A LONG journey to Israel..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I hear countless aliya stories, each different from the last. Some come to Israel of their own accord, for job opportunities or a better lifestyle, or even on a whim. Others, however, immigrate to Israel because it is their only hope. That was once me. Now, assisting new immigrants to the Jewish state gives me not only a sense of closure, but more importantly, a front-row seat to the continuous unfolding of the Zionist dream and the Jewish future.
Several decades ago, I found myself – along with hundreds of others – being secretly funneled onto a plane in the middle of the night by soldiers from a country I didn’t yet know. I would arrive in Israel as part of Operation Moses, the massive Jewish immigration mission from Ethiopia spanning November 1984 to January 1985.
Ethiopian Jews had been permitted to make aliya until 1977, when the African country’s dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, rose to power. From 1977-1984, leading up to Operation Moses, some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews gradually came to Israel through a number of small airlifts.
Under Mariam’s Marxist rule, many of us were persecuted for participating in Jewish educational and Zionist activities – including my brother, who was murdered by the regime. For my siblings and I, aliya was virtually our only option for survival.
It wasn’t easy. First we had to get from Ethiopia to Sudan – a journey that took us eight days on foot, with extremely limited water and food. We were two days from the Sudanese border when I began to feel sick and collapsed. I thought I was dying. My friends tried to treat me. They drew blood to reduce the pressure that I was feeling, and I lost consciousness. My friends would literally drag me for two days, all the way to Sudan.
The hardship didn’t end there. Once we reached Sudan, we stayed for four months in a refugee camp, where we witnessed 10-20 adults and children dying every day due to unsanitary food and neglect. We all longed for a better future.
Finally, our saving grace came from the Israel Air Force.
Quickly, the Israeli soldiers boarded hundreds of us onto a plane that took us to Israel. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would become one of the 6,364 Jews to arrive in Israel through intermediary countries during Operation Moses. My flight was just one of 30 that brought about 200 Ethiopian Jews at a time to Israel. I don’t know how many Jews didn’t make it along the way, but I was almost one of them.
Today, my career bears a striking resemblance to my personal journey.
Since the early 1950s, The Jewish Agency for Israel has assisted more than 90,000 Ethiopians with their aliya by arranging visas and transportation, as well as by providing them with their first home in Israel and up to two years of housing in one of the organization’s absorption centers that are dedicated to the needs of Ethiopian immigrants. Today, I work as a counselor and assistant at one of these absorption centers, in Hanita.
My goal is simple: After receiving so much from The Jewish Agency and from the State of Israel, I try to give back to new immigrants who find themselves in similar positions. My journey to Israel was the most difficult experience of my life, but also the most rewarding. My daughter, Rebecca Avera, works as a Jewish Agency emissary in Nevada. My nephew, who was lucky enough to make aliya with us, received a PhD from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and is studying with the Fulbright Foundation for his post-doctoral degree in electrical physics.
There are now more than 135,000 first- and second-generation Ethiopian immigrants living in Israel. Ethiopian aliya is a point of pride for our government – as it should be. It highlights the importance of Israel’s commitment to protecting Jews around the world.
Currently, The Jewish Agency is working to reunite families of Ethiopian immigrants, as so many of these families get broken apart by the immigration process. In 2017, as of September, The Jewish Agency had facilitated 10 aliya flights from Ethiopia – bringing 516 relatives of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. The organization is striving to bring a total of 9,000 family members of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel by 2020.
Walking around Israel, I see a mosaic of Jews from myriad countries, denominations and affiliations. Some are native Israelis, others are immigrants who see Israel as their second chance at life, and still others are everything in between. Regardless of the circumstances, we all believe in what Israel stands for: the opportunity to live freely. As Israelis, we know that we can no longer be persecuted or victimized simply for being who we are.
For me, Operation Moses was nothing short of a fairytale, a miracle, and a dream. By working to give new immigrants the same lifeline that I was once afforded, I am living the dream.
The author works at the Hanita Absorption Center for Ethiopian immigrants, coming to Israel during ‘Operation Moses’ in 1984. Today, her daughter Rebecca Avera is a Jewish Agency emissary in Las Vegas.