Ethiopian Jews confront psychological trauma

While many former immigrants from Ethiopia suffer from deep psychological scars, state agencies have so far ignored issue.

Social worker Asher Mekunnet Rahamim 390 (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Social worker Asher Mekunnet Rahamim 390
(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Ethiopian Jews who endured the travails of reaching this country in the past few decades have more in common with Holocaust survivors than veteran Israelis can imagine.
Although many of the former immigrants suffer from psychological trauma reminiscent of concentration camp “veterans,” only one non-profit organization is systematically relieving their anguish with help from professionals of the same background.
State agencies have not yet gotten around to it, or perhaps even realized there is a problem.
Prof. Danny Brom, director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma of Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem ( never realized the extent of emotional trauma suffered by many of these immigrants until he met and hired social worker Asher Mekunnet Rahamim.
“I learned a lot about Zionism from Asher since we began to work together,” said Brom. “Ethiopian Jews didn’t run away from their native country. Theirs was a brave, Zionistic struggle, and many who had to contend with great difficulties to get here suffered intense trauma.”
“I was born in 1968 in a village of 250 Jewish families in the Gondar region,” Rahamim told The Jerusalem Post during an interview together with Brom at the center, which is located in the capital’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood. “I was one of 11 children and grew up on stories of Jerusalem. My father was the one of the only people in the village to listen to the radio. He used to collect the news he heard and tell us during the Shabbat meals,” Rahamim recalls fondly.
In 1973, when Asher was five years old, his eldest brother left Ethiopia for Israel in a fishing boat, eventually reaching Eilat.
“He sent us letters, but he didn’t describe all the things, including frightening and difficult experiences he went through. Today, he works in the Israel Aircraft Industries. I understand why he described only the good things that happened to him. He said: ‘With one hand you eat, and with the other hand you work.’ He wanted me to follow him to Israel so he didn’t disclose the whole truth.” In Rahamim’s village, “There was a hill that we called Jerusalem. We prayed there, and when my friends came, I begged them to pray that I would eventually live in Jerusalem.”
So it was not surprising that at the age of 13, Asher left home, a year or two before Operation Moses, when the Israeli authorities covertly evacuated some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel from Sudan during the winter of 1984/5. It is estimated that some 4,000 Jews died on the trek from Ethiopia to Sudan, whose government secretly allowed the evacuation to proceed.
Rahamim did not tell his parents he was leaving for fear that they would somehow stop him. He set off on foot with a group of 63 Jews that included one of his brothers.
But they didn’t have the money to proceed.
Rahamim lived for two-and-a-half years in Sudan, selling ice lollies, working for a local family and doing other odd jobs.
“My brother was 22 when we arrived in Sudan. We didn’t live together in the same place, but we met often. Only when we had settled did we send a letter and a photo to our parents telling them not to worry because we were OK.”
This good news, he said, must have been like the Patriarch Jacob learning that his beloved son Joseph was alive in Egypt.
Asher’s parents finally arrived in Israel eight years ago.
He attended the in the Mikve Yisrael boarding school and learned Hebrew – in which he’s now fluent – solely in Israel.
“I had been through traumatic events and experiences, but I didn’t have time to get nightmares. I was so busy. I sat in my high school classes but since I copied from the board so slowly, I was always staying behind after class to get it done. I didn’t understand most of the material, especially the math.
But I had a wonderful, incredible teacher,” he remembered. “She sat with me and saw that my grades were poor. She said: ‘I won’t look at your grades’ and turned the paper over. She was sure that I had potential. Just what she told me raised my morale.”
By the end of the school year, his grades had changed, thanks to that teacher and an immigrant from Holland, Gideon Ya’ari Cohen, who “adopted” him.
“I had not been willing to be be ‘adopted’ because that would seem as if I no longer had parents. He offered to help me with math, which was especially difficult for me, and gave me free private lessons.”
Rahamim studied in a Hebrew ulpan and was inducted into the army. After serving in the army, he studied industrial management in Ashdod. Looking for work with a fellow student who was a Sephardi of Moroccan parentage, he went to a potential workplace with him. Rahamim was offered an starting salary of NIS 2,800, while his friend – who had exactly the same qualifications – “was told he would get almost double that.” At that moment, the young Jew from Ethiopia realized that he would not be able to influence his future in such a company.
Recent news reports regarding veteran residents of Kiryat Malachi refusing to sell homes to Ethiopian immigrants and a bus driver at a stop in Mevaseret Zion who called two small immigrant girls “smelly” indicate that this type of ugly discrimination hasn’t gone away.
“I studied mediation and then worked in schools around the country to help Ethiopian immigrants. But since I needed tools to really assist them, I decided to study social work at the Hebrew University. I received a scholarship and got my degree. I worked in the general community for the Jerusalem Municipality for five years.”
Then he met Brom, a former immigrant from Holland. who has been a father of psychotrauma since his aliya many years ago.
“We received money during the second intifada from the UJA/Federation of New York to hold a course for people from the various communities. Asher came to the course,” Brom recalls. “It involved helping Ethiopian immigrants to cope with terrorist attacks.”
“I regard my aliya as a luxury trip compared to what the Jews endured during Operation Moses and subsequent struggles to reach Israel,” Rahamim noted.
“Although I was so young, I was able to cope. And today, actually living in Jerusalem for the past 13 years, I get up and ask myself: ‘Is it real that I live in Jerusalem?’ I am happy.”
Rahamim got married in 1999 to an Ethiopian Jewish woman who made aliya the age of 12, in 1984, with her parents.
Together, they have four children. “They are lovely Israeli kids,” he said, in tones of awe and disbelief.
But there is still trauma. Although almost all of his family members have settled here, one of his brothers disappeared on the border of Sudan. At the end of 1992, Rahamim completed his active service in the IDF and traveled to Ethiopia and Sudan to look for him.
“He would be 56 today. He left a wife and four children, and a daughter is already married.”
There are some 5,500 immigrants from Ethiopia living in Jerusalem, but most live outside the capital, despite their lifelong love for the place, said Rahamim.
“I have worked on the psychotrauma center team since 2006. At first I was asked to cope with suicide in the community, which was extremely rare among Jews in Ethiopia, as was murder of wives. This was the antithesis of life there. There was such protection of women that when the wife was working in the kitchen, the husband stays outside to guard her. There were fixed boundaries.”
The circumstances of waiting to be approved for aliya and what happened to them afterwards caused problems, said Rahamim.
“...There is no Jewish community in the world that underwent such a long process before coming to Israel. Their marriages were exposed to many stresses during this waiting period,” said Rahamim. “And one of the major psychological traumas involved conversion, even though thenchief rabbi Ovadia Yosef in 1973 recognized the ‘Falashas’ as Jews.”
Many men, said Rahamim, were not prepared emotionally for the conversion process including ritual circumcision or a symbolic procedure releasing a few drops of blood and immersion in a mikve. They already felt Jewish, he said. Undergoing circumcision as an adult is a painful process, and it is regarded by some as an insult to their manhood and can affect a couple’s sex life.
This was an issue mainly for the Falashmura, Ethiopian Jews who were forced to become Christians in their native country.
“There are men who have become impotent as result of the process; then the man may suspect his wife is not faithful to him,” Rahamim said, noting that his own brother was “forced to get circumcised.”
Only after circumcision and immersion are they told they have “become Jews. But the immigrants feel they are already Jews.”
Rahamim himself does not wear a kippa, but describes himself as “a Jew who does mitzvot. I do not label myself as secular or religious. In my case, going to the mikva was not required; if it had been, I would not have done it.”
Another source of trauma involving the women was rape and the violent loss of their loved ones. Of 16,000 who arrived via Sudan during Operation Moses, 4,000 died.
They were killed in the transit camps or died along the way.
“Sanitary conditions in the camps were not always adequate, and some died from infections and epidemics. Dozens died in a single day. We are documenting the events by video,” Rahamim said.
The social worker recalls that in 1985/6, a gravedigger buried 3,000 Jews. In addition, flour distributed for a while among the Jews in the Sudanese camps smelled of kerosene, and the people suffered from diarrhea.
“The good flour went to the military camps. Some were afraid to talk because they had left family behind. Only now is the information being revealed,” he said.
Brom noted that the free workshops run by his staff and others in Jerusalem, Ashdod and Kiryat Gat – in Amharic – are meant to alleviate the immigrants’ trauma.
“The people from the community are our eyes and ears. The former immigrants who suffer from trauma are helped to process experiences and memories. Video interviews are carried out. Women use this service more than men, as they are more able to describe their feelings.”
“The workshops are run the same way groups of Holocaust survivors have discussed their traumatic experiences,” he said, “and they are often discussed by the family at home. The discovery that they are not the only ones to have suffered from traumatic events eases their pain.”
Rahamim’s groups meet for about a dozen sessions for three hours at a time. “They come in the afternoon, when they have time. There is a lot of poverty,” Brom said.
“The establishment should have learned from mistakes in absorbing previous immigrant communities.”
Funding for the workshops comes from private foundations, and finally, the National Insurance Institute recognized the need for them. Brom added that the relevant government ministries haven’t yet understood the urgency and have not contributed.
As much as five years ago, Prof. Zahava Solomon – a Tel Aviv University expert in psychiatric epidemiology and social work – examined 600 Ethiopian Jewish adults and found that 28 percent of them suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The average level of PTSD in the general Israeli public – which as a collective has gone through war, terrorism, road accents and other traumatic events – is 9%.
“We ask when feel they have ‘arrived’ in the country,” said Rahamim. “Some say they did immediately when setting foot here. Some said it took years to feel part of the society, while others admitted they still do not feel they are wanted.”
The recent Jerusalem and Kiryat Malachi demonstrations for the rights of Ethiopian immigrants were formative events, Rahamim said.
“This is the younger generation who were born here or arrived at a young age. They want to be a integral part of the state, to be independent and equal. The recent protests were just like the social justice demonstrations in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Street. The protesters are on Facebook and other social networks. Those who demonstrated are not angry at the country but at policies. They love the land and the state.”
The Ethiopian Jewish community were not looking for a better life when they came here, Rahamim concluded.
The Ethiopian Jewish community who came were not looking for a better life, Rahamim concluded. “I could have been a refugee in the US instead of coming on aliya. We never wanted to go there. Nobody (with maybe a tiny number of exceptions) in the community here wants to emigrate from Israel. We want to make it better.”