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(photo credit: AP)
Thousands of immigrants across the North made the transition from newcomers to Israelis exceedingly quickly this weekend, as they endured hundreds of Katyushas from inside bomb shelters located in their absorption centers.
"It's like an initiation," said 52-year-old Donald Goldstein, who moved from Atlanta to Karmiel this February. "It's something you have to go through. It's like a continuation of ulpan. It's a different language to learn and it's important to learn the language."
Goldstein, like immigrants from many different countries, said the attacks didn't encourage him to leave his new country - or even the North.
"I feel like I have to be here. My friends tell me to come down south and I'm not ready to," he said. "Before [the rockets] I told myself I wouldn't go in the 'rat hole' of the bomb shelter. Since then, the bomb shelter has become my friend."
Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski toured absorption centers in Karmiel, Nahariya and Safed Sunday to see the "difficult" situation of these new immigrants for himself.
"For those who only arrived in Israel a few weeks ago, this is a very, very hard beginning," Bielski said, adding, "They learned the word Katyusha.
They learned the word miklat [shelter]. They understand what it means to be Israeli."
He was joined for part of his tour by a group of United Jewish Community leaders, who have already helped raise $1 million to help immigrants between the ages of 10 and 18 move to summer camps in the center of the country. The first 700 departed Sunday. Hadassah and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews are among other organizations to offer funds to help those caught in the attacks.
"Staying in those shelters has got to be extremely uncomfortable. They're crowded. They're hot. There's nothing to keep them busy," said UJC Treasurer Kathy Manning soon after returning from the trip to the North. "People were stoic, but looked worse for wear. It was clear they are going through a very trying time. [They] looked a bit overwhelmed. They looked exhausted."
Fentahun Assefa, the director of an absorption compound in Safed, said the experience of the attacks had been more difficult for immigrants than native Israelis.
The Ethiopian immigrants in his centers could not afford to leave for the center of the country like other Israelis and lacked a familiarity with the society and the options that faced them. They also did not understand the language enough to follow what was happening on the television or radio.
"To understand what's going on, the new immigrants are dependent on us," he said of the small staff that caters to the 1,000 immigrants there. "There's a sense of confusion."
Following several Katyusha barrages that have landed within the compound, Assefa said, "Until we can show up and explain what happened, the only thing they can understand is the huge blast itself."
But he added, "Nothing that you can explain is [clearer] than the experience itself."
Part of the basic education about Israel that was given to these immigrants was a schooling in the conflict, Assefa noted. And in many cases, they had been prepared by their personal history to withstand the battle in the midst of which now they found themselves.
"Ethiopians lived in a very harsh situation in Ethiopia. Ethiopia also experienced many times of war," Assefa said. "They are strong. They are patient, and this is what is helping us as a staff cope with the families."
At the same time, he said that those experiences didn't necessarily reduce the fear or discomfort of what was happening now.
"You're not in your village. You don't know your way out. You are very much dependent on other people. So this makes it harder on people here. Everyone knew what to do in Ethiopia," he explained.
Still, Endalew Melka said he and his fellow Ethiopian immigrants have had no second thoughts about coming to Israel.
"Somebody who loves this country wants to be here," said the 21-year-old off-duty soldier. "Even if it's difficult here, we want to suffer through it."
The violence has also not yet deterred North Americans and Frenchmen planning to make aliya, according to the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B' Nefesh. The latter indicated there had been no cancellations among those scheduled to come on flights this summer, though those who intended to move up North should be housed elsewhere until the situation calms down.
New Yorker Josh Blacher, 34, said he felt the "call" to come to Israel "more than ever" following the recent rocket onslaught.
His family of six is still planning to come on a Nefesh B'Nefesh/Jewish Agency flight this summer. "The events that are happening today proved even more of a catalyst for us to show our support for a sovereign Jewish state in Israel," he said. "We can't wait to come."