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School for Immigrants Blazes Trail for Ethiopians

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Grima waited seven years in a refugee camp in Addis Ababa to come to Israel. Now the 16-year-old looks around the campus of the Yemin Orde Youth Village, sitting on 70 acres of hilly, wooded grounds south of Haifa.

“This is like paradise,” he says. “All the kids in the camp know about this school. Everyone wants to come here.”

In Israel only a year, Grima barely speaks English but insists on trying. His big smile shows off bright, white teeth, with the beginning of a moustache on his upper lip.

Grima’s determination to speak English is typical of most of the 450 students at Yemin Orde, but especially the 250 or so Ethiopians: They’re eager to learn, disciplined and grateful.

Some came to Israel without their parents, while others have mothers and fathers living in poor districts of working-class towns such as Kiryat Malachi.

The parents speak little or no Hebrew, have little formal education and stand little chance of advancing economically in Israel. In much of the Ethiopian community, parents’ authority over their children has broken down, and some kids go bad.

For the students at Yemin Orde, however, it’s another story.

“We have incredible success with the Ethiopians,” says Susan Weigel, Yemin Orde’s outreach director. “We deal only with new immigrants here, but among those people the Ethiopians have been the most challenging group to integrate in the history of the school, and perhaps in the history of Israel. From here, most go on to the army and then to university, paid for by the state. From there, they become leaders in their community.”

Israel’s first Ethiopian lawyer, for example, is a Yemin Orde graduate.

The school is named after Orde Charles Wingate, a British army captain who organized the Jewish Night Brigade, a counterinsurgency strike forces in the 1930s, and trained future Israel Defense Forces leaders such as Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan.

There are 20-25 students in a class, compared to an average of 40 students per class in other Israeli schools. Subjects are the same as in regular schools, and students are prepared so they can take university matriculation exams.

“Some Ethiopians cannot read or write in any language when they come here,” says Schlomo Leibovitz, the school’s deputy director. “Believe it or not, some do not know how to use a pencil.

“The Russians also have problems — some come from orphanages, and we deal with criminal behavior and alcohol and drug abuse in some cases,” he says. “But they’re not lacking in education. The Ethiopians come from another world.”

Fasico and Bayeche are walking with other Ethiopians to the dining hall for lunch. The boys and girls mix freely, chattering in Amharic with Hebrew words thrown in. Inside the dining hall, the Ethiopians and Russian students tend to sit at separate tables.

Fasico came to Israel with his parents 15 months ago. They live in Beersheba, but he is thrilled to be in Yemin Orde.

“I love studying English and math, and I’ll go to university, ” he says in halting English. “I don’t miss Ethiopia, only some of my relatives there.”

Many of the Ethiopian girls still have wide crosses tattooed on their foreheads and necks, signs of their background in the Falash Mura community. The Falash Mura are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, but later converted back to Judaism.

“We’re trying to develop a system to remove the crosses surgically,” Leibovitz explains. “Crosses are not exactly a favorite tattoo in Israel.”

The boys wear yarmulkes. The school, run by the Jewish Agency for Israel from its inception in 1953 until the Education Ministry took over in 2003, is considered a pluralistic religious institution, though many of the students are not halachically Jewish. Students begin the day in synagogue, but can choose not to attend.

“We know that most of our students will not be religious later on, but we give them some basics and tradition,” Weigel says. “This is part of what we call the ‘drip-irrigation’ system for their brains — the ideas and the education seep in bit by bit. On the emotional side, we tell them we will always be here for you, you are going to be okay.”

Tamar Silberberg, 23, the daughter of Friends of Yemin Orde chairman Paul Silberberg, recently visited the school. Friends of Yemin Orde, based in Philadelphia, raises about $2 million a year for the school, about 30 percent of its operating budget.

“This village gives these young people the chance to have access to the good things that people such as myself have had my whole life,” she says.

“We make up for the unfairness they have experienced in their lives,” she says. “For us in the States, this is not about politics and the right or left in Israel: It’s about values, the same values my parents raised me with.”

Local youths from nearby Israeli Arab villages participate regularly in after-school programs. The school has 10 foreign programs, including one in an African-American community in Baltimore.

Some 35 youngsters from Brazil spend a year here, taking classes in Portuguese that follow the Brazilian public-school curriculum, plus Hebrew. Weigel says about 75 percent of the Brazilians make aliyah.

The school doesn’t have an auditorium or football field, but it does have excellent computer facilities. On many afternoons, all of the school’s approximately 70 computers are being used by students for homework, technical lessons, games or e-mail.

Haim Peri, the school’s director since 1979, is seen by Israeli education officials and some members of the Ethiopian community as a visionary.

“In Kiryat Malachi, the Yemin Orde graduates are the leaders of the Ethiopian community,” notes Gidon Ayech, a captain in the Israeli army whose mother served as the first Ethiopian assistant mayor of an Israeli town before being forced to step down earlier this year.

“They have more than brains — they have hearts and values also,” he says. “They have good jobs in the army and they’re teachers. We wrote to Dr. Peri to thank him and his staff.”

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