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Behind the Headlines: After Years of Frustration, Kwara Jews Are Euphoric

Contentedly sitting on his cot at the absorption center, Manjur Adema exhibits little of the frustration he felt over the past seven years as he desperately waited to leave the remote Kwara region of Ethiopia and reunite with his extended family in Israel.

Like many of the more than 500 Jews who have arrived here in recent weeks from Kwara, which lies on Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, the 62-year-old Adema is euphoric.

The uplifting experience has been punctuated by an emotional reunion with nephews and cousins who arrived in 1992. The family is now trying to make up for lost time.

“I have been longing to see my family again, and now I am very happy,” says Adema, a shy smile peeking out from behind his grey goatee. “After seven years, my dream has been fulfilled.”

But although their dreams have become reality, most of the new arrivals have not yet started thinking of the enormous challenge ahead — absorption into Israeli society.

And even the excitement cannot mask the nightmare endured by Adema, his family and the estimated 3,800 Kwara Jews who had been stranded in Ethiopia since 1991.

The Jews from the lower Kwara region were left off official rosters of Ethiopian Jews approved for aliyah, or immigration to Israel, in the mass airlifts of Operation Solomon in 1991.

The following year, some 2,500 Kwara Jews did manage to emigrate, but many others got caught in limbo as Israeli officials tried to determine which Ethiopians to approve for immigration.

Complicating the issue was the existence of some 14,000 Falash Mura — converts to Christianity who claim Jewish heritage, but whose Jewishness is questioned by the Israeli government.

As the chapter of the Kwara Jews draws to a close, the situation of the Falash Mura — many of whom already have families in Israel — remains a dilemma for the Israeli authorities.

Moved by their plight of the Kwara Jews once it became known in the last year, advocates from the United States and Israel cried out for Israel to expedite their immigration.

After months of unfulfilled promises, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the appeals by accelerating the aliyah.

One of those who arrived in 1992 was Adema’s nephew, 49-year-old Tasama Malade.

Now a “veteran” Israeli, he is more open than some of the soft-spoken immigrants in his criticism of the Israeli authorities.

“I have spent several painful years crying and worrying about them, and I am very angry at the government and the Jewish Agency,” Malade says as he visits his long-lost family.

Thinking there was hope for his family after the 1992 immigration of some Kwara Jews, Adema sent his son — one of six children — on the hazardous 200-mile trek to the northern city of Gondar, where many Kwara Jews had gathered at a compound near the Israeli Consulate to await immigration.

“Do not come now,” was the message he relayed back to the family in Kwara when he realized Israel had discontinued the immigration effort. “When the way to Israel opens again I will tell you to come.”

Adema’s son was stranded in Gondar, working day jobs and living in poverty.

Six months ago, he messaged his family to come. The farmer’s family packed up all its belongings on to donkeys and began a four-day journey under a blazing sun through some of Ethiopia’s most isolated areas. They completed the journey to Gondar after a daylong ride on the back of a truck.

When they arrived, the Adema family found that the waiting period would not be easy.

The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was operating a relief center for thousands of Falash Mura who are still awaiting an Israeli decision on whether they are eligible to immigrate.

But if they entered the Falash Mura camp to seek assistance, the Adema family risked compromising their status as Jews in the eyes of Israel.

Micha Odenheimer, a contributing editor of the Jerusalem Report magazine whose reports on the Kwara Jews last year first exposed the community’s plight, says many Kwara Jews in Gondar confronted the same situation.

“Most of the Kwara Jews who arrived in Gondar did not want to go to the Falash Mura compound, since they understood that if they were identified as Falash Mura they would not be allowed to come to Israel,” says Odenheimer, who recently returned from a follow-up trip to Ethiopia.

“There was an ironic situation in which the Jews stayed out even though the NACOEJ would have been glad to help them.”

The Alehi family found a similar situation when they arrived in Gondar.

Akno Alehi, 23, is the eldest of seven orphaned siblings. A few months ago, Watye Samali, their 75-year-old grandmother who now lives in Israel, sent money to help them make the trip to Gondar.

In Gondar, they rented a decrepit apartment near the office of the Jewish Agency for Israel and waited eight months. They were provided medical care – – apparently from the JDC — but had to fend for all other needs by themselves.

“Somebody was helping the Falash Mura,” says Alehi, unaware of the difference between the Jewish organizations in the field. “But nobody helped us.”

Those who arrived in Gondar were eventually bused to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, for flights to Israel.

And now, those who have arrived in Israel, hope their period of helplessness is over.

Tziki Aud, a Jewish Agency worker who is setting up the various absorption sites, says the Kwara immigrants may have a smoother absorption than earlier groups.

He hopes that within about a year, the new immigrants will be ready to leave the absorption center at Mevasseret Zion. Past groups of Ethiopian immigrants took between two to six years to leave.

“They are arriving much more prepared,” says Aud, a veteran of absorption operations for previous groups of Ethiopian immigrants. “Many have already been given clothing and medical attention in Addis Ababa, and they have many relatives already in Israel to help them settle in. I call this absorption deluxe.”

During the first week in Israel, each immigrant is given a bank account and identity card and registered for health care.

A family of four is given heavily subsidized housing — about $100 a month for a four-room apartment — and $5,000 for living expenses for the year. This week they began Hebrew classes.

The flights carrying immigrants are still arriving — twice a week now that Ethiopian Airlines has added a second weekday Tel Aviv flight to its schedule.

“Everything is working according to plan,” says Michael Jankelovitz, a Jewish Agency spokesman. “The plan was to bring them all over during 40 weeks with one flight a week. With the new flight, this may all be over by September.”

“The priority now is saving Jewish lives,” says Jankelovitz, noting that the war between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea is intensifying and creating an urgent need to bring the Jews to Israel quickly.

“This should not become a war of who is doing the most among Jewish organizations,” he says. “The wrong that was done to the Jews of Kwara is now being corrected.”

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