Ethiopian Aliyah

At an Israeli Absorption Center, New Immigrants Find a Friendly Face

At the Ibim Absorption Center, more than 600 newcomers are taking their first steps after arriving in Israel. Moshe Bata, who took the same path decades ago and now welcomes them, says there is reason for optimism.

Wearing a captivating smile, elegant outfit and a noble look brimming with confidence and charisma, Moshe Bata has been greeting new immigrants from Ethiopia in recent months, as they arrive at the Ibim Absorption Center in the Sha’ar Ha’negev region. It is hard to remain indifferent to the charming Bata, who for a moment looks like a local version of Barack Obama − a glimmer of light, full of energy and motivation, in a sea of difficulties, fear and uncertainty.

Ibim, which until recently was a pastoral student village situated not far from Sderot, was converted by the Jewish Agency and the government into an absorption center, one of 17 around the country that have taken in new immigrants arriving in recent months from Ethiopia, as part of the final organized immigration operation held under the auspices of those two official bodies.

The lucky ones at Ibim enjoy living conditions reminiscent of a vacation resort. They find green lawns and a playground, well-tended vegetable and flower gardens, preschools, a synagogue, a facility for ulpan ‏(intensive Hebrew classes‏), a computer room and more. Among all these are spread out houses with yards for them to live in. Under Bata’s regal command, meticulous order and cleanliness are maintained, which undoubtedly helps provide a warm and pleasant welcome to the immigrants who have just landed in Israel.

Ibim is currently home to 605 newcomers. On average, each family at the absorption center has eight members; the smallest has four children, the largest − nine. In Bata’s air-conditioned office, next to an Israeli flag, a photograph of his grandmother, and several certificates of commendation that he has been awarded over the years, hangs a big board dubbed “Housing Roster.” It allows Bata to get an up-to-date picture on each of the hundreds of new immigrants in his care, including information on who lives where, how many people are in each family and who goes to ulpan and school.

“I prefer to see the glass half full. It’s a matter of perspective,” he says, as we tour the absorption center. “As the father of six kids, I tell them and the new immigrants here: Believe in yourselves, you’ll be able to get along wherever they dump you. If you do not believe, [nothing] will be of any avail, even if they throw plenty of resources at you .”

The paths in Ibim are relatively quiet at noon. The reason soon becomes clear: The new immigrants are busy studying Hebrew. When we enter a classroom, the Israeli teacher is trying to explain to her students the meaning in Amharic of the word
mitragesh ‏(excited‏). It is not an easy task, she learns. She has 15 students in her group − men, women and also a baby, who is asleep in a carrier on her young mother’s back. With slightly embarrassed looks, they fill in the answers to questions in the workbook in front of them.

The sight is certainly a moving one: A group of adults, who until recently were living in villages in Ethiopia, now sits in an air-conditioned school, learning a new language and attempting to begin a new life from scratch. Next door is a computer classroom.

“People who didn’t know what electricity was are learning to work with a computer here,” Bata says with pride. “Today I am on a ‘seam line,’ where I bridge radically different cultures and traditions. Everything is different. Everything is upside-down. The trick is to bring the opposites into alignment, but it isn’t easy to change old habits.”

The first immigrants absorbed at the Ibim center arrived in the midst of Operation Pillar of Defense last November. To prepare them for what was anticipated to be a tough beginning in the Holy Land, Bata was sent to Ethiopia, where he met with the olim before they boarded the plane.

“The better the preparation, the greater the immigrants’ awareness,” he explains. “I came full of pride. I told them about Zionism, about the government of Israel, and about what we contend with − sometimes against our will, especially in the region where they are absorbed. I asked them whether they had ever heard of the Negev and Sderot. I told them there is shooting at the State of Israel, which is at war. They said they were not afraid, that were immigrating to Israel by choice.”

They were taken in at the Ibim center under difficult circumstances. “We absorbed them while a war was ongoing,” recalls Bata, “but without a hitch. We suggested that they go visit relatives [who already live] throughout the country, for a respite, but they were not willing to go.”

‘Godlike’ cashier

Bata, 54, himself arrived in the country in 1980, at age 21. “I feel proud that I − a member of the Ethiopian community, who just yesterday was a new immigrant, who came alone and didn’t know anything − am in a place where today I am absorbing olim,” he says.

Bata boarded the plane alone, after walking for three days in harsh conditions to Sudan, the embarkation point; only later was he joined by his family. His first stop was in Be’er Sheva, and he has never left the city.

“When the plane landed at Ben-Gurion airport I got chills at the sight of the lights at night. Afterward, in Be’er Sheva, all the buildings looked the same to me. I remember I entered a house I thought was mine and started making an omelet. Only after a while I realized I was in a stranger’s house. I dropped everything and ran out of there,” he recalls with a smile.

“We didn’t know anything back then. It was hard to cope. It wasn’t like today. We used to go to the grocery store and buy dishwashing detergent because we thought it was food. The cashier was godlike in our eyes. I realized that I needed to learn Hebrew quickly, if I was going to communicate with the world.

“Luckily for me, when I was a boy, my mother told me that she wasn’t going to be able to give me any money or property, and she urged me to go study,” Bata continues. “I studied in Hebrew class alongside adults who had never before held a pencil. It was all one big mishmash; you couldn’t get ahead that way. At that time, Israelis didn’t know what Ethiopian immigrants were. We were the first. They tried to put the cart before the horse.”

“I was called kushi on the street,” he adds, using an archaic Hebrew denotation for a black person, which has a derogatory connotation. “At first I would get angry and fume. I thought to myself: ‘I, who came here, to my country, by foot − and they’re calling me kushi? What is this? How demeaning.’ But at a certain point, I decided to stop reacting ... I ignored it.”

Bata worked as a dishwasher at night, and in the mornings he studied. Afterward he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and served with distinction in the Combat Engineering Corps. Four years after arriving here, he began working for the Jewish Agency.

“Absorbing new immigrants is one of the most challenging things, in my eyes. Especially Ethiopian immigrants,” he says.

Today Bata, who has held a series of jobs in this field, working for both the state and the Jewish Agency, as well as for outside organizations, feels he has seen and heard it all. From the vantage point of his age and experience, he is no longer afraid to criticize − even the community from which he came.

Bata: “They say there is racism. But I tell them: ‘Guys, get out of your bubble. Racism exists all over the world, not only in Israel.’ I am part of the people of Israel, even though my color is different. I love the people here, and they will love me back. Whoever wants to believe in racism − let him.”

As an optimist, he keeps referring to “the glass half full.” “I prefer to look at my son, the officer, at the new immigrant who came from nowhere and became a successful surgeon. That’s what gives me fulfillment. If I am not optimistic, I will sink,” he says. “People forget where we started. When I arrived, I didn’t know what electricity was, or a bathroom. And this wasn’t 2,000 years ago, but 30. Look where we are now. We’ve come as far as the Knesset. It’s a pity that sometimes we can’t see our success.”

Bata returned about a month ago from a visit to his homeland. “Heaven help us, how they live in the villages there,” he says. “When I come back here, I thank the Lord for having given us Judaism. I see little kids there thrown into the streets without food, without anyone giving them a glance. We at least do not lack for bread. There is nothing like the State of Israel.”

At the end of our tour, we reach the absorption center’s preschools. As we near the gate to the kindergarten, we are greeted by cheers and big smiles from a group of small and energetic children. “Shalom, Shalom,” they mumble, and hold out small hands. “Photo, photo,” they shout at the sight of a camera and form a line. A few seconds later they forget about the guests and go back to playing on the slides and swings in the yard.

Inside the classroom, another group of children sits as the teachers − Ethiopian immigrants and native-born Israelis − explain to them about the food they have just prepared on their own: colorful fruit salad and baked bread, which is warming in the oven. The children sit in a circle, watching with shining eyes and smiling. They, in contrast perhaps to their parents, who are busy studying Hebrew next door, do not fully grasp what awaits them here.

In the safe and comfortable hothouse of Ibim, Israel 2013 still seems like the promised paradise.

Eliahu Hershkovitz
Haaretz