Young Ethiopians in Israel Look to Boost Their Brethren

In a combination bomb shelter and student lounge in the dormitories of Tel Aviv University, several Ethiopian Israeli college students sit in a circle of overstuffed chairs and plan the official launch of their new organization.

They have named their group Sulam, Hebrew for ladder, and their goal is to help their fellow Ethiopian students and graduates of universities and colleges across the country succeed.

“We have made it into higher education, but we leave many behind,” said Hillel, a criminology student from Ashkelon. “We want to be a community that is contributing to Israel, not a people that has to be helped out as if it is needy.”

They see themselves as the vanguard of their generation — bright, driven and dedicated to helping integrate their fellow Ethiopians into Israeli society. Higher education is the key to getting there, they say.

Among them are law students and recently minted lawyers, students of electrical engineering, computer engineering, social work and education.

This group of about 10 — students and recent graduates — constitute Sulam’s executive committee. This is one of their first meetings and the first rule of business is introductions.

First to introduce herself is Almaz Zeru, 23, who has been designated spokeswoman for the group. The second-year law and business-management student from Lod was born in a jail in Addis Ababa, where both her parents were being held for their covert efforts to smuggle Jews to Israel.

Zeru spent her first year of life in the prison. Sometimes one of the prison guards would hold her in his arms and another would lash her mother with beatings.

Now a 19-year veteran of life in Israel, with long, tightly wound braids spilling onto her shoulders, Zeru says she feels every bit the Israeli.

In an interview after the group meeting, Zeru talks about her goals and how she knows her parents made great sacrifices so she could grow up in Israel.

“I want to achieve, to become a lawyer and then maybe even a Knesset member. I know that because of my parents I am here,” she said. “We cannot give up because we are black. We need to go far in academia, in the media — we need to be everywhere.”

Hailu Alemu, a computer engineering student, introduces himself as president of the nascent group. A serious 24- year-old, he presses his palms together in thought and encourages his fellow student leaders to take action. He tells them the real goal of today’s meeting is “that we as a group go out into the field.”

They debate what kind of programs they should create. One suggestion is to help prepare Ethiopian high school students and soldiers for university studies by explaining to them the requirements for different degrees, scholarship opportunities and what student benefits they are entitled to from the government.

The number of Ethiopian students passing high school matriculation exams is on the rise, and there are some 2,000 Ethiopians currently enrolled in Israel’s colleges and universities.

But lacking guidance at home about educational opportunities — their immigrant parents often are unemployed and do not speak Hebrew — these university-aged Ethiopians serve as a lifeline for the younger generation.

The Sulam leaders also discuss getting involved in government policy decisions regarding the Ethiopian community, what kind of Internet site they should build, the organization logo and fund-raising strategies.

Soon they hone in on what they regard as one of the most serious problems facing them as educated young Ethiopians: difficulties finding work in their fields once they graduate.

They bemoan the grim economic situation in Israel and their lack of inside connections, which can be key to landing work in this small country.

“Where is our self-confidence to prove ourselves in the market?” Zeru asked. “We need to find our roles within the community, to be proud of ourselves and show we can play our part” in society.

The students also talk about the often heavy feelings of responsibility they feel as those who are among the first of their community to study for higher degrees.

“We feel responsible not only toward our parents, but to our generation and the generation that will follow us,” Zeru said.

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