The Falash Mura’s Fate from Simplicity to Modernity: the Journey from Africa to Zion

(This is the third article in a 7-part special JTA report on Ethiopian immigration to Israel.)

Indalo Tegudabaso wore a wide smile on his face as he sat in the departures hall of Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa.

Dressed in a crisp yellow shirt and seated beside his wife and infant son, Indalo had waited many years for this moment, the beginning of a new life far from the poverty of Africa and close to his family in Israel.

A few hours later, exhausted but happy, Indalo would sit clutching a miniature Israeli flag and munching on his first Israeli meal: an egg-and-cheese sandwich with bite-sized tomatoes of a shape and variety he had never seen before.

“I am very happy because my parents are living in Israel,” Indalo told JTA en route to his new home in Israel. “I am very emotional now. It’s very, very, very, very nice.”

Indalo — Ethiopians are known by their first names — is one of the lucky ones among thousands of Ethiopians seeking to immigrate to Israel from one of Africa’s poorest countries.

Their journey from the remote Ethiopian countryside to absorption centers in the heart of Israeli cities like Netanya, Lod and Ashkelon is a long one.

Most of the Ethiopians coming to Israel today grew up in farming villages in rural provinces in northwest Ethiopia. Born in straw-and-mud tukuls where animals often jockey for space with humans in the one-room huts, these Ethiopians, known as Falash Mura, worked as farmers, blacksmiths, weavers or potters in their native communities.

The places they come from are uniform in their simplicity: no electricity, no running water, often little more than a cluster of huts standing among a few eucalyptus trees in between the brown-and-yellow fields of the Ethiopian mountain highlands. Some live many miles from the closest city — places residents have heard of but have never visited. Others live just a couple of hours’ walking time outside mid-sized Ethiopian cities like Gondar, a grimy metropolis of some 165,000 people.

It is a hard life, but not necessarily an unhappy one. The men work in the fields during the planting and harvesting seasons or make metal tools to sell at market. The women tend to large numbers of children and take care of household chores, including making pottery and winnowing teff to prepare the Ethiopian pancake-like staple of injera. Children work too, shepherding herds of sheep, cows or goats once they reach the age of 4 or 5.

Over the years, many of these Ethiopians gradually have developed links with the outside world through relatives who have emigrated to the Jewish state.

For those seeking to leave, relatives in Israel advise moving to the cities of Gondar or Addis Ababa, where Israeli government representatives screen applicants for aliyah and where American Jewish aid groups offer assistance to the Falash Mura — Ethiopians linked to Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity but who now are returning to Judaism in a bid to immigrate to the Jewish state.

“I came to Gondar to go to Israel,” said Tareken Wolde, 62, a weaver who migrated from the village of Quara to the city five years ago. One of Tareken’s two ex-wives lives in Israel, and she occasionally sends him money to help him out. The other ex-wife lives in Quara; his current wife works alongside him in the embroidery workshop of a Jewish aid compound in Gondar. Tareken has six children.

“I want to go join my family in Israel, and it’s the promised land,” he said.

For people like Taraken who have moved to Gondar, the aid compounds run by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) provide some embroidery work, Jewish education, schooling for children and some free food — all much appreciated by country people who have been impoverished by their move to the cities and loss of their rural livelihoods.

One recent afternoon at the Gondar compound, 8 and 9-year-olds performed somersaults and cartwheels in their makeshift gymnasium — a large open room that doubles as the community’s synagogue — while members of a visiting American Jewish delegation looked on with delight.

In another room, scores of women sat with their children eating modest portions of mashed potatoes, carrots, beans, eggs and other gruel-like substances out of little red plastic bowls. On the other side of the compound, young instructors stood in packed classrooms teaching about Hebrew, Judaism and Israel.

A similar compound for the Falash Mura in Addis Ababa has been closed for the last year and a half, since NACOEJ ran afoul of the law in Ethiopia’s capital, so the Falash Mura there have had to make ends meet without special assistance.

Soon, Israeli officials hope, the Jewish Agency for Israel will take over these compounds from NACOEJ’s administration. The agency then will run the schools, feeding programs and Jewish classes at the compounds.

The success of that plan depends in large part on whether the Israeli government implements its decision to accelerate the aliyah of the Falash Mura remaining in Addis Ababa and Gondar. Already, Israel has increased the number of Interior Ministry officials working in Ethiopia to screen the aliyah petitioners. Some 300 Falash Mura currently are going to Israel a month; but the accelerated aliyah has not yet begun.

In Gondar, one of those officials works out of a modest building on a dirt road not far from the center of town. He interviews Ethiopian families to try to determine whether or not they are related to Ethiopians in Israel.

Experience, he said, has taught him to be cautious.

“Until now we see that when someone from the city marries someone from a village, they separate once they are in Israel and the city person tries to bring his whole family here,” the official said by way of example, suggesting that these marriages of convenience actually are ploys to enable urban Ethiopian Christians to escape Africa for Israel.

“We also don’t accept marriages conducted at any time during the aliyah application process,” the official added.

Some aliyah petitioners have been waiting in Gondar or Addis up to eight years to emigrate.

While they wait, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ensures the petitioners receive medical care at clinics the group operates in Gondar and Addis. The JDC, the humanitarian relief agency that gets funding from the North American federation system, also runs a feeding program for young mothers and their babies to ward off neonatal malnutrition and other health problems.

Some Ethiopians develop HIV while in the city — thanks to the easy availability of prostitutes and the plethora of Ethiopians eager to develop intimate relationships with people who have the potential to get them a free ticket out of Africa. The JDC’s chief physician in Ethiopia, Richard Hodes, says staff members at his clinics routinely enact dramatic skits to try to teach community members about the importance of using condoms.

Medical conditions are not taken into consideration when determining eligibility for aliyah, Israeli officials say.

Every month, the Jewish Agency gets the names of 300 Ethiopians the Israeli Interior Ministry has identified as eligible for aliyah. In the final two to four weeks before they are brought to Israel, the future olim, or immigrants, are given the vaccinations they need for life in Israel, undergo a crash orientation course to learn how to live in a Western country — including how to use a toilet — and are housed in a JDC residence adjacent to the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa.

Many American Jews helping fund this operation — which is run by the Israeli government but overseen by the federation-funded Jewish Agency — are concerned about the length of time Ethiopians must wait before receiving permission to immigrate, and about what will happen to those that are denied entry to Israel.

“It’s a humanitarian issue to get them out of here,” says Robert Goldberg, chairman of the UJC. “In some way we’ve encouraged these people to come. It’s not fair to let them wait six to eight years.”

Israeli officials said they have discussed plans with the Ethiopian government to help resettle in Ethiopia those who have been denied entry into Israel.

For those lucky enough to get a ticket to Israel, the night flight on Ethiopian Airlines to Tel Aviv is an exciting and bewildering experience. Wearing Western clothes provided for them by the JDC, they move through the airport lugging children and small bags, skipping the mystifying escalators — the only ones in Ethiopia — for the more familiar stairs.

Weary eyes suddenly grow wide as the plane takes off, necks craned to catch a glimpse of the lights of Addis disappearing below.

When the plane lands in Israel, the immigrants are taken to the old terminal at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, where they are given Israeli flags and food and processed as new Israeli citizens. Some are met by relatives already living in Israel.

On a recent winter morning, Kafale Avia, an Ethiopian who immigrated to Israel nearly six years ago and now is an artilleryman in the Israel Defense Forces, came to the airport in Lod to meet his niece, whom he had not seen since he left. Tears ran down her face when she spotted Kafale, who is roughly the same age as she.

“It’s very emotional,” Kafale said, explaining that his niece is among the last of his family members to come to Israel. “It’s very good she came. Our whole family is here and she remained there alone. Everyone missed her. My mother would cry all the time.”

Reminiscing about his own arrival in Israel, Kafale said, “I didn’t have anything to do. I didn’t even know where to go. We went to Dimona and lived in a hotel there for about six months.”

The absorption centers to which Ethiopian immigrants are sent today, though modest by Israeli standards, are finer accommodations than pretty much any of them have ever had in their lives. Coming from dark tin shacks with dirt floors near open sewage in the shantytowns of Addis and Gondar, the relatively clean, modern absorption centers are a strange luxury.

Many have to be reminded time and again to turn off the gas stoves, and living in a place with no animals takes some getting used to.

Kasahun Ballata arrived in Israel with his wife a month ago. He now lives in Lod. Through an Amharic translator, he said he’s still adjusting.

“The weather, the water — it’s very different,” he said. “Here the water is more salty.”

Asked what he planned to do once he had completed his intensive Hebrew language study and his conversion course and had moved out of the absorption center, Kasahun said he hoped to find a job.

What kind?

“Whatever I can get,” he said.

Go to www.jta.org/falashmura.asp for the full series.

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