Fund helps Ethiopians seek college degrees

Helping Ethiopian immigrants advance in higher education is the goal of an Israel-based nonprofit called Keren Hanan Aynor.

Created in memory of Hanan Aynor, an Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia in the 1970s who formed a special connection with the Ethiopian-Jewish community, the nonprofit provides aspiring Ethiopian students with financial and personal support.

“Students say over and over that the money really helps, but the feeling that someone cares enough that she wants to help me, that is what makes the difference,” said Nili Auerbach, director of public relations and resource development for the organization.

Auerbach spoke March 23 to attendees at a small parlor meeting at the home of Karen Azarchi of Princeton Junction. Auerbach is the daughter of Rabbi Joel and Marjorie Chernikoff of Ewing; the program was co-organized by Azarchi and Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor.

Some 8,000 Jews were airlifted from Ethiopia to Israel in 1984 through Operation Moses; the additional 14,000 remaining in Ethiopia were brought out over 36 hours in 1991 through Operation Solomon.

“People know how Ethiopians were brought to Israel in a miraculous journey, but not so much is known about what has happened to Ethiopian Jews since then,” Auerbach said.

The challenges they have faced in their new country included learning Hebrew, adapting a tight-knit family structure to Israel’s communal norms, and recovering from the trauma of their exodus to Israel.

“The operations that brought the Ethiopians to Israel didn’t all happen at once, and the routes people took to Israel varied,” said Auerbach. “There were terrible conditions for people who went through the deserts of Sudan, and many people were separated from their families for a significant period of time.”

Young Ethiopians who manage, despite all the obstacles, to pass matriculation exams often have no one to turn to for financial support or career advice. Stepping into this vacuum, Sarah Aynor and several friends started Keren Hanan Aynor in 1994 to advance higher education among Ethiopians.

Early on the fund provided scholarships only for master’s and doctoral students, but the board later decided to include bachelor’s degree candidates in three categories: students too old for government funding, students who were starting or raising families, and students in a “trailblazing” field of study where there are few Ethiopians.

Providing just five to 10 scholarships in its first years, the nonprofit has offered as many as 300 scholarships a year, although over the last couple of years this has declined to between 100 and 150. Keren Hanan Aynor is funded through the New York and Seattle Jewish federations, some smaller donations, and some foundation money.

Although attendee Aster Legesse-Miller, a molecular biologist at Princeton University whose father was a doctor in Addis Ababa, did not need scholarship help, her sister did receive a Keren Hanan Aynor scholarship that enabled her to get a master’s degree in education. Today she works in an Israeli nonprofit targeted to younger Ethiopians, supplying them with mentors, tutors, and big brothers/big sisters.

Regarding discrimination, Legesse-Miller suggested that Ethiopian Jews have been treated no differently than were Yemenite and North African immigrants in an earlier era. “It is because of ignorance, not knowing, rather than really discrimination,” she said. “I think this kind of program really helps improve the image of Ethiopians.”

Karen Azarchi said she and her sister Lynn Azarchi were motivated to support Keren Hanan Aynor because of their own father. Lynn said, “Our father was education, education, education. He grew up in Trenton, was very poor, and won a total 100 percent scholarship to Rutgers. For him, education was everything.”

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