Initiative Prepares Ethiopian Youth for High-tech Careers

Author Asher Elias teaches upwardly mobile students in a dormitory setting.

A quiet revolution is underway along the outskirts of Kibbutz Nahshon. The kibbutz, which is in the process of privatizing, has for the last two and half years provided a place for realizing the social vision of Asher Elias, who used that location to set up the "Tech-Career" project, a center for training Ethiopians to work in the high-tech industry.

The modest social initiative launched by Elias, who was born in Israel to parents who emigrated from Ethiopia, is happening in two austere rooms - one serves as a classroom and has computer stations and the other serves the teaching staff and administration. The students live in a small residential building.

Against the pastoral backdrop of the kibbutz, Elias, 35, discusses what moved him to establish for members of the Ethiopian community, a fast track to the heart of the prestigious profession. "Ethiopians are in the lowest wealth percentile," he says, as his eyes blaze with the enthusiasm of revolutionaries. "Three related issues cause them to remain at the bottom of Israeli society and impede their advancement: housing, education and employment. In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the importance of getting Ethiopians out of the peripheral areas where the state sent them. There was also a lot of talk about the importance of education, that it is the key to change, but the issue of employment is still completely overlooked. Over time, I realized that in order to break out of the cycle of poverty, employment is actually very important, because our standard of living is after all a derivative of our salary. The issue of employment is of course related to education. In the Ethiopian community, there are approximately 3,000 academics, a figure that is indicative of the huge potential there. But because of the acceptance requirements in the universities and colleges, many Ethiopians were channeled to unprofitable professions, such as social work and teaching. Today Ethiopians cannot be accepted into the computer science departments and go into high-tech, which is one of the most lucrative areas in the economy, because the academic elite has set criteria in the form of psychometric exams, which do not enable members of the Ethiopian community and the other residents of the periphery to get accepted into the respected programs. I chose to create an alternative that will prove that if the Ethiopians are given a chance, they will succeed in achieving a breakthrough and succeed using their personal abilities and accomplishments."

Spiritual legacy

Elias is a familiar figure in the Ethiopian community. In 1997, he was appointed finance director of the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jewry, he is the author of "An Ethiopian in Your Backyard" (Gefen Publishers, 2001), a book that outlines the unfortunate fate of Ethiopian youths in Israeli society, and he is the author of articles that appeared in the magazine, Eretz Acheret. Elias' parents emigrated to Israeli in 1967, independently, long before the mass immigration of the Ethiopian community. His father, Yitzhak Elias, worked as a tractor driver and very quickly the salon of the family home in Ashkelon was transformed into a little aliyah center. Every Ethiopian immigrant stopped at the home to consult and receive guidance. His name also reached senior Jewish Agency officials, who invited him to join their ranks in the early 1980s in order to plan Operation Moses, and later on he was also involved in Operation Solomon.

Elias says that despite his father's dedication to the Ethiopian community, he did not grow up socially aware: "I don't speak Amharic and I never felt I had a split identity, like most Ethiopian immigrants. I always saw myself as an Israeli." In his youth, his love of computers evolved and he enjoyed free access to the computer lab in school. After completing his military service in the air force, he studied marketing and management at the College of Administration in Jerusalem. At the end of his studies, he moved to Tel Aviv and worked in marketing for a computer company.

At the age of 26, Elias was exposed for the first time to the distress of Ethiopian youths through a cousin, who volunteered at an Ethiopian youth center in the Tel Aviv central bus station. "I was shocked to find 14- and 15-year old kids with police files," he says. "In its desire to advance the youth and turn them into Israelis, the state cut these children off from their parents and transferred them to inferior dormitories with children from broken homes."

Elias started volunteering at the center and introduced the children to computers via computer games. And yet the experience that shaped his future actually took place at a rally of Ethiopian immigrants in 1996, following the blood donation scandal. "I took a vacation day," he says, "and joined the staff of the Ethiopian Youth Center, who went to demonstrate. I found myself standing symbolically in the middle, between the Ethiopian protestors and the thuggish police who were equipped with clubs. At that moment, I realized that the two sides of the society that are so familiar to me are missing each other and that I, because I am an Israeli sabra [native born], the son of Ethiopian immigrants, can heal the rift that had appeared and help out."

That same day, Elias decided to leave his lucrative job and enlist in the cause of working for the Ethiopian community. He moved to Jerusalem and started working half time for the North American Conference for Ethiopian Jewry, and in order to supplement his income, also worked in a computer lab. When his father died of blood cancer around six months later, Elias felt that his social activism on behalf of the Ethiopian community was a kind of spiritual legacy received from his father.

This generation will determine

At the age of 27, he was appointed director of finance and foreign relations at the Israeli Association of Ethiopian Jewry, a job, he says, which taught him how the Israeli system works. Elias relates that, while working for the organization, he found that the money allocated by the Ministry of Education to the dormitories for after hours study time for the Ethiopian youths was being used to tend the garden and purchase school equipment. "There are a lot of projects for the Ethiopian community," he says, "but everything goes through a very special pipeline - a pipeline that soaks it up. A lot is put in one side and only a few drops trickle out the other side." While engaged in his vast social affairs projects, Elias completed his studies in programming at Sela College. When his wife, Hila, an Ethiopian immigrant, gave birth to their daughter Shahar, he decided to take a long paternity leave and stop working.

While busy with his communal work, Elias met Glen Stein, an immigrant from the U.S., who is 48. Stein ran the Byte Back program in the U.S., which is intended to help homeless people and those of limited means integrate into the information revolution. Stein suggested to Elias to adapt the program to meet the needs of the Ethiopian community in Israel, and Elias liked the idea.

"Until we opened the place, there were four Ethiopian programmers," says Elias. "I studied the matter, interviewed them and tracked down students who had dropped out in order to create the program and understand what led them to stumble. That is how I found out that many of them don't have computers at home and they are dependent on the computer class in the college. In other words, they can't practice. In addition, the journey at the end of the day back to their home in the periphery, which is overflowing with siblings, doesn't allow them to concentrate on their studies. That is where the realization that Tech-Career should be a dormitory facility was born."

Elias has so far raised $200,000, among others from the Rochlin Fund, the Friendship Fund and Checkpoint. "Alongside the many good people who helped, I was disappointed to find that many philanthropists who help the Ethiopian community responded with surprise, wondering whether I was not aiming too high and stating that they held the needy and the hungry," he says. "I was angry, because providing food doesn't help to extricate a person from poverty. Over 50 percent of the Ethiopian community are people under the age of 19. This generation will shape the face of the community in the future. So if there is a desire to make changes, the changes have to be done now."

The course of study at Tech-Career is very demanding. The first class, which started in February 2004, produced nine graduates out of the 15 who started out. In the second class, which started in May 2005, there are now six students left, after three dropped out. During the course, students are prohibited from working and they receive a living stipend that covers National Insurance Institute payments and allows them to travel home on weekends. The first semester is in English, the mother tongue of Stein, who is the instructor. Elias teaches the rest of the course and recently a representative from the Intel Corporation joined him.

Fast track to integration

Benjamin Melko, 26, a graduate of the first Tech-Career class, joined the Nea company, as an Internet site developer. Today he earns a large salary and has social benefits, which he did not have in his previous job as a security guard. "I immigrated to Israel at the age of four with my mother. My father stayed in Ethiopia," he says. "I wanted to go to university, but I couldn't really because I knew that in order to live I'd need to work very hard at random jobs and that would affect my studies. I heard about the Tech-Career project and I decided to join. It's one of the smartest decisions I ever made. I still haven't given up the dream of also going to university, but right now, with the salary I'm earning, it will be easier for me to finance the studies."

Nagista Zarhin, 28, moved from Ashkelon to Herzliya when she started working at a high-tech company. According to her, she still feels uncomfortable going out to eat lunch in the nearby restaurants and makes do with the dining hall in Kibbutz Glil Yam, where her employer's offices are located. Zarhin worked in the past at a gas station, in security, as a waitress and in a series of jobs for social organizations active on behalf of the Ethiopian community. Despite the difficulty of working in English, she got through the course and is supplementing her knowledge with private lessons.

She came to the course together with her sister, Ora, 22, and while she completed the course, her sister dropped out. "The course is very demanding," she says. "Apparently my sister was too young for this kind of commitment, but now, after she worked for a year at a coffee stand, she may return to the course."

When she completed her studies, she didn't believe in herself and went back to communal work. Elias did not give up though, and arranged a job interview for her, took her to it and waited outside for her. Zarhin got through the interview successfully and was hired as a quality assurance person in the company. "I had a lot of fears and a lack of faith in myself, that after a year of studying I'd be able to get into high-tech," she says.

Elias says there is "strong racism in Israeli society. Israeli society does not enable the Ethiopian community to integrate and break out. This project, as good as it may be, does not provide a solution for the entire community. It provides a solution for a limited number of students in each class. Despite the graduates' success, which is heartwarming and provides models for emulation in the community, it is still not extricating the community from lingering among the poorest ten percent of the population."