Intifada one more stress facing Ethiopians in Israel
JERUSALEM — Once a month, Zion Gatahon gathers his parents, brothers, aunts and uncles for a family meeting, and updates them a
He also is what is known as a megasher in Hebrew, a professional mediator between Ethiopian immigrants and Israeli society for Fidel, an association that works to integrate Ethiopian immigrants.
“I’m the only one who can calm them down,” said Gatahon, referring to his family’s fears regarding the ongoing crisis with the Palestinians. “We meet, I explain what’s going on, that we’re in Israel, our home that we longed for.”
The 19-month Palestinian intifada is just one more complicated issue for the Ethiopian community to understand.
The older generation has had a particularly difficult time learning Hebrew, as well as the ins and outs of Israeli society. Their children become the family representatives, shepherding their parents through the health care clinic, bank, school system and job market.
Some 62,000 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel. Many came to Israel from the countryside, where they farmed their own land and sent their children to the village school.
Their journey to Israel was long and arduous, often taking them from the village through the city of Gondar and on to the capital of Addis Ababa, where they boarded planes to Israel.
Once they landed, the government placed the Ethiopians in temporary housing, later transferring families to absorption centers and finally — hopefully — to their own, private apartments.
“Six times they move,” said Gatahon, jabbing his finger in the air to demonstrate the points of transit. “And every time, it’s new people, new schools and new jobs.”
As a result, unemployment is high, financial sources slim — and the acclimation to Israeli society has been long and arduous.
Now, like all other Israelis, the Ethiopian immigrants have to deal with suicide bombing attacks and drive-by shootings, as well as the precautions that one learns to take during these uncertain times.
“I tell them to open their eyes, to keep track of their kids’ hours, to know where their kids are supposed to be,” Gatahon said. “But they don’t get it. They think it can’t happen to them.”
Tragedy has already struck the Ethiopian community, more than once.
Maharatu Tagana, 85, an Ethiopian immigrant living in Upper Nazareth, was killed in a suicide bombing attack on a bus in March. The bus driver was suspicious of a passenger who had gotten on the bus and yelled at the other passengers to get off. Tagana didn’t understand Hebrew, and was the only one killed in the blast.
When an Ethiopian soldier committed suicide recently while serving in the Gaza Strip, it didn’t make the Israeli newspapers. Even if it had, many Ethiopians wouldn’t have heard about it, because many don’t read Hebrew.
“They have to hear about it on the street to know and understand what’s going on,” explained social worker Negist Mengesha, executive director of Fidel. “They need to hear it in their language. So they take what they hear, a sentence here and there, and interpret it for themselves.”
If they had information in Amharic, the main Ethiopian language, the immigrants could talk to their children about what’s happening. Instead, the children must tell their parents.
There are newspapers for the Russian, Arabic and English-speaking communities in Israel, but there are none in Amharic — and there is only one hour-and-a-half radio broadcast in Amharic every day. There is also a 25-minute Amharic television program each Friday.
This in a society where many Israelis listen to radio news updates every hour, and can choose from dozens of news Web sites, newspapers and television news programs.
“This is a population that has nothing to reach for to explain the situation,” Mengesha said. “Even if they have a television, if they don’t speak Hebrew they don’t understand anything.
“If immigrants don’t have information, that’s a serious problem,” she added.
Programs like Fidel and Gamla, a mentoring program funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, are spending much more of their time teaching staff and volunteers how to offer support.
Fidel, which hires the Ethiopian mediators, has held training sessions for the staff, bringing in psychologists to talk about the various aspects of dealing with terror.
The mediators explain the diverse aspects of the present situation to their clients, ranging from what it means when a son is called for reserve duty to calming children’s fears about getting on buses.
Fidel recently established an emergency hotline to help Ethiopian immigrants deal with uncertainty brought about by the security situation. The hotline operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide information and counseling in Amharic.
At Gamla, volunteers who started out as tutors helping with students’ homework have become support networks for entire families. They start out helping with math problems and end up showing parents how to fix a window or deal with clerks at the Interior Ministry.
The Gamla volunteer is the family’s connection to the larger community.
“That’s what many Ethiopians need, the ‘right address’ they can turn to for answers,” Gatahon said.
A resident of Ofra, a Jewish settlement near Ramallah that has been on the front line of attacks for the last 19 months, Gatahon also serves on a neighborhood committee that tells people how to respond to terror attacks, particularly when a terrorist tries to invade a house.
“Even those who came here a long time ago are shocked to realize that this could happen here, in Israel,” he said. “And when you explain it in their words, in their language, it’s even scarier.”
Despite a situation that sometimes threatens to overwhelm them, the Ethiopian community wouldn’t think of picking up and leaving Israel.
“No one says, ‘Why are we here, why did we come?'” Gatahon said. “This is the state of Israel. This is their final home.”