Explosive Welcome for New Ethiopian Immigrants

New immigrants from Ethiopia get a severe reality check mere days after their arrival in Israel as bombs fall around their absorption center. Despite the shock, they're adapting quickly and looking to pitch in.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

IBBIM – The youngest members of this absorption center just outside Sderot are already well drilled in the procedures. As soon as the loudspeakers announce the Code Red missile alert with the Hebrew words Tzeva Adom, the little ones run for cover into the nearest fortified shelter and throw themselves on the ground.

This pair of words -- Tzeva Adom – is basically the extent of their Hebrew vocabulary today. These new immigrants from Ethiopia, part of the last remaining group of Falashmura to make their way here, landed in Israel just last Thursday and haven’t had a chance to learn much else.

“I’m very proud of them,” says Moshe Bahta, the Jewish Agency official who serves as director of the Ibbim absorption center. “A few days ago, when they arrived, the loud booms would frighten them, but by now they’ve gotten used to the noise since they hear it dozens of times each day.” But Bahta, who immigrated from Ethiopia himself 32 years ago, never follows them into the shelters “My job is to make sure that no one is left roaming around outside. Some of them get confused, and I have to point them in the direction of the nearest shelter,” he says.

Bowing to pressure from organizations in Israel and around the world that advocate on behalf of the Falashmura, the government finally made a decision last July to bring the remaining members of the community to Israel in an operation scheduled to be completed by October 2013. Most of those arriving already have relatives living in Israel.

An initial group of 250 Ethiopians arrived in Israel several weeks ago on the first charter flight of this operation, known as Operation Dove’s Wings, which is being overseen by the Jewish Agency. A second group of 100 members of the community arrived last Thursday, and a third similar-sized group is scheduled to land on Nov. 29. All these new immigrants are being housed at the Ibbim absorption center.

“Are you afraid?” Bahta asks 5-year-old Fantanish Bayene in Amharic, minutes after the Code Red alert has sent her dashing to the bedroom she shares with her parents and sister, which also serves as their fortified shelter. “I’m not afraid of anything,” she answers feistily, flashing him a big smile.

Children color and play catch outside during a moment of calm before the next rocket alert.
New immigrants from Ethiopia stand outside of their houses at the Ibim Absorption Center near Sderot on Tuesday morning.
Malkam Mekonnt, center, with her father and Yikanu Genet, left, are among 91 new immigrants from Ethiopia who arrived in Israel last week.
4 of 4 |
Children color and play catch outside during a moment of calm before the next rocket alert.Credit: Andrew Esensten
1 of 4 |
New immigrants from Ethiopia stand outside of their houses at the Ibim Absorption Center near Sderot on Tuesday morning.Credit: Andrew Esensten
2 of 4 |
Malkam Mekonnt, center, with her father and Yikanu Genet, left, are among 91 new immigrants from Ethiopia who arrived in Israel last week.Credit: Andrew Esensten

“I don’t need to say anything else,” observes Bahta. “You can just look at her face and that says it all.”

Most of the adults, he explains, were already briefed back in Ethiopia about the tense situation on Israel’s southern border with Gaza, though little did they expect to find themselves in the midst of an almost outright war when they arrived.

“I cope with the situation just like the rest of the people here,” says 44-year-old Roostu Bayene, Fantanish’s father. “For me, what’s important at this point is to get my other child medical treatment as soon as possible,” he notes pointing to his two-year-old daughter’s club foot.

Malkam Mekonnt, a 32-year-old mother of five, emerges from her new home a few minutes after the alert, balancing a toddler on her hip. “This is our country, so there’s no reason for us to be afraid,” she says.

In typical Ethiopian fashion, notes Bahta, many of the new arrivals are anxious to chip in and support the troops however they can. “They’ve asked me to give them weapons so they can fight the enemy,” he says, “but I told them that wasn’t possible.”

Just yesterday, a rocket landed in an open space right outside the absorption center. Were it not for the Iron Dome interceptor installed several hundred meters beyond, and in full view of all of the residents of Ibbim, that might have been a rather unnerving incident.

“That’s the one thing that seems to baffle them,” says Bahta, pointing in the direction of the interceptor. “They can’t quite figure out how the Iron Dome smells the missiles and then knows when to hit them. I get lots of questions about that.”

Most of the older children are away on a day-trip sponsored by the Jewish Agency to Nitzana. That follows their trip the previous day to the Jerusalem Zoo, and tomorrow they’re off to Ramat Hasharon. The little ones are being entertained by a group of teenagers from Jerusalem, all participants in a pre-military gap year program. Using sign language, the teens guide the young Ethiopian children through coloring exercises and then teach them how to play catch.

“Some of them are still a bit frightened by the booms,” says Or Haim, one of the participants. “What do we do with them? We do what you do with any kid. We hug them and try to calm them down.”

Yael Domb, who runs the gap year program, says her charges have been impressed by how disciplined and cooperative the young Ethiopian children are. “They’ve spent a lot of time working with young children in Jerusalem, and they definitely see the difference,” she says.

In recent days, politicians and dignitaries from around the country have been making the pilgrimage to Ibbim to demonstrate their support for this particularly vulnerable group of residents in the south. On Monday, together with a delegation of Knesset members, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky came to spend some time with Israel’s newest arrivals. On Tuesday, it was Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver’s turn.

A moment of crisis erupts when a phone call comes through from the minister’s office, announcing that she will be arriving at a different time than planned. This means that Landver’s visit will clash with the visit of a clown who has volunteered to come this afternoon and entertain the children. A few minutes later, a secretary rushes into Bahta’s room to notify him that the problem has been resolved.

“We’re volunteering the clown to another group," she reports, "so that the minister can have the kids all to herself."

Roostu Bayene arrived in Israel with his family last Thursday, one day after Operation Pillar of Defense began.Credit: Andrew Esensten



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


מריאן ס' מריאן אומנות

The Artist Who Survived Auschwitz Thought Israel Was 'Worse Than the Concentration Camp'

הקלטות מעוז

Jewish Law Above All: Recordings Reveal Far-right MK's Plan to Turn Israel Into Theocracy

איתמר בן גביר

Why I’m Turning My Back on My Jewish Identity

Travelers looking at the Departures board at Ben Gurion Airport. The number of olim who later become yordim is unknown.

Down and Out: Why These New Immigrants Ended Up Leaving Israel

Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco as Mia and Lucia in "The White Lotus."

The Reality Behind ‘The White Lotus’ Sex Work Fantasy

The Mossad hit team in Dubai. Exposed by dozens of security cameras

This ‘Dystopian’ Cyber Firm Could Have Saved Mossad Assassins From Exposure