Flying high

Six Ethiopian-born IAF officers speak out on their experiences.

EthiopianIAFofficers311 (photo credit: Jpost)
(photo credit: Jpost)
IAF Capt. Asia Mekonent does not sound bitter or misinformed when he likens the difficulties faced by the Ethiopian community to those experienced by other immigrant groups that have arrived here over the past 62 years.
“Every immigration goes through its different phases,” says the Ethiopian-born officer, who runs the accounts department on the air force base where he serves. “The Russians, the Moroccans, the Yemenites, they all had their difficulties integrating into society, understanding the culture and finding their place, but I believe that eventually we, as Ethiopians, will succeed. We just need a few more opportunities to thrive and then there will even be Ethiopian pilots one day. I am sure of it, you will see.”
We are sitting in the events hall at the Sde Dov air force base. Mekonent, who this Independence Day will receive a medal for his outstanding contribution to the IDF, is one of six Ethiopian-born air force officers who have come to meet me and dispel some of the myths painted about their community.
Capt. Banchigize Malasa, an educational officer at Sde Dov; Lt. Bazazu Mengistu, an electronics expert at the Nevatim base; Lt. Yalfal Siyum, who works the aerial maintenance unit; Lt. Sara Simo, the first Ethiopian to operate unmanned aerial vehicles; and Mekonent all made aliya as young children during Operation Solomon. Lt. Eitan Panthon, an officer at the Nevatim base, came here via Sudan on Operation Moses.
“The media always looks for discrimination stories or focuses on the racial element when they write about our community,” says Panthon, who grew up in Afula. “They never focus on the success stories or talk about the positive aspects that will, in turn, inspire the rest of our community and give them the drive to succeed too.”
Perfectly dressed in their uniforms, the six professional soldiers sitting before me speak flawless Hebrew and are eager to share the events that brought them from Africa to such a high level of success.
Even the statistics published by the government or the stories often shared by Ethiopian community leaders highlighting countless barriers, endless limitations and, in some cases, extreme economic hardships, are only hinted at here. These six are walking proof that even with the clear disadvantages, success can be achieved.
“There is discrimination, of course there is,” admits Panthon. “However, it all depends on how you respond to it. I have been faced many times with soldiers who refuse to look at me or take orders from me because I am Ethiopian, but the minute I decide not to take any notice of them, I am able to move forward. If you start to take it personally, you will just fall apart.”
Mekonent adds: “The media are always looking for ratings, for stories that will draw their readers in and they do not always want to print the truth, but we have a wonderful community, and after only 25 years in this country we have more than 60 officers in the air force and a lieutenant-colonel in the reserves. That is a great thing.”
According to army figures, there are currently 150 to 200 officers of Ethiopian descent, with 58 in the air force. There is no official quota for how many Ethiopians can be made officers, that privilege is based on merit only.
“Being in the air force is a great privilege,” says Malasa, who arrived here at six and now feels more Israeli than Ethiopian. “They do so much for everyone who serves, and they judge people based on their achievements and not on the color of their skin.”
“For me, being part of the air force is really like coming full circle,” observes Simo, the most soft-spoken of the six. “When I first joined the air force, I was in an office and a pilot came up to me and asked me when I’d made aliya. I told him that I came here from Ethiopia on Operation Solomon when I was three, and he said: ‘Well, I guess I might be one of the pilots who flew you here.’ It was an amazing feeling.”
How do you feel about being part of the air force, which brought you here in the first place?
Mengistu: To be honest, I never really thought about joining the air force while I was growing up, but as soon as I joined the army I knew that was what I wanted to do. I was seven on May 24, 1991, and for me that was the first time I ever saw an airplane... being in the air force now is like coming full circle.
Siyum: I was also seven at the time of Operation Solomon and did not realize that it was the air force behind our rescue. Over the years I heard all the stories, and I am now very proud that I am part of the force that came to rescue us.
Have you ever experienced racial discrimination in the army?
Simo: As a soldier I have never felt discrimination against me in the army, but there are still a lot of stereotypes that jump into people’s heads and, unfortunately, the media do a great job of enforcing those stereotypes.
Malasa: After my compulsory service, when I tried to find a job in the civilian workforce, I experienced a lot of discrimination. Even though I had a great resumé, I tried to get a job for two years. I then returned to the army as a professional. The army does not judge a person based on the color of his skin but on the ability to get the job done. I know that I got to where I am because of my ability and not for any other reason.
What other challenges face young Ethiopians in the army?
Mekonent: The gap between us [as second-generation immigrants] and our parents is like an ocean and is not simple at all. On one hand, they want to take care of us and make sure that we are learning and progressing, but on the other hand it is hard for them to do this because they do not understand the culture and especially the army here.
Malasa: My parents are religious and they did not want me to join the army because I would have to wear pants. It was impossible to explain to them why it was so important to me.
I realized from an early age that my parents did not understand this new culture, and that they could not give me the information that I needed to move forward and succeed in Israel. They did, however, give me the moral support and are now happy that I joined the army. I can see in my mother’s eyes how proud she is of me.
But it’s more than just my immediate family. When I come home in my uniform, all my neighbors say, “Well done, you have achieved so much.” The older people see us as the results of their hard work, and for the younger people we are role models.
Is there a big gap between your culture at home and Israeli culture, both in the army and in society in general?
Malasa: I feel Israeli in every way and I love Israeli culture, it is so passionate and expressive. But I also know my own roots and I try to take a bit from each culture.
Mengistu: I think there is a problem for Ethiopian soldiers in terms of relating to discipline. For example, when Ethiopians deal with authority, they will not look directly in the person’s eyes, but in the army, if you don’t look at your officer, he will likely be offended. Some Ethiopian soldiers do not get that.
How can you help young Ethiopian recruits to succeed like you have?
Siyum: I know that I am a role model for other Ethiopian soldiers, even though there are many of us who have succeeded from our community, and my goal is to show others that they can go in a positive direction and they can succeed, especially in the air force.
Panthon: Sometimes if there is a problem with a new Ethiopian recruit, I get called to come and help out, especially with those who are particularly problematic. We also have a big brother program for young Ethiopians who get into trouble or who go to jail to help them understand the protocols of the army.
Recently, a law was passed dictating that Ethiopian Jewish history and culture be taught in schools. What can you do about this in the army?
Mekonent: I never think aboutmy success in terms of myself, rather that we are all ambassadors forour community. I believe that we all need to explain to others aboutour traditions, and I try to do it on my base as much as possible.
Siyum: I am the first Ethiopianin my unit and I see it as my job to educate those who know nothingabout my community. A few weeks ago I asked my commander if I couldgive a presentation and he agreed. There are many good things aboutEthiopian culture that we must share with others.
Simo: I was very happy whenthis law was passed, not only so that native Israelis can learn aboutEthiopian culture but also for Israeli-born Ethiopians. I volunteer ina school with Ethiopian students and even they do not really know thatmuch about their own history. It is really important that childrenunderstand where they come from.