of immigration constitutes a third.

Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin

Operation Moses, the first covert evacuation of Ethiopian Jews, lasted for six weeks between 1984 and 1985, according to the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. After Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sold arms to Mengitsu and the dictator realized that he needed foreign assistance, he agreed to release thousands of Jews from his country. Seven thousand left successfully, but 15,000 remained when the project came to a premature close. After a newspaper article exposed the evacuation, Arab states pressured Sudan to stop facilitating Ethiopian Jews’ departure.

The second wave of immigration was an extraordinary feat relative to the first. Operation Solomon took place in 1991. Over three days, Israel airlifted 14,324 Ethiopian Jews into its borders. The operation occurred right after Mengitsu’s regime fell to rebels. If Israel had hesitated, the new Ethiopian rulers could have abused the Jews as bargaining chips when seeking concessions from other nations.

The current and final wave of mass immigration for the Falash Mura Ethiopians, who are tied to the Beta Israel community, will finish at the end of 2013. After this date, Jews from Ethiopia will be able to immigrate to Israel, but they will have to apply through their embassy, like Jews in other countries making Aliyah. Between 2011 and 2012, the Israeli government increased the admission rate from 110 to 250 Ethiopian olim per month in light of high demand.

From the very first wave of immigration, Ethiopian olim have tested the patience and acceptance of Israelis already living in the Jewish state. Amir Sagron, an employee of the Jewish Agency and the Israel fellow at Yale University’s Joseph Slifka Center, recalls growing up in Israel in the 1990s. This time period encompassed a massive influx of Ethiopians as well as the immigration of over 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union.

“Suddenly, in elementary school, you have many new immigrants all over Israel,” says Sagron, who was born in 1986. “Suddenly, you have classes with both African Jews and European, ‘whitish’ Jews.” He attended classes with children from around the globe – Canada, Ethiopia, Poland, Russia, and Yemen, among other nations. He posed the questions: “How do you get those kids to like each other, talk, converse, engage? How can I engage with a kid that doesn’t know a word of Hebrew?”

In the minds of native Israeli children, Ethiopian immigrants speak a strange language, bear an peculiar skin color, and observe unfamiliar customs. Sagron notes, “Children can be mean, making fun of other children who don’t know Hebrew or are different.” Hence, the Jewish state and community make an effort to teach children to tolerate, if not embrace, one another’s characteristics. Sagron remembers how a popular children’s broadcasting station aired music videos encouraging children to refrain from acting violently or cruelly toward one another. “It’s not a coincidence you could see [these videos] like 50 times a day,” he says matter-of-factly.

Just as Ethiopian-born children struggle to communicate with their peers, so do some adults, points out Yeshambel Kafale, a social counselor and translator at the Mevasseret absorption center. “Most immigrants are nervous about visiting government offices or attending their children’s PTA meetings or visiting the doctor, due to the fear that they won’t understand what they’re being told,” he laments. “They are afraid they will complicate the situation or won’t know how to respond to questions and will be humiliated.”

The absorption center helps olim to break down the language barrier by offering ulpan, Hebrew language classes, in which students also learn about their rights as Israeli citizens. Kafale gives his phone number to nervous immigrants, although he says that they eventually “realize that they are able to cope on their own.”

Coping has become even easier for the most recent immigrants, thanks to preparatory classes that take place in Gondar before the olim depart from Ethiopia. In the spring of 2011, the Jewish Agency began operations for its project, “Completing the Journey.” Programs range from classes for children, teens, and parents; to nutrition assistance; to health care; and to Jewish cultural and religious activities. The adult education program is split into 100 hours for “Conversational Hebrew,” 200 hours for “Return to Judaism,” and 20 hours for “Essentials of Life in Modern Society.” Upon finishing their lessons, the olim depart for Israel, where they stay at an absorption center for 24-30 months.

Kafale personally benefited from learning more about modern society before traveling to Israel. He has “experience in ‘changing worlds’ in Ethiopia” because he moved from his village to the capital city of Addis Adaba. He affirms, “This experience made it easier to get used to my new life in Israel, and I quickly learned to adapt to the Israeli culture and mentality.” In light of his own process of acculturation, Kafale felt inspired to work at the Mevasseret absorption center as a “bridge between the world where they came from, as an Amharic speaker, to the new world where they had just arrived, modern Israel.”

Despite the classes and support system offered in Gondar, many immigrants rely on help from people like Kafale to ease their transition into Israeli society. He recalls working with a family of olim who had no experience with technology. “With patience I taught them everything they needed to know, and I accompanied them to the different government offices that they needed,” he describes. “After I spent a month closely accompanying them, and held many conversations where I encouraged them, all of a sudden they gained their self-confidence. The mother began to use the modern electrical appliances in their apartment, and no longer feared learning new skills. … They no longer need my close support when they leave the apartment to do chores.”

But the world beyond the apartment walls can be more frightening. Poverty and a lack of education abound, creating a bleak outlook for Ethiopian immigrants seeking jobs. Even among Ethiopian olim who have graduated from a college or university, fewer than 15 percent find jobs that are compatible with their educational degrees. To alleviate the unemployment issue, Israeli nonprofit organizations have extended their educational offerings beyond language lessons to vocational training. (“Giving them not only the language but also the tools to succeed: That’s a huge challenge,” insists Sagron.) For instance, Olim Beyahad, a nonprofit organization founded in 2007, matches Ethiopian job candidates with employers, provides training for the workplace, and teaches leadership skills through workshops and tutoring.

Ethiopians do not just leave the confines of their new Israeli homes to seek employment; they also enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Sagron believes that the IDF informally fosters tolerance because the government places Israelis of diverse backgrounds in “a small unit” in which “everyone is friends.” He remembers gathering with his comrades on Friday evenings for dinner. This meal marks the beginning of the weekly rest that is customary in the Jewish faith — Shabbat. The soldiers have the chance to take their minds off of their duties and appreciate their time with one another over a relaxing meal.

“If I’m having a Shabbat with all my unit, we have time to explore,” Sagron reflects. “We have time to engage, we have time to talk, we have time to tell each other stories.”

The IDF supplements this casual, natural bonding with substantial programs intended to integrate soldiers from Ethiopia into the armed forces. There are “platforms for the IDF commanders and officers to teach their soldiers tolerance, to teach their soldiers about each other’s cultures and challenges,” Sagron explains. The IDF also has its own ulpan program to teach soldiers Hebrew.

Even with support from the government and nonprofits, Ethiopian immigrants encounter a steep learning curve. Unfamiliar dwellings, advanced technology, a strange language, a lack of education, poverty, unemployment, discrimination – all of these issues await the olim. Yet the stories of success offer hope to the immigrants. Damoza and Kafale, for example, are Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel and went on to pursue careers supporting resettlement programs.

Then there is the single mother of five whose husband passed away in Gondar five years before she and her children moved to Israel. The six surviving family members, burdened with emotional and financial tumult, benefited from remittances sent by relatives in Israel. Despite the father’s absence, the family made its way to Israel, where they stayed in an absorption center run by the Jewish Agency. The mother studied Hebrew and Judaism; her children enrolled in classes. They received baskets of basic supplies, and their new home featured all necessary furniture and appliances. The kids made friends with their neighbors at the center.

There is also the young Ethiopian man who traveled to Israel with his parents, two brothers, and grandmother. Just three months later, the family welcomed their first Israeli child, a baby girl. The young man had studied Hebrew so arduously back in Ethiopia that he went straight to a regular class without undergoing intensive language training in an ulpan. He learned about his religion through classes at his absorption center in preparation for his bar mitzvah, which he celebrated at Jerusalem’s famed Western Wall.

And there is the boy, less than 10 years old, who arrived in Israel after undergoing years of taunting for his shyness. He joined the soccer team at his absorption center and quickly became the top player in his group. The formerly withdrawn child relaxed and opened up to his peers, having found a creative outlet in his newly beloved sport.

Kafale notes that Ethiopian olim “know that the staff at the absorption center is there to support them, provide them with love and prepare them for real life in Israel.” Ultimately, staff members hope that immigrants will thrive on their own. The single mother, the young man who celebrated his bar mitzvah, and the little soccer player are well on their way to living without the assistance of the Jewish Agency, just like Damoza and Kafale.

“When I see the independence that they have achieved,” asserts Kafale, “I know that I did my part, because they no longer fear ‘the new,’ but try and face it directly.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *