Ethiopian Exodus

Dreaming of 'Jerusalem of Gold,' but Living in Absorption Centers

A look at the sobering reality shared by Ethiopian immigrants, three decades on.

Shmuel Asmara will soon be doing a year of community service. At the beginning of the summer Asmara, a resident of Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, completed his studies at the Hartman religious high school in the city and decided he would postpone his army service by a year in order to contribute his time and experience to assisting in the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants in Arad.

Asmara stood out among his Ethiopian friends, who gathered on Monday at the Shantal Karai community center in Talpiot, where they spend the afternoon and evening hours engaged in various enrichment activities. While the others were unruly, or fooled around and made noise − like many teens before army service − he came off as the responsible adult in the group. With a serious face and a confident voice, he also agreed to tell Haaretz about the difficulties experienced by Ethiopian immigrants after leaving the relatively comfortable confines of absorption centers.

“There’s a difference between aliyah and absorption,” Asmara said. “From the moment I set foot in the Land of Israel − you could say that my immigration was successful. Great. But the next step, absorption, is less successful.”

Asmara immigrated here from Addis Ababa with his family − his parents and four siblings − at the age of 3. They spent the first months in the absorption center in Givat Hamatos in Jerusalem. Then began chapter 2.

Asmara: “Instead of integrating us into Israeli society, they took most of the people from the absorption center and put them here [in a group of apartments] in Talpiot. What have you accomplished by doing that? This is not integration into society. We created another absorption center, only without the good conditions. Here’s my cousin, there’s my brother − we all immigrated to Israel together. I think it would have been better to disperse us, to mix the population. We’re one nation. How is it that we don’t know our brothers from other places in Israel? If you want to create a uniform society, why not send us to kibbutzim, for example?”

As opposed to many of his friends, Asmara studied in a school where the proportion of immigrants of Ethiopian origin is particularly low. “I personally was more involved in Israeli society,” he admits. “In those frameworks, the attitude [toward us] is not bad.”

Asmara then astutely compared the discriminatory and racist attitudes suffered by blacks in the United States until the 1960s with the attitude toward his fellow immigrants in Israel.

“In the United States, it was easier to eliminate racism, because it was blatant, it was noisy. There was something to rise up against,” he says. “Here in Israel the racism is quiet. They tell you that there’s no room at the club, that all the jobs are taken, that they aren’t looking for new teachers in the kindergarten, or that in the end they decided not to rent out the apartment. They won’t tell you to your face: ‘You’re black, and that’s why you can’t.’ And that hurts more, too. I’m also sad that I have to prove myself, for example, regarding my military service , but there’s nothing to be done, that’s how it is. I have no answers.”

Ethiopians weren’t the only group that showed up at the Talpiot center this week: Also present in the attractive renovated building − where nonprofit associations such as “Aharei! Youth Leading Change” and Mahshava Tova ‏(for reducing societal gaps through technology‏) operate − were several soldiers who are volunteering there as part of their service in the Nahal Brigade, plus several local youth counselors.

“When I see these people, I believe in the Jewish people. There are really good people here, who give support and encouragement. That’s my consolation in Israeli society,” says Asmara.

Kfir Rahamim, a 32-year-old youth counselor, has been working in the center for the past five years. When speaking of Ethiopian aliyah, he lets no one get off easy: He is biting, direct, firm and very angry at the authorities. “They put the Ethiopians among the heart of the ‘rejects.’ All the bad things are thrown at them. This neighborhood is adjacent to an industrial zone, where you will find migrant workers who are themselves in distress, and Arab laborers looking for work who are sometimes detained by the police − people with hard lives,” he explains.

As someone who thoroughly lives and breathes existence in this area, Rahamim tells of Ethiopian first- and second-graders, for example, who wander the streets until the evening hours because their parents work late. “There’s an astronomical amount of alcohol here, all the time. That’s what keeps them going, because aside from the community center, which offers them activities, there’s almost nobody who helps them.”

His anger is directed at the authorities because they are unable to find a common language with the Ethiopian newcomers: “They send over ‘specialists’ or people ‘in charge of the local youth portfolio,’ who have a master’s degree but have never been in the field. And then they’re surprised that they were unable to create any initial communication with these youth,” he says disdainfully.

“I know how to insult these kids, if that’s what it takes,” he confesses. “I remind anyone who doesn’t behave that there’s always a demand for packers at Rami Levy [supermarket chain].”

Rahamim is particularly angry at the government for its decision to end the airlift from Ethiopia to Israel this summer, leaving behind several thousand Falashmura who won’t be able to reunite with their families here, because they are not considered Jewish enough.

“This is a racist country. How many Falashmura [descendants of Ethopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity] are still over there? Why did we agree to bring in hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Russians, Arabs from the territories in the context of ‘family reunification,’ and migrant workers from Eritrea and Sudan? A few more Falashmura − that’s what will kill the country? I have friends in the Paratroopers and the Golani Brigade who complain that their grandmother or their sister is not being allowed to immigrate, for stupid reasons. What am I supposed to answer? That’s it’s not worthwhile to serve the country? After all, if we were talking about ‘Hansel and Gretel’ from Germany, they would bring them over immediately, right? It’s infuriating.”

Neglect in Netanya

Similar sights and sounds are evident in other “Ethiopian” neighborhoods all over the country. You don’t have to be a statistician, for example, to notice the high concentration of such newcomers in the Azorim neighborhood in south Netanya. There’s a reason for that, apparently. This is also a depressed neighborhood that has absorbed entire families from Ethiopia in the past decades. In its neglected commercial center, around the square named after educator Yaakov Sarid, groups of Ethiopian adults and young people sit there for hours, from afternoon to nighttime. Some play cards, others drink, smoke or talk. Nobody looks especially happy.

“We encounter many violent incidents. It’s dangerous to walk around here and to get mixed up with the wrong people. In recent times, there’s been a stabbing here almost every month. It’s not all of them − it’s a marginal thing − but it’s still dangerous,” says Or Baruch, 26, from Metula, who directs a community center in the heart of Azorim; he belongs to the Tarbut social movement of artist-educators who work with teens in distressed areas.

“The kids who come to our community center don’t walk around with a knife in their pocket, but their image, and also their role models, are liable to be influenced by the criminals outside,” Baruch observes. “They live in small apartments, sometimes together with their grandparents. There’s no room for everyone there, so it’s fun for them to come here. There’s an air conditioner, food, coffee, television, films and activities about art and leadership. In general, the neighborhood has nothing to offer in terms of culture and leisure-time activities. We’ve built a home here.”

Baruch says there are 80 Ethiopian teens participating in activities that he organizes with the help of three soldiers from a Nahal Brigade group.

“I have never yet worked with youth suffering from such a fundamental, ‘built-in’ identity crisis. On the one hand − you’re an Ethiopian, you look different, you have a culture and a history of your own, which doesn’t blend in with that of the Israelis,” he says. “On the other hand, when I tell them stories about Ethiopian Prisoners of Zion [from 1974-88] − which are no less impressive than the familiar stories of the halutzim [Israel’s early pioneers] − they tell me they never heard about them in school. They didn’t learn about Ethiopian history.”

Dealing with the young newcomers was tough at the outset, Baruch adds: “They called me ‘cop,’ asked if I was from the ‘investigations department,’ and didn’t want to talk to me. But now they’re involved here in creative activity that connects them to their origins and roots − to who they are. And all this includes criticism of Israeli society.”

Not far from there, in Netanya’s Dora neighborhood, is Beit Yedidut ‏(Fellowship House‏), which also coordinates activities for the Ethiopian community. Regev Saifu, 35, who immigrated from Ethiopia in 1989, was on hand there this week sporting fashionable sunglasses and an elegant watch. On an everyday basis he coordinates what is called the “five-year plan” in the local Project Renewal office, which aims to improve the quality of life for the community.

But Saifu’s main source of pride is another project that he established 10 years ago: a countrywide soccer league for Ethiopians. His league has 22 teams and 600 players, and their games are dedicated to the memory of the Ethiopians who were killed trying to reach Israel via Sudan. Two weeks ago the team he coaches won the league championship. For the first time. Even now, it is hard to wipe the optimistic smile off his face.

Less optimistic is Chen Asmamo, a 19-year-old who has lived in Azorim for the past 10 years. She spends the daytime hours working at the Hatzi Hinam supermarket chain in Hod Hasharon, helping to support her family. The government refuses to bring over her grandmother, who is still in Ethiopia, claiming she isn’t Jewish.

“I wouldn’t want her to live here, even if she did get to Israel,” says Asmamo bitterly. “She dreamed about Jerusalem of Gold, not about the Azorim neighborhood in Netanya. I wouldn’t want to see her being disappointed.”

Tomer Applebaum
Emil Salman
Emil Salman