Russians thrive, Ethiopians struggle in search for Israeli high-tech dream

Dmitry Model and Hailu Mulugeta have a lot in common.

Both immigrated to Israel as teen-agers in 1995. Both are bright and
articulate. And both are students at the Technion – Israel Institute of
Technology, one of Israel’s most prestigious universities.

But Model comes from Russia and Mulugeta comes from Ethiopia – and as a
result, their experiences at the Haifa-based school are much different.

Model, a 20-year-old studying electrical engineering, sees in the halls
hundreds of faces from the former Soviet Union who share his culture and
language.

“At a party, we want to speak Russian. If there are Israelis, we have to
speak Hebrew. But if there are all Russians there, we don’t have to,” he
says.

By contrast, Mulugeta is one of the few Ethiopian Israelis at the Technion,
and his isolation appears to have made its way into his head – even though
he tries to use it to his advantage.

“When a professor writes a formula and he gets to the point where it’s just
calculation and he says it’s ‘black work,'” using the Israeli slang for
simple labor, “I feel I have to work harder,” says Mulugeta, who is
studying mechanical engineering.

Russian and Ethiopian immigrants are Israel’s most celebrated population
influxes during the past three decades – and the ones at the Technion are
among the best and brightest. But while students from the former Soviet
Union have managed to carve out their own space at Israel’s training ground
for its booming high-tech economy, Ethiopian students remain an anomaly –
despite the Technion’s best efforts.

What’s true at the Technion is true in the rest of Israeli society as well.

About 90 percent of Ethiopian Israelis live below the country’s poverty
line, according to Micha Feldmann, a consultant on Ethiopian Israeli
issues.

Unemployment rates are high and those who are able to find work often toil
in manual labor and low-paying jobs, Feldmann says.

The fear, of course, is the possibility of creating a permanent Ethiopian
underclass.

While Russian Israelis have also struggled, some 30 percent of academics
and 75 percent of scientists are working in their fields, according to a
1995 Israeli government survey.

The massive Russian immigration has been an “unbelievable success,” says
Chaim Chesler, treasurer for the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Some Russian families are even establishing all-Russian-language nursery
schools, a novelty in Israel.

The percentage of Russian students at the Technion – 600 out of 11,000 – is
lower than their proportion of Israel’s overall population, but “when you
tell an Israeli-born student that there are only 600 Russian students, they
don’t believe it,” says Pauline Pine, who immigrated to Israel in 1996 from
Russia’s Ural Mountains.

As you go up the academic ladder, the numbers increase.

Of 56 tenured professors in the mathematics department, 10 are from the
former Soviet Union, according to Avi Berman, a professor of mathematics at
the Technion. Eight of the 22 doctoral students are from the former Soviet
Union, as are 46 out of 84 students in a recent sophomore algebra class.

By contrast, there are about 10 Ethiopian students at the Technion.

“If you had 50 or 60 Ethiopian students, and you’d see them in every
corridor, it would make a difference,” says Natan Assefa, a 30-year-old
Ethiopian student who is graduating from the Technion this summer.

The issue is not solely about counting faces: Russian Israelis have created
their own culture.

Walk along the corridors of the Technion and the influence of immigrants
from the former Soviet Union is palpable. Russian-language handbills
advertise movies, and snippets of Russian conversation can be heard in the
hallways.

Students from the former Soviet Union at the Technion tend to stick
together and create their own subculture.

Russian Israelis say they study together and socialize together, which
perturbs some Israeli-born students who are turned off by what they
perceive as clannishness and snobbery.

“When I see a group of Russians speaking Russian, I sometimes go up to them
and say, ‘Stop speaking Russian, you’re in Israel now,'” says Ido Rotem, a
student in civil engineering.

Even Mulugeta uses the Russian he learned in Ulpan to help him fit in with
his fellow immigrant students.

“Everywhere I go, I try to speak Russian. It’s better than Hebrew
sometimes,” he says.

The reasons for the discrepancy between Russian and Ethiopian students’
experiences are many – including vastly different cultural legacies.

Israeli Ethiopian students, members of a community numbering about 70,000,
come from a more traditional society that valued family and community more
than technical education.

“Even if you want to be a plumber, you have to know how to use the
equipment,” says Feldmann.

The few students who have succeeded seem to know that.

Both Mulugeta and Assefa spend some of their free time helping their
siblings with their homework.

Money is another factor. With so many impoverished Ethiopians, families are
unable to contribute to their children’s living expenses at university.
Russian Israelis hail from a society known for its skilled scientists and
engineers.

Both of Technion student Eli Bernstein’s parents are engineers – and when
Bernstein, 23, came to Israel from Russia with his mother in 1991, she even
brought some technical literature with them for him to study.

Discrimination is another factor, says Assefa, who has worked part-time at
one of Intel’s semiconductor facilities in Israel for the past few years.

Israeli students “ask me if I am an Ethiopian. They are surprised that I
am,” he says, adding that Israelis believe that Ethiopians are “not smart
enough for the Technion.”

Both sets of immigrants must acclimate to another language and culture and
the Technion, like other schools in Israel, has instituted a number of
policies to help them.

Immigrant are allowed to delay their military services until after they
earn their degrees.

The Technion also operates several programs for new immigrants, including a
yearlong preparatory program and free tutorial sessions and counseling.

Students from the former Soviet Union receive three-year exemptions from
tuition, which usually covers a year in the preparatory program and two
years of tuition, while Ethiopian students receive completely free tuition
and a stipend for their living expenses.

“You have to invest a lot of money and time,” says Sara Katzir, the head of
the Technion’s student support center

So far, what the Technion has done hasn’t been enough.

The number of Ethiopian students at Israel’s other universities, which
offer more classes in the humanities and social sciences than the Technion,
is greater. But while these students are obtaining skills to help their
communities, they are not being trained for high-paying technical jobs.

“The society needs Ethiopian physicists and Ethiopian mathematicians and
Ethiopian computer scientists. The thing is not to lower the standards, but
to give them more support,” says Berman.

The Technion is trying to do just that.

In conjunction with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the UJA-Federation of
Greater New York and the Israeli firm Koor, the school has launched a
program that attempts to help Ethiopian students.

The program offers mathematics courses to Ethiopian 10th-graders, with the
goal of helping them pass the necessary matriculation exams after
graduation. All of the students who began the program – 60 in all –
completed the course last year.

With money from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the
program will be expanded this year to include ninth-and 11th-graders as
well, says Feldmann.

If and when the program will yield results is unknown. But Berman is
confident that the school’s efforts will eventually pay off.

“If we do the right things now, I don’t expect problems in the next
generation,” he says.

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