Working Ethiopians into the fold

Ethiopian men, even those with higher education, are struggling to find work. A program at Tel Aviv University is trying to reverse a worsening situation.

ethiopians working  (photo credit: Courtesy, Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews)
ethiopians working
(photo credit: Courtesy, Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews)
You can see them sweeping debris off the streets in Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva. They protect us from terrorists while we sit in cafes drinking milky coffees; the rest of them - most of them - are either unemployed or working as skilled and unskilled laborers in factories and carpentry shops. Israel's Ethiopian Jewish immigrants once led simple agrarian lives. Now in Israel - a culture fuelled by adrenaline, coffee and hi-tech - are Ethiopian men able to adjust to the frenetic pace? A recent study by the Brookdale Institute, Israel's leading center for applied research on human services, suggests that they cannot. Fewer Ethiopian men between 22 and 64 are finding work than were 10 years ago (from 63 percent to 46%), reported the institute recently; and even with first and second degrees, Ethiopian men are still not finding jobs that match their education. Employers' prejudice may be to blame, says Ethiopian employment expert Tal Haasz from the Association for Ethiopian Jews, but other factors come into play such as lack of military and social connections, frustration at home as their women, once homemakers, become breadwinners and the fact that fewer jobs for unskilled laborers are available. When Metro found Shmuel Beru, 31, a single Israeli-Ethiopian stand-up comedian and filmmaker, he was riding a mini-bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, telling jokes along the way. Even though the first wave of Ethiopian aliya was more than 20 years ago, "Ethiopian men are still in culture shock," says Beru, who came to Israel in 1984 as part of Operation Moses and now lives in Tel Aviv. "Ethiopian men haven't woken up yet in Israel. Most of them are still confused," he says. And as the men age, their situation becomes worse. "They feel frustrated when their wives get work outside the home. In the traditional society of Ethiopia, women have different duties, but here in Israel, it's easier for Ethiopian women to adjust," explains Beru, who is about to start filming a feature-length film about Ethiopians in Israel: Zubabel ("This is Babylon"), which he hopes to take to the Cannes film festival. A number of educational programs at Tel Aviv University (TAU) aim to reduce the disparity in education and opportunities between Ethiopians and other Israelis. Programs with names such as "Thinking Science," "Reaching Higher," and "Youth University" attempt to educate young Ethiopians as early as seventh grade to be prepared for higher education and matriculation exams. "The concept that we are trying to implement here at TAU is that we work with what we are strong at - which is education," says Danny Shapiro, TAU's director of development and public affairs. "We are not going into preschools and giving hot lunches. We are combining expertise in education and student resources to create a continuum of education from junior high though university that will target Ethiopian youth with desire and motivation to learn." The list of programs for Ethiopian youth developed through TAU's student welfare and social involvement unit share a common theme: preparing Ethiopian youth to be successful in their future careers in science or the arts, and help them choose higher education, even if it means studying at a community college and not TAU. "Whether a student should apply in soft sciences or go to a college that is less demanding, we will encourage that direction for the student," says Shapiro. "We will help for that six-year period, as long as we are helping them get to places with useful education." Most of the about 70 Ethiopian students at TAU this year are working toward their first degree. One student is Yalfal Siyum, 23, a chemistry undergrad in his second year. Siyum and his seven siblings came in 1991 after two unsuccessful attempts at reaching Israel via Sudan in 1984. "In Ethiopia, we worked the land. We had wheat, corn and sugar cane fields," relates Siyum. Do Ethiopians really need to learn how to cross the road and use flush toilets and refrigerators before they come to Israel? "Refrigerators?" replies Siyum, "Yes. We didn't have electricity. And even in big cities, the roads are different." Siyum, as an Ethiopian, enjoys added financial, social and academic support at TAU. On May 15, he spoke before an audience of TAU staff, American donors and young Ethiopian women paying tribute to American philanthropist Joel Tauber from Detroit who recently infused TAU's pot of Ethiopian education initiatives with a sizeable donation. Tauber's donation to TAU under the Tauber Initiative for the Advancement of Ethiopian Youth is earmarked to help Israel's Ethiopian community integrate more smoothly. Through his fundraising efforts at various organizations, Tauber has helped raise $1 billion to bring Diaspora Jews to Israel. "I saw Diaspora Jews and Israelis were not integrating properly and it was wrong," he said. Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski was there to comment: "[Tauber's] vision was not only to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, but to see that they are well absorbed. 107,000 [Ethiopian] Jews came to Israel with nothing. There is a huge gap. For every little step we are making, they have to make ten." David Eisenstadt, who works in fundraising for the Association for Ethiopian Jews, comments on the initiative at TAU: "Tel Aviv University has done very good things on behalf of Ethiopian students. Even though they don't have many Ethiopians themselves enrolled at the school, they are working to advance employment of Ethiopians." The Ethiopian community is young, he points out, and employment among Ethiopian men is not decreasing because of an ageing population. Over 50% of all the Ethiopians in Israel today are under age 21, he says. "That means projects like what TAU is doing to direct youth to integrate into the community will have a tremendous impact for the future. Opening their eyes to institutes of higher learning like Tel Aviv University is an incentive for Ethiopians to be more diligent students and to pursue studies, given that the Ethiopian community has a high dropout rate," Eisenstadt added. Tal Haasz, director of strategic research at the Association, studies employment statistics of Ethiopian men and explains the reason why after more than two decades in Israel, Ethiopian men are not fitting into the workplace: "There is difficulty for them mainly because of the decline of opportunities for unskilled people," he says, "As Israel becomes more hi-tech oriented, there are less opportunities for Ethiopian men." The reason why more Ethiopian women are employed today than 10 years ago is that it "took time until women participated in the work force. In Ethiopia she was the property of the man." Continues Haasz, "There is no real responsibility taken by the government. People from Ethiopia come to the Jewish Agency but they don't get professions. They learn about the Israeli working culture. Not more than this. They are getting out after 18 months without any skills." And as for the Ethiopians born in Israel, Haasz believes they don't have a better chance than their fathers, brothers or uncles born in Ethiopia: "I am afraid that if the young generation will see that their brothers don't find work after university and end up working in security, we will get a generation that will say, 'Why should I work hard, if anyway I will have to deal with discrimination?'" When it comes to hiring an Ethiopian man, Israeli employers should be encouraged to give them a chance, concludes Haasz. "Ethiopians are hard workers."