(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Tsega Melaku does not try to downplay the challenges she has faced in becoming the first Ethiopian director of Israel Radio's Reshet Alef. In fact, the 40-year-old recalls with irony a recent trip to the US where she spoke about her experiences of being an Ethiopian immigrant to a large group of African-Americans.
"They asked me how I have managed to get so far in a world that is not welcoming to either Jews or blacks. I said that it is true the world does not like Jews or blacks, but I also had to remind them that I was a woman and on that level had to fight for success too," she quips.
"As an immigrant from Ethiopia, I wake up every morning to challenges but every challenge I face makes me stronger. Whenever I am made to feel unwelcome or told that I'm not wanted, I end up coming back bigger and stronger."
Melaku's gentle and soothing radio voice might be what has made her into somewhat of a celebrity in Ethiopian-Israeli circles - she managed Israel Radio's Amharic-language broadcasts for more than 15 years - but it only serves to belie the overwhelming determination that has placed her at the center of the mainstream and allowed her to become the first Ethiopian immigrant to achieve such success in the country's competitive communications industry.
"When I started at the radio, I was the youngest person and I was a woman," explains Melaku, who has a BA in political science and a master's in business administration. "I was a real threat [to the men there] but I am an optimistic person and really wanted to put myself into the center of Israeli society. When I was accepted to this position [a month-and-a-half-ago] it was like coming full circle for me."
Even though Melaku is now certainly at the core of Israel's society - she is responsible for programming a wide range of cultural and discussion shows covering many topics - as a black woman, she still faces insurmountable challenges on a daily basis.
"Just a few weeks after being appointed director of Reshet Alef, I was on my way to the radio station and a woman stopped me in the street, it was right outside the gates of the radio offices," recalls Melaku. "She asked me if I could come and clean her house."
While Melaku is no stranger to such ignorance from the average person on the street, she complains that even higher up the ladder a level of discrimination exists against Ethiopians. "What really bothers me is that I am a veteran journalist and have expertise in many areas, but I am never invited to speak [on other media shows] about topics outside of the Ethiopian community. If an Ethiopian man kills his wife or an Ethiopian child is denied access to a certain school, then my telephone does not stop ringing. But if they are talking about women's issues or other problems in Israeli society, I am not asked to talk."
In fact, Melaku is reluctant to talk about one of the main problems facing the Ethiopian community today - the continued immigration of the Falash Mura (Ethiopian Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity more than a century ago), which has ignited a debate over their right to continue coming.
"I am really tired of talking about this situation," she confesses. "There are so many opinions and so much politics involved. There is really no end to this immigration and everyone knows it."
Born in 1968 in the northern city of Gondar, where thousands of Ethiopians currently wait for permission to make aliya and not far from the cluster of Jewish villages that were once inhabited by the Beta Yisrael tribe, Melaku recalls that her father was one of the first Ethiopian Jews to study Hebrew during the 1950s.
"My father studied at a Jewish school and was one of the people who went out to the villages and taught the others about Israel and Judaism," she says, adding that he also worked for the Israeli construction company Solel Boneh in Ethiopia.
In 1984, after graduating from high school, 16-year-old Melaku was sent here with a group of young Ethiopian teens.
"When we arrived in Jerusalem, we thought that the people would greet us with open arms," she recalls. "But when we got here, everyone looked at us suspiciously and did not believe that we were really Jewish. I was shocked too, because I had never seen white Jews before. It was ironic really because they thought that we were the ones who weren't Jewish."
Feeling like an outsider, Melaku says, made her even more determined to become part of the mainstream and at the same time change popular perceptions of Ethiopian Jews.
"Fighting back is something that has always been in my character," she says with a laugh. "When I first arrived in Israel, they tried to make me change my name to Oshra but I refused and I'm proud that I have kept my Ethiopian heritage despite the odds."
Through the years, Melaku has vied to keep other Ethiopian traditions while at the same time working hard to integrate. "I am proud of my identity and where I come from and I would never try to hide that," says the mother of two. "If someone does not know where they come from, how can they move forward?"
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