Emigre on mission to improve Ethiopians’ plight in Israel

Tesfay Aderagew admits that he is not a rich man. But he does have hope — in fact, in his native tongue of Amharic, that’s exactly what his first name means.

His last name translates as “to organize” — and he’s doing that, too.

He first became a leader in the Ethiopian Jewish community as a teenager in 1980, guiding groups of Jews into Sudan and, three years later, to Israel. After helping to organize Operation Solomon — a second influx of Ethiopian Jews in the early 1990s — Aderagew, 39, has shifted his attention from getting Ethiopians into Israel to making a better life for them once they’re there.

“The people who came in Operation Moses [of 1983] did very well in Israel because we were youngsters, and easily learned Hebrew and were in the absorption centers for two or three years getting to know what it is to be an Israeli,” he said.

Aderagew left his job as a chief bank teller a year ago to head the Ethiopian Immigrants Volunteer Organization in his hometown of Hadera.

His generation, he explained, has fared better than the older immigrants. “The government helped to get us jobs. But in 1991, most of the people who came were older, just out of the villages, and were in the absorption centers for only eight, nine, 10 months.”

A gravelly voiced man who sounds something like Tom Waits with an Israeli accent, Adjerajew addressed the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly in Washington in November, and recently met with officials of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Many of the Ethiopians, he noted, “came to the cities right out of Africa, and didn’t have any idea about how things are, technologically.”

As a result, 72 percent of Israel’s Ethiopian Emigres live below the poverty line. A full 70 percent are illiterate in Hebrew, and 40 percent cannot speak conversational Hebrew. Only 50 percent of Ethiopian children attend pre-school — half the national average. Conversely, their high school dropout rate is double the national average.

“For the Israeli government, it was hard to help the Ethiopian Jews, because over a million Jews from Russia made aliyah at the same time,” he said. “They took the model of the Russian Jews and also saw the Ethiopians as the same. The Russians got used to Israel easily. For us, it was a different culture.”

Problems, according to Aderagew, often begin at home. Ethiopian parents who never received any formal education often do not pressure their children to study. Even if they do, most can’t help with assignments or talk to teachers. Students frequently have no place to study and very little access to computers.

As it works to improve conditions for Ethiopian Jews, Aderagew’s organization strives to tackle multiple problems simultaneously.

One project focuses on Ethiopian women who could only gain employment as cooks or cleaners. Although some attended school in their homeland through the 11th grade, they lacked an Israeli diploma.

In response, the organization has kicked off a program in which dozens of Ethiopian women work as teachers’ assistants in kindergarten classes, receiving a high school equivalency degree after two years and going on to teach kindergarten classes of their own.

In the process, these women serve as a conduit between Ethiopian parents and schoolteachers.

Aderagew also has helped set up after-school study areas in which Ethiopian students have access to computers and receive additional lessons. Ethiopians fresh off their military hitches, interns attending universities and volunteer teachers instruct students in English and math.

The organization has worked to land Ethiopians jobs, teach leadership courses to women and the elderly, and prosecute employers who exploit Ethiopian workers.

The plight of Ethiopian Jews, stresses Aderagew, is not simply an Ethiopian problem. It’s an Israeli problem.

“If we don’t do these programs, if we don’t improve our community, Israel and all the other Jews will have to pay more money and do more to fix it, if we don’t do it this time. In this time, we need more help than before. We’ve lost a generation.

“Many of us died on our way to Israel. In Sudan, 5,000 people died, even my own sister. Ten years ago, I was an immigrant just waiting for someone to help me. Now I can help myself and the community, even though I don’t have all the money to do everything.”

What he does have, he said, is hope, “and I have people here [in America] to ask for help. This is God’s way — you people who live here are helping us.”

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