One has to see Asanka Derba, an Ethiopian immigrant in his 50s, gently stroking the leaves of the celery and basil plants in his Gedera garden to understand that although he left behind his plot of land in Ethiopia when he moved to Israel, he remains a farmer at heart.
"Who else could pick up a handful of earth, and by smelling it, know what can be planted in the garden?" asked Yuvi Tashome, a member of an urban kibbutz in Gedera that is involved in Derba's nurturing of the plot.
After immigrating from Ethiopia, Derba worked for the Gedera municipality, first as a janitor and then as a gardener in public gardens. But it is only now that he is unemployed, that he has, for the first time, his own piece of land to work in Israel - and it's not hard to see that he is proud of it.
Derba earns money for working the garden, and he also gets to keep all the produce, but that's only part of the plan advocated by Tashome, himself an Ethiopian immigrant. She wants to transfer all authority over the garden to Derba and use gardening to bring him and other older Ethiopian immigrants closer to the vocation that used to be an inseparable part of their identity.
"It's no secret that agriculture was the primary occupation of the Ethiopians" in their former home, said Tashome. "In Israel, the neighborhoods where the Ethiopians live stand out for their lack of greenery. We thought that if they could grow vegetables in a community garden, it would generate a lot of joy. If we had come and offered ready-made gardens, they would likely be neglected. Our approach is to motivate people to take responsibility and get them to work in a garden themselves."
Derba's organic garden was planted in early September in the yard of a house rented by Haverim Bateva, a non-profit organization operated by the urban kibbutz. Now that the rock-hard earth has been cleared of rubble and given way to eggplant, tomatoes, beets and peppers, Derba is beginning to miss the tastes and smells of the plants he once grew in Ethiopia.
The success of Asanka Derba's garden has already attracted the attention of his neighbors. Derba invited friends and neighbors to gaze in wonder at his garden about a month ago. He gave them some of the vegetables he had grown, and now they want gardens of their own.
The garden project is just one initiative of the urban kibbutz, whose members are themselves mainly young Ethiopian immigrants, that is aimed at benefiting members of the Ethiopian community in Israel.
The 12-family urban kibbutz - which forms a collective in the sense of having a shared ideological mission rather than a shared economy - runs various educational and social projects, including a youth club that runs out of a Gedera apartment.
"The intention is to return a feeling of belonging to alienated youth by strengthening their Jewish Ethiopian identity," said Tashome, a co-founder of the group.
She said she realized it was necessary to operate from within the neighborhood, "so that there will be continuity and connection to the residents and so that it will be possible to introduce genuine change." Gedera is home to some 1,700 families from Ethiopia.
Tashome, who is 31 and moved to Israel when she was 6, has personal experience with the identity crisis facing Ethiopian immigrants. She said she underwent culture shock when she went from living solely among other Ethiopian families to attending a religious boarding school in Hadera, and later a high school at a religious kibbutz near Ashkelon.
"That black period in which I was a second-class citizen compared to the kibbutzniks and the Israelis caused identity confusion," she said. She said she managed to forget she was Ethiopian while she was serving in the army, but was handed a harsh reminder when she was rejected for jobs because, she maintains, of her ethnicity.
The members of the urban kibbutz serve as positive role models for the other residents of Gedera. Most of the Ethiopian members have university degrees, and are assertive and self-confident.
"When my parents came to Israel, they lost their independence, their dignity. They were made passive in their absorption process," said Tashome. "We are planning to be active and to serve members of our community, not from the outside, but as part of them."
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