Going blind in Gondar

For the past four years, on my own, I have tried to arrange eye care for the Ethiopian Jews in Gondar. Many people in the compound are blind from dense cataracts.

March 5, 2018 20:56
4 minute read.
Going blind in Gondar

AN ELDER leads members of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community in a morning prayer service. (Reuters). (photo credit: REUTERS)

Imagine that you were told to make aliya. You sold your house, quit your job and then went to JFK Airport to board the plane to take you to Israel. Except that the Israeli government created mountains of red tape, so you had to wait, pitching a tent outside JFK. After 10 years, your paperwork was finally approved. You received an Israeli passport and got the necessary vaccines. A week before departure, a clerk in the Interior Ministry decided your paperwork was not in order so you could not board the plane. Three more years have passed. You and your mother and brother already in Israel have no idea why you were rejected in the first place, and no future date has been given to you.

This story is not from Kafka – it is the true story of Markacho, a 24-year-old champion sprinter who is among the 8,000 Ethiopian Jews waiting to make aliya to Israel. Sadly, there are countless stories like his. In 2015, the Knesset unanimously voted to bring those remaining to Israel, yet they are still there, with no plan in place to bring them to Israel.

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And Gondar, Ethiopia, is not JFK. I met Markacho in Gondar this week, where my two sons and I provided eye care to people in the Jewish compound. Even though Israel sends medical teams when tragedy strikes around the globe, our brethren in Gondar have little or no access to doctors.

For the past four years, on my own, I have tried to arrange eye care for the Ethiopian Jews in Gondar. Many people in the compound are blind from dense cataracts. If they were here in Israel, they would have had sight-restoring surgery long before they got to this advanced stage. I saw a woman who was irreversibly blind from a glaucoma attack – which could have been prevented here in Israel with a two-minute laser procedure.

An old man required a very high number for his near-sighted glasses correction. Available at any optical store in Israel, it simply does not exist in Gondar, leaving him legally blind. A six-year old boy had bilateral corneal ulcers from trachoma, a condition which would have never occurred had he been here in Israel. Without prompt treatment, he’ll be blind for life.

Last year, I was asked to examine a newborn in Gondar with failure to thrive and breathing problems. I tried to arrange proper consultations there. In any hospital in Israel, the baby would been quickly stabilized. The baby’s mother had three brothers, all of whom lived in Israel and fought in Operation Protective Edge. After more than six months of red tape with the Interior Ministry, the mother was finally allowed to make aliya. The baby died a week before she arrived here.

This past Wednesday, the Jewish compound was overflowing with hundreds of people for the morning prayer service. Following the singing of “Hatikva,” each person held up photos of their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers in Israel. It was a loud and clear message to the government of Israel: correct the absurd and grotesque injustice of deeming some family members eligible for aliya and leaving others to languish for years. Hermes, the local B’nai Akiva leader, read a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding that he fulfill the unanimous Knesset resolution passed in 2015 to complete the Ethiopian aliya.

My kids instantly bonded with Hermes on our first trip. Each time we’re in Gondar, we visit him in his home where his mother serves us delicious injera and shiro, the traditional Ethiopian chickpea sauce. Hermes lives modestly, in one extremely well-kept room with his mother and two younger siblings. Rising early each day, he does his homework on the floor while the rest of the family sleeps. My kids were amazed to see that he uses the same physics book they use in Israel. Eating with him on the floor this past week, I asked if he planned to go to university when he finishes twelfth grade in a few months. There was an awkward silence. Finally, Hermes said he’d always planned to attend university in Israel.

This past week, the Knesset was supposed to propose a plan to complete the aliya of those remaining in Gondar. Unfortunately, that agenda item was never discussed – the committee claimed they ran out of time. The people I examined last week cannot afford more delays.

As we left Gondar, my two sons remarked that while it’s nice that we come back to help the community, it’s been four years since we met Hermes and he’s still as stuck as ever.

The author, an MD, is director of Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center. He made aliya 13 years ago with his wife and four children.

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