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I've been told that Ethiopians don't show their emotions and perhaps, especially compared to Americans, this is true. But for Ethiopian-born Asher Seyum, director of the Jewish Agency's Ashdod Absorption Center, there is no hiding the excitement on his face as we begin to explore the formerly Jewish village of Ambover in the Gondar region of Ethiopia.
"My grandparents lived down there," he tells me excitedly, pointing past the simple straw and mud huts where residents live even today without running water or electricity. "And I remember praying in the synagogue here with my father."
Once the spiritual center of Jewish or Beta Israel life in Ethiopia, Ambover was abandoned in the 1980s when the Jews left for Israel. Christian families have since moved into the villages in the immediate area, but in recent years the old synagogue has been restored and become the start of "roots" journeys for young Ethiopian-Israelis trying to rediscover their ethnic background or understand where their parents came from and what they went through to reach the Promised Land.
But we are not here on a typical roots journey. Seyum, 37, is acting as a tour guide of sorts for a unique mission of some 170 Jewish professionals and lay leaders from almost 50 Jewish federations across North America who are trying to understand what lies at the core of the Ethiopian aliya.
Called the United Jewish Committee Campaign Chairs and Directors (CCD) mission, it's the largest delegation of Diaspora Jews ever to visit Ethiopia, and Seyum is one of eight Ethiopian-Israelis now working for the Jewish Agency who have been brought along to show us that some people from this immigrant population have achieved measurable success despite the unimaginable hardships faced by their community. For all eight it is the first time visiting their birthplace since they left during the Israeli-facilitated exodus of the 1980s, known as Operation Moses.
"It is very moving to see our homeland and tell our history to Jews from around the world," says another of the guides, Leah Betahulin, who works for the agency's Partnership 2000 program and left Ethiopia at the age of three. "To see these people get so excited at hearing our stories makes this trip even better than a typical roots journey."
SEYUM POINTS again, this time to the lush green hills that frame this picturesque place. Less than 25 years ago, the region was home to more than 110,000 Jews.
"I lived just over that mountain in a village called Bruvax," he says, shaking his head at how strong the memories now flooding back to him are. "I remember walking over those mountains to get here."
When I ask him how long the walk took, Seyum smiles: "I have no idea; we did not measure time in those days, we just walked where we needed to go."
He urges me to look at the man who is working the land using simple wooden tools behind what used to be the Jewish school, and my guide is clearly emotional as he watches the children - roughly the same age as he was when he lived this rural life - herding cows and sheep to fresh pastures.
"We were an agricultural family," says Seyum, as he begins to recall his incredible journey from a peasant life to refugee status in Sudan to modernity and success as director of an absorption center for Jews from Iran and South America. "Until I turned seven, I would watch my older brothers taking care of the cows and then, when I reached that age, I was put in charge of them. We had seven milk cows; we were a very wealthy family in our village."
The second youngest of 11 siblings, Seyum was only 12 when his family set out on foot in the direction of Sudan. His journey began in the nearby city of Gondar, the former capital of Ethiopia, so that his father could buy him his first pair of shoes. He talks about this shopping expedition as our minibus navigates its way down the uneven streets of this poverty-stricken town.
"I never owned a pair of shoes before that," he confesses and then laughs when asked if he thinks his now pampered feet would be able to tread on the rough dirt paths today like many of the raggedly-dressed children we see roaming freely through the streets.
While Seyum talks fondly of this memory, the trip to Gondar marked the start of a perilous journey undertaken by more than 8,000 Ethiopian Jews who walked from their homes to Sudan and were eventually airlifted to Israel between November 1984 and January 1985.
"We did not buy anything else in Gondar for the trip," recounts Seyum. "My father sold off everything we owned very cheaply and then, as soon as we heard the way to Sudan was safe, we started on our journey. We were very excited about going to Israel; it was all we had heard about and talked about ever since I could remember," he says, recalling how he remembers as a child watching his mother make the traditional havdala (Shabbat-end) ceremony. "When we finally reached Sudan, I thought it was Jerusalem. That is how a child's head works."
He describes how the family was forced to suffer the squalid conditions of a refugee camp for nearly a year before the plans for Operation Moses were set in motion.
"It was an awful place," he says. "Full of snakes and illness. The Red Cross gave out flour with maggots and that made the people even sicker. My sister lost two children there and many others died."
According to estimates by those who later arrived in Israel on Operation Moses, more than 4,000 Beta Israel lost their lives in Sudan and had to be buried in unmarked graves at night so as not to give away that they were Jews.
"If anyone found out we were Jews, we would have been killed," explains Seyum, as he describes one time he went with his father to the nearby market. "As we were walking, we saw two [Christian] priests heading toward us. Suddenly, I saw my father bowing down to them in respect and I thought that he had gone crazy. It was the biggest shock of my life. Later I asked him why he'd bowed down to them and he just said that if he had not, he could have put all the Jews in our camp at great risk. We had to pretend we were not Jews."
Seyum's escape from Sudan came suddenly at the end of 1984, when the family was rescued by Mossad agents and flown to Israel.
WHILE BETAHULIN does not remember much of the pilgrimage across Ethiopia to Sudan or of her time in the camps there, she has one strong memory of her new life in Israel.
"We were taken to live in the absorption center in Kiryat Gat," she says in flawless English. "My sister and I had never seen an elevator before and we were obsessed with playing with it. I remember that we used to push all the buttons on that elevator as part of an ongoing game. We played with it so much that in the end we broke it and got stuck inside."
Betahulin, who flew home from Ethiopia last week with a group of 90 new immigrants, says that the return to where she was born has made her realize that there "is still a lot to be done," to improve the absorption of Ethiopians.
"The children we accompanied on the bus to the airport asked me whether there were cows or sheep in the streets in Israel like in Ethiopia," she says, adding that the shock for new immigrants coming from the Third World to a modern Western country is enormous.
Another of those leading the mission, Frei Balai, tells me that she is overwhelmed at returning to her original country and proud of her African roots. "Ethiopia is a beautiful country, but I see that the countryside has not changed at all, and it will probably stay like this for a long time to come."
She argues that despite the hardships faced by Ethiopian immigrants - many of whom live below the poverty line and face serious socioeconomic difficulties - the community is better off in Israel, where they are afforded the opportunities to succeed like her and her Jewish Agency colleagues.
A few days after returning, I meet some of our guides again at a lavish farewell CCD dinner just outside Jerusalem. They are greeted like stars by the visiting Americans and are clearly proud of all they have achieved since arriving here less than 25 years ago.
"It was a great experience going back to see my village and to understand what my parents went through to get me to Israel," observes Betahulin. "I really appreciate everything they did for me and all the efforts made by the international Jewish community to help."
Seyum quips: "People keep asking how my trip to Ethiopia was; I just tell them that it's a good thing we came here."
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