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Uncertainty hangs over Gondar community

Thousands of Falash Mura eat at feeding centers in Gondar aid compounds as they wait to hear whether they will be allowed to immigrate to Israel. (Ron Csillag)

Thousands of Falash Mura eat at feeding centers in Gondar aid compounds as they wait to hear whether they will be allowed to immigrate to Israel. (Ron Csillag)

GONDAR, Ethiopia (JTA) – The sight of a mother trying to coax one more spoonful of mushy cereal into her child’s mouth is a far cry from the horrifying famine that engulfed Ethiopia in 1984.

Today, the hundreds of young mothers and wide-eyed infants crowded into the Gondar Beta Israel Association’s feeding center face another problem: seemingly endless waiting. They are among several thousand Ethiopians in Gondar hoping for permission to immigrate to Israel.

“They really have no choice but to be here,” says Getu Zemene, chairman of the association, which runs an aid compound that provides food, schooling and some employment assistance to Ethiopians here who say they are part of the Beta Israel community of Ethiopian Jews.

These Ethiopians were practicing Christians until recently, and claim links to Jewish ancestors who converted to Christianity several generations ago to escape economic and social pressures. They are known as Falash Mura.

“Israel made them a promise and they have come to Gondar,” Zemene said. “Here they wait.”

Over the last five years, more than 17,000 Falash Mura have been taken to Israel from Ethiopia, most of them from the Gondar area. Now, however, the Israeli government says it has finished screening potential Ethiopian immigrants. The list of Falash Mura that Israel committed to bringing in under a February 2003 government decision has been exhausted, and except for a few hundred who will be leaving the country over the next few weeks, the vast majority of those waiting in Gondar will not be part of this mass aliyah.

Zemene says there are 12,000 Falash Mura living in desperate poverty in Gondar and that a pall of fear has descended over the community as the realization has set in that most might not be allowed to go to Israel.

“I’m disappointed in Israel,” Zemene says. “Look, these people have fathers and mothers” in Israel.

Since the exodus to Israel of Ethiopian Jewry – known as Beta Israel – in Operations Moses in 1984 and Solomon in 1991, respectively, Israel has taken in tens of thousands of Falash Mura. Due to the difficulty Falash Mura have of proving their links to Jewish ancestors, Israel has relied on an informal 1999 census to identify potentially eligible immigrants. Israel requires that petitioners demonstrate that they have close relatives in the Jewish state and that they embrace Judaism as a condition of aliyah.

Zemene says the 12,000 people in Gondar – including those whose petitions for aliyah were rejected, and some 8,500 or so who migrated to Gondar over the last five years but whom the Israeli government has declined to screen – will be stranded should Israel end its Ethiopian operation.

Zemene himself was rejected for aliyah seven years ago. Asked why, he says, “Still nobody has told me anything.”

American Jewish aid groups involved in Ethiopian aliyah have promised to provide domestic resettlement aid and humanitarian assistance for Ethiopians who waited in Gondar for years but whose petitions for aliyah were rejected.

As thousands of Ethiopians in Gondar await word of their fate, they continue to flock to aid compounds in the city that are funded by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee also runs health clinics here.

At the feeding center, nearly 1,000 children up to age 6 come with their mothers twice daily for meals of cereals, eggs, bread, vegetables and fruit. Children ages 6 to 18 receive one daily meal consisting of a small pile of white beans, two eggs, an orange, a bread roll and a banana.

No one lives at the aid compounds – there are three in this city – and the people here are free to find other food and employment.

But in one of the poorest countries on earth, that isn’t easy.

“The food here is not adequate,” Zemene says. No one is starving, he explains, but there is widespread hunger.

Over at another compound, hundreds of children study for up to four hours per day at the School for Hebrew, Jewish Culture and Religion. Here they learn Jewish prayers, how to lay tefillin and about Israel. Zemene estimates that 85 percent of children in the classes have never attended a regular school.

Around the corner, a nurse examines the younger children. They sit patiently outside as each takes his or her turn filing into the dingy Solomon Clinic where they present their hands to the nurse, who checks to see whether their nails are clean. The nurse, who does not want to be identified, says the children’s growth rates are acceptable. She added, though, that they suffer from several communicable diseases, including tuberculosis, malaria, scabies, intestinal parasites and lice.

Dr. Rick Hodes, JDC’s resident medical director in Ethiopia says few if any children have tuberculosis or malaria, but agrees that children at the clinic do suffer from scabies, lice and intestinal parasites, as do many children throughout Ethiopia. The clinic does what it can to treat children and encourage hygiene, he says. 

This is not easy, however, given the unsanitary, cramped, dark conditions at the compounds. The children’s clothes are worn and ragged, and many of them walk barefoot on the muddy, rutted ground.

Inspiration comes at the synagogue, adjacent to the feeding center and a mikvah. It’s an open space partially enclosed with plastic sheeting and corrugated metal. When it rains, the sound of the water hitting the roof is deafening. There is a dirt floor and the metal benches are hard and narrow. Outside the makeshift prayer space, goats mingle with the worshippers who come for prayers.

During a recent afternoon service, three older boys led the congregation in a mix of Amharic and Hebrew. Men and women, clad in traditional white robes, sat separately, many with heads bowed. They responded dutifully, with many of the younger ones following along in donated prayer books.

At the Gondar Beta Israel Association’s main office, 120 men can sit in small stalls for vocational training in traditional weaving, spinning and metalwork.

If Israel shuts down its emigration operation here, “we will continue as before,” Zemene pledges, without elaborating.

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