In a single day, Ethiopian immigrants make aliyah — and are thrust into a war zone

Moshe Bahta, director of the Ibim absorption center, briefing his staff, Nov. 18, 2012.  (Adam Soclof)

Moshe Bahta, director of the Ibim absorption center, briefing his staff, Nov. 18, 2012. (Adam Soclof)

Alemnh Yeshuas, who arrived in Israel from Ethiopia less than 24 hours after his adopted land launched its operation against Hamas, in his new home in Ibim about 3 miles from the Gaza border, Nov. 18, 2012.  (Adam Soclof)

Alemnh Yeshuas, who arrived in Israel from Ethiopia less than 24 hours after his adopted land launched its operation against Hamas, in his new home in Ibim about 3 miles from the Gaza border, Nov. 18, 2012. (Adam Soclof)

The Alema family taking cover in a reinforced room in their Ibim home during a red alert siren indicating an incoming rocket from Gaza, Nov. 18, 2012.  (Adam Soclof)

The Alema family taking cover in a reinforced room in their Ibim home during a red alert siren indicating an incoming rocket from Gaza, Nov. 18, 2012. (Adam Soclof)

IBIM, Israel (JTA) – The explosion occurred close enough to Stesyahu Alema to shake his apartment, where he sat with his wife and two of his five children.

But he didn’t flinch. None of them did.

“There are a lot of people with me, so I don’t need to worry,” Alema told JTA. “I don’t worry.”

The Alemas were among 91 Ethiopian immigrants who arrived in Israel last week, just a day after Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense began. The new olim immediately were sent to the Ibim immigrant absorption center, a former aliyah youth village run by the Jewish Agency for Israel about three miles from the Gaza border. Other immigrant absorption centers were full.

During a visit Sunday, two explosions rocked the area in the space of just a few minutes. The first, a rocket launched from Gaza into Israel, had prompted a warning siren, sending the Alema family into the reinforced room that doubled as their children’s bedroom. One of the Alema daughters slept through the echoing impact that followed.

The Alema family knew that bombs were falling all around them, but they didn’t know much about Israel’s 5-day-old operation, not even its name. They didn’t know about the senior Hamas officials that Israel had killed or about the frantic push for a cease-fire that day in Cairo.

What was clear was that their world had been turned upside down, having moved from a subsistent existence in a sleepy town in rural Ethiopia to the epicenter of an escalating conflict. And they knew when the siren sounded to get into the children’s bedroom.

Usually when a planeload of Ethiopian immigrants arrives at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, the Ethiopians go through the same process as any other group of immigrants: They receive some food, temporary identity cards and health insurance, and some cash to see them through the month.

But when the Alemas landed, along with their health insurance, documents and money, they received a security briefing from the Jewish Agency, which helped facilitate their immigration.

Ethiopian families at Ibim this week did not seem preoccupied with the war next door. Children played in a yard outside their apartments, while parents became accustomed to amenities they never had in Ethiopia, like refrigerators and electric stoves. Some had never even slept in beds.

“In Ethiopia, we slept on the floor, on top of each other,” Alema said. His wife, Yikanu, added, “We had no light. We had leeches. That’s why we’re happy here.”

The Ethiopian immigrants didn’t venture far from their apartments in case an alarm sounded and they had to run back inside.

The group also avoided congregating: Instead of a communal Shabbat meal, each family remained in its apartment to eat the traditional meal with flat, thick injara, the pancake-like Ethiopian staple.

“Instead of dealing with them, trying to absorb them, I’m trying to explain the security situation,” said Moshe Bahta, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1980 and now runs Ibim. “I told them the Arabs want to throw us into the sea and we’re not ready to acquiesce. Since Israel was established, until today, there’s never been quiet — always war.”

Alemnh Yeshuas, another immigrant, said his apartment feels spacious enough, even if he can’t always leave it.

“We have four rooms in our apartment here, running water and a bathroom,” he said. One of his daughters had a faint blue cross tattooed on her forehead.

Bahta said that to give the immigrants a sense of normalcy, he “broadcasts security to them,” always remaining calm — even as rockets land.

“It’s OK to be scared, but don’t lose control,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to be tomorrow, but meanwhile we don’t panic. If you go into the reinforced room, nothing will happen.”

Yeshuas said any fear of rockets paled in comparison to the spiritual fulfillment he got from finally living in Israel.

“We’ve dreamed many years of getting to Israel,” he said. “The dream is realized and we’re very happy. I believe in God — God knows.”

Bahta said Ethiopians are used to thinking in terms of survival. “If you have food, good. If not, you die,” he said.

None of them would refuse an opportunity to move to Israel, he said. Many Ethiopians see Israel as a land of plenty and a way out of Africa’s desperate poverty. For many, aliyah is the realization of a lifelong dream.

“Every beginning is hard, but the hardship gets canceled out because of the happiness,” Bahta said. “You realized the dream. What, they shouldn’t come? There’s nothing like that. This will change their lives.”

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