IFCJ spotlights successful Ethiopian immigrants, hoping to inspire others

International Fellowship of Christians and Jews presents stories of 4 young Ethiopian immigrants who have established themselves as accomplished professionals.

ethiopian youth 224.88 (photo credit: Avi Hayun )
ethiopian youth 224.88
(photo credit: Avi Hayun )
Tal Chekol walked from Ethiopia to Sudan when he was eight. Although he was forced to return to Ethiopia by the Sudanese authorities, he arrived in Israel three years later, in 1991, and today he's a lawyer with a bright future, committed to affecting positive change in his community. Chekol is one of the beneficiaries of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews' work in forging connections between Ethiopian university graduates and the Israeli workforce. On Monday, the fellowship presented Chekol's story and those of three other young Ethiopian immigrants who have overcome tremendous obstacles in establishing themselves as accomplished professionals in Israel. "From right then I tried to close the gap," Chekol said, describing the beginning of his schooling in Israel. "I knew that if I wanted to belong to society in Israel I had to study well." Chekol, like many Ethiopian children, began his education with an age disadvantage and a lack of Hebrew. "I am very happy to be a lawyer. I get the opportunity to help my community. They tell me how proud they are because when we succeed they feel pride as if it were their own success," he said. Chekol was joined by Bat-El Ananya, who also struggled to find work as a lawyer with little funds and no connections. She passed the bar exam and then was shocked by the difficulty she encountered in finding a job in her field. Fewer than 15 percent of Ethiopian university graduates find employment in their field. "I realized that Israeli society at large didn't think that an Ethiopian immigrant would be able to integrate into leading firms or the workplace in general," Ananya said. As a result of "The Sky's the Limit," a fellowship supported program dedicated to integrating Ethiopian university graduates into the workforce, Ananya was able to use her education and drive to help others struggling with a similar reality. Now an attorney, Ananya is working with the Tebeka Legal Advocacy Project, fighting for social justice and helping other Ethiopian law school graduates find jobs in the field. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has facilitated the training of Ethiopian journalists, two of whom, Aveva Aviv Yosef and Enuue Shimrit Kassa, spoke of their experiences since arriving in Israel. "It's like a gift," said Bar-Ilan University graduate Yosef of the opportunity provided to her by the fellowship. "I really appreciate this job because when you get the opportunity to present your thoughts it's amazing." Yosef has been on the giving side many times herself, and among other things had spent three months in South Africa working with Capetown's Jewish community. Kassa left Ethiopia in 1984 and, after one month of walking to the Sudan border, was forced to live in a refugee camp where some of her family members died. Since then, Kassa has graduated from Bar-Ilan University with a bachelor's degree in political science and is currently working on a master's in international relations, while simultaneously volunteering within her community and pursuing a career in journalism. Her determination was palpable. "I am trying to encourage people like me to help themselves instead of waiting for someone else to come and help them. The key for success needs to come from us," Kassa said. "If you have the opportunity and the desire you can actually be successful. You don't have to wait for someone else to come and help you." "I think that in Israel the media really presents the community as weak and needy. You don't see faces that can show the opposite. There are people who are powerful and no worse than anybody else. It's been 30 years since the first aliya of Ethiopians and I think we're as Israeli as any Israeli, with all the difficulties." Ananya disagreed, saying that Israeli society lacked the experience necessary to acknowledge that the Ethiopian community could produce professionals. Help was therefore required from the outside to ease Ethiopians into the workforce. "But as this project succeeds in placing people, the companies come to the project to ask for more people. It doesn't just help the Ethiopians; it helps the [entire Israeli] community," Ananya said. Micah Feldman, who played a leadership role in Operations Moses (the cooperative effort between the IDF, the CIA, the US Embassy in Khartoum, mercenaries and Sudanese state security forces to fly Ethiopian Jews from Sudan directly to Israel in 1984-85) and Solomon (the covert Israeli military operation to take Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991), points to the vast differences in culture and education as the primary factors in generating stereotypes and preventing the complete integration of Ethiopian Jews into Israel. "Israelis are no saints. I'm not saying we're racist, but we do have prejudices," Feldman said. "Israelis say they welcome Ethiopians, but [they] don't come too close. I believe that in 20 years there will be no issue with marriages between Ethiopians and veteran Israelis." Today, Ethiopian Jews comprise approximately 1.5% of Israeli society. Yosef pointed to statistics indicating that few Israelis have had the opportunity to truly interact with Ethiopians and said they therefore haven't been able to reach a higher level of understanding. Chekol added that had Israelis attempted to become members of his community in Ethiopia, the differences of culture and language would have made it difficult for them as well, despite any help offered by the Ethiopians. "I hope you understand that we are focusing on employment because we believe in this cause. When immigrants from Ethiopia enter the job market the average Israeli realizes, maybe for the first time, what a treasure we have and what we have lost by not working with them until now," Feldman said. "I believe we can only gain by having Ethiopian Jews with us. The more we play together and work together, the more we understand what Israeli society has to gain." "We won't be able to integrate the Ethiopians here in Israel fully until we feel and understand the pains and the dreams and the history of what they went through," said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Since its inception 25 years ago, the Fellowship has directed more than NIS 27 million to help the Ethiopian community.