KIRYAT MALACHI, Israel (May. 26)
Balinach Ayech went from being a bank official in Addis Ababa to washing floors in Kiryat Malachi, a working-class Israeli town near Ashdod. That was 14 years ago. Today, she’s one of the town’s deputy mayors — the first Ethiopian ever voted deputy mayor of an Israeli city — but she’s involved in a clash with the town’s mayor, Moti Malka, that has prevented her from assuming her duties.
Ayech came to Israel with a firm belief in God, a determination to help herself and her people and gratitude to the Jewish Agency for Israel for bringing her to the Promised Land.
Ayech’s life in Ethiopia was unusual for a Jew: She was born in a village in the Gondar region but lived and studied in Addis Ababa and has an urban background. Her personal and professional success in Israel has been spectacular.
For the past five years, she has been the point person for her community in the town’s two health clinics.
“They come to me for everything,” she said. “Even after years in the country, many of the older people still cannot function in the system without help.”
The Jewish Agency provided Hebrew ulpan instruction for the immigrants, “but many people simply could not learn, and so they cannot work,” she said. “And many people did not go to ulpan because they never went to school in Ethiopia either.”
“The generation born in Israel writes and speaks Hebrew, of course, but many young people have other problems,” Ayech added. “Their families fell apart and they began with drugs and prostitution. So I have always had my hands full and worked very hard.”
Kiryat Malachi is home to about 3,700 Ethiopians out of a total population of 22,000. The city council chose Ayech as deputy mayor over another member of the community — but from there the picture gets cloudy.
“It should be beautiful, this story of the first Ethiopian deputy mayor, but it’s not,” said Yossi Perez, spokesman for the Kiryat Malachi’s mayor’s office. “This has become a case of dirty politics in Israel, and it’s too bad.”
According to Perez, the mayor and the council had agreed to elect the head of the local Ethiopian association, Salomon Yayo, as deputy mayor. Ayech was number two in the group, known as Hatikvah.
According to Perez, at the last second Ayech formed a coalition with opposition council members and managed to get seven of the 13 votes needed to be elected instead of Yayo.
“She has a good family and educated children,” Perez said, “but she divided the community and stabbed the mayor in the back. It was not a good thing. The mayor is not thrilled.”
Kiryat Malachi has two deputy mayors, including Ayech. She is scheduled to have four main portfolios: immigration, absorption, women’s rights and children’s rights.
“The mayor has decided that for the moment, she will not be doing anything at all,” Perez said. “By Israeli law, he has the power to decide what and when to hand over to deputy mayors.”
Ayech has a different story. She said Yayo was involved with financial allocations to Hatikvah, but that money disappeared.
“People were angry and ashamed,” she said. “For some reason, though, the mayor kept on insisting that he wanted to work only with Salomon Yayo. We do not understand the relationship, honestly.”
Yayo could be reached for comment for this story.
Ayech believes that despite its problems, the Ethiopian immigration to Israel has been a success. There are about 70,000 Ethiopians in Israel, more than 1 percent of the country’s population.
“This is the most difficult group the agency has ever dealt with,” she said. “They were rural, isolated people from Africa. The most intelligent and modern people have been able to succeed in Israel, but many simply received the 2,000 shekels a month” — a stipend of about $400 for rent and food, provided by the Jewish Agency and the Absorption Ministry. Often they went from the absorption camps to JAFI-run apartments that quickly became ghettos, and watched their families fall apart.
“I want the agency to come once a week to examine families, case by case,” she said. “I want them to find the kids in trouble and help them.”
People often knock on the door of Ayech’s office. She directed one woman in her 60s, wearing flowing robes and clutching some papers, to the right office, and she accompanied a man with a patch over one eye and a small fedora to another office.
She spoke to the two in Amharic, treating them almost as if they were children. They smiled and said “shalom” to a visitor.
“They have been here five or six years, but cannot say much more than that,” Ayech said. “They will never work here.
“The hope is for their children,” she continued. “Already their children are having two or three children, not seven or eight. They have learned that with so many children, you always stay poor. They understand what birth control is. These are health issues that we must continue to focus on at the city-council level.”
One path to integration in Israel for Ethiopians, as for so many other immigrant groups, has been the army. Ayech’s eldest son, Gidon, 27, is a captain in the army and a career soldier. He holds a master’s degree in economics and runs a supply unit.
“I have 20 soldiers under my command, and they are all ‘white’ Israelis,” he said. “The issue of my being a black African immigrant has not arisen.
“I got this far because of my mother,” he continued. “She taught us the value of education.”
When the family first arrived in Israel, Gidon Ayech said, his mother made a deal with a neighbor, cleaning the neighbor’s house in exchange for private Hebrew lessons beyond what the Jewish Agency was providing.
“After six months, we were all speaking fluent Hebrew,” he said.
Gidon Ayech said the agency had done much for Ethiopian immigrants, but often it wasn’t enough.
“We need more long-term programs,” he said. “And the people in Jerusalem need to know more about what is going on out in the field. When they say there are 200 children in an educational program, I want to know: Where are those children? Who are they?”
Gidon Ayech said there are plans to build a young leadership program in Kiryat Malachi under the auspices of Hatikvah.
“We want more educational programs,” he said, “or rather, we want young people to be really participating in the ones that exist. There are young people who have never seen a computer before the age of 20. There is no way they will get good jobs. And I want my mother to run for mayor of the town in the next elections.”
Gidon Ayech said his mother was waiting to begin working on the council in July, but until then is continuing at the health clinic and running counseling sessions at night for women and children with problems.
If the mayor refuses to let her begin council work, she’ll take him to court, Gidon Ayech said.
“We have a lawyer now,” he said. “We are Israeli, too.”