Fresh Off the Plane, Ethiopian Jews Find a Home Away From Home

The fledgling flight of Operation Dove's Wing landed in Israel Monday, bringing 250 of the last few thousand Ethiopian immigrants.

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The three younger Guade siblings were all little children the last time they saw their eldest brother, 25 years ago. So when Adugna, Alefe and their sister Dagnanesh came to Ben-Gurion International Airport on Monday they walked right past Wendem at first.

Wendem Guade, his wife and their six young children were among 250 Ethiopian Jews on the charter flight marking the launch of an operation to bring the last remaining Falashmura to Israel. Operation Dove's Wings, as the program has been dubbed, is a joint effort by the government and the Jewish Agency, which plan to complete it by October 2013.

That will bring to a close a 30-year campaign of organized immigration from Ethiopia that included Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1992.

"I had a picture of him in my head from when I was little," said Wendem's brother Adugna, 27, who lives in Ashkelon. "But he's changed a lot. It was really something seeing him after all these years."

Wendem, like many of his male compatriots on the flight, wore a kippah. His brothers, who wore chains around their neck and earrings, were bareheaded. "We used to wear kippot too," joked Adugna, "but we became bad here."

Many other dramatic reunions were unfolding around the cavernous Terminal 1 arrival hall: between brothers and sisters, parents and children and between young Israelis who had served as Jewish Agency counselors and teachers in Ethiopia and their former charges.

Li Koren, one such teacher, had returned from Ethiopia three weeks ago after a four-month stay. The brevity of the separation did not make the reunion with her former students any less emotional. She sat on an unused baggage carousel, surrounded by eight small children who held onto her as if for dear life.

Koren conversed with them in Hebrew and Amharic, following each sentence she said in Amharic with its Hebrew equivalent, a method she had used in Ethiopia to get them used to their new language. "You want to know where we are?" she asked a young boy wearing a baseball cap that had "Israel" written on it.

"We're at the airport." After he whispered something to her, she responded: "You want to know where you're going from here? You're going to an absorption center in the south."

About half of the 250 immigrants who arrived on Monday were children. The flight was organized by the Jewish Agency after the cabinet passed a resolution in July to bring the remaining Falashmura to Israel.

Falashmura is the name given to members of Ethiopia's Jewish community who were pressured to convert to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Several years ago, responding to calls from American and Israeli organizations that advocate on behalf of the Falashmura, the cabinet agreed to review the cases of 8,000 community members who were waiting in Ethiopian transfer camps, hoping to come to Israel and be reunited with their families. Some 6,000 requests were approved, and more than 4,000 of these individuals have come to Israel.

As part of the decision to bring Ethiopia's remaining Jews to Israel, the state has reopened the Jewish Agency's Ibbim Absorption Center, near Sderot, which will accommodate 600 of the new arrivals.

"This is the beginning of the end," Yehuda Sharf, head of the Jewish Agency's department of immigration, absorption and special projects, said Monday.

"By next Rosh Hashanah, God willing, all the Ethiopian [Jews] will be here in Israel."

As many of the new immigrants took their seats and waited for the official welcome ceremony to begin, 32-year-old Yerechu Delele wiped away tears with the sleeve of her gold-stitched dress. Arriving from Ethiopia with her husband and their small child, she had just been reunited with her parents and her brother, who came to Israel three years ago.

Like many Jewish women in Ethiopia she had a cross-shaped tattoo on her face, a local Christian tradition. But around her neck she wore an enormous silver Star of David. Her father, who still barely speaks Hebrew, pointed his cane toward her, his broad toothy grin reflecting his joy at seeing her.

Vered Achihon, director of Ethiopian immigration at the Jewish Agency, said that each family would be settled in a fully equipped and furnished apartment in the absorption center. "They will have everything from cutlery to a refrigerator filled with a week's worth of food," she said.

Hoping to entertain some of the children as they waited for the ceremony to begin, Elke Kaasmann played her flute. Kaasmann belongs to a German-Christian group that supports various causes in Israel, including Ethiopian immigration.

She tried to teach the children some of the Hebrew words she herself had learned. "Rozmareen," she enunciated slowly, giving a young Ethiopian girl a twig of rosemary to smell. "Say rozmareen."

After performances by an Ethiopian singer and an Israeli rock band, several Jewish Agency dignitaries and senior government officials took the stage to deliver their blessings. By this time, many of the Ethiopian children had lost patience and were racing around the baggage carousels, hitting each other with the Israeli flags they had been handed after landing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to speak at the event but he canceled at the last moment. For Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, however, this was not an event to be missed. He, too, had been introduced to the Guade family. "I just met these siblings who hadn't seen each other in 25 years," he told the audience. "Well, what can I say except that we here haven't seen you all in 25 centuries!"

A newly arrived immigrant from Ethiopia at Ben-Gurion Airport on Oct. 29, 2012.Credit: Nir Keidar

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