150 Falash Mura realize the 'Promise'

Future less bright for illegal Ethiopian workers facing deportation.

falash mura 88 (photo credit: )
falash mura 88
(photo credit: )
As part of the government's ongoing campaign to bring the rest of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, 150 members of the Falash Mura community landed at Ben-Gurion Airport early Wednesday morning, accompanied by more than 100 senior American Jewish leaders. Their arrival here, which was organized by the United Jewish Communities, signals what UJC leaders hope is the beginning of the last chapter in the story of bringing Ethiopian Jewry to Israel. Joel Tauber, who led the mission to Ethiopia, is the national chairman of the UJC's "Operation Promise," a new campaign which has pledged $100 million to bring the Jews still remaining in Ethiopia to Israel, in collaboration with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency. In an ironic coincidence, several hours later, in Tel Aviv District Court, the appeal of 72 non-Jewish Ethiopians incarcerated in Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramle to postpone their deportation was rejected, and they were given no more than 30 days to leave before being sent back to Ethiopia against their will. Sitting in her new home - a sparsely-furnished one-room apartment at the Lod absorption center - Wuvalem Mnuwuyeled, 18, said she was happy to finally have arrived and to connect with her own people. Mnuwuyeled and her husband, from a village in the vicinity of Gondar in northwestern Ethiopia, are one of four families who will begin their new lives in Lod, after spending a transition period in Addis Ababa. Like the other families, she spent her first hours in Israel in the company of the absorption center's Israeli-Ethiopian counselors, who taught her how to use her apartment's basic sanitation, cooking and electric facilities. One of the counselors, who arrived in 1984, said that notwithstanding the many immigrants she has assisted over the years, she was incredibly moved to meet the new arrivals. "Things won't always be easy for them here, but I remember the feeling of first arriving in the country - compared to where they're coming from, the conditions here seem unbelievable to them," she said. During their two-day trip to Ethiopia, Tauber said, mission leaders visited the living quarters of Falash Mura who have moved to Addis Ababa in anticipation of their imminent departure for Israel, as well as some of the villages around Gondar. While he described living conditions in the city as "shocking," he said those who arrived there could at least benefit from basic health care and nutritional needs provided by UJC. Over the next three years, Tauber said, UJC hopes to bring all of Ethiopia's remaining Jews - whose estimated number is 12,000-22,000 - to Israel. "One of the important things we've learned is that we have to make a final list of all the Falash Mura still in Ethiopia, and bring their situation to a fair and humanitarian conclusion," he said. Adjusting to life in Israel certainly won't be hurdle-free for a young woman like Mnuwuyeled, who has just completed fifth grade back in Ethiopia. For Tauber, one of the keys to the integration of these and future immigrants into Israeli society is focusing on the education of young people. While Mnuwuyeled and her husband arrived alone, in the hopes that their families will join them later, others who arrived with them rushed off to reunite with family members already here. Standing at the bus station outside the absorption center, one young man, holding a small suitcase and accompanied by his father, who has been here for two years, was off to visit relatives in Kiryat Malachi. Back at the absorption center, UJC leaders visited a series of classes designed for the newcomers, including a class for women who have already been at the center for some time, and were now learning how to search for employment. Tauber said he hoped that the launching of the UJC's new mission, which also involves support for the new immigrants as they acclimate, will also interest some Israeli philanthropists. The fact that Ethiopian immigrants who arrived more than a decade ago are still not well integrated into Israeli society was "particularly distressing" to him, Tauber said. Nevertheless, he added, "The Jews are a stubborn people... We'll just keep trying until we get it right." The situation of the 72 Ethiopians facing deportation stood in stark contrast to the celebratory mood surrounding the new arrivals. They have been imprisoned for one to two years, after arriving here illegally. Their appeal, which was filed by lawyer Yael Katz Mastbaum of the Hot Line for Migrant Workers, was intended to prevent their deportation back to Ethiopia, where the appeal argued they would be subjected to a possible death sentence or prolonged imprisonment, including torture and rape, withholding of medical care and starvation. Last year, the Orthodox Ethiopian church in Canada agreed to sponsor their immigration to that country - the first step in an immigration process that is based on humanitarian needs. The appeal was accompanied by testimony which included descriptions of the suffering the individuals in this group underwent before fleeing Ethiopia due to their affiliation with the opposition to the country's ruling party. Some of them were the wives or children of men who were jailed, murdered or who disappeared following the EPRDF's ascendance to power. Speaking from Ma'asiyahu Prison, to which she returned after appearing in court, one 25-year-old woman told The Jerusalem Post she had left Ethiopia more than three years ago, after being jailed twice and losing her job as a teacher. "Things in Ethiopia are even worse now than when I left," she said. "I am so disappointed. We were fasting and praying for three days, hoping and expecting for something good to happen. All we are asking for is some more time so we can finish the immigration process and leave Israel. All we want is some consideration from the Israeli government." On Wednesday evening, Katz Mastbaum said she did not expect the court to accept the appeal, but was hoping for several more months to process their immigration to Canada. "I hope that this will open up the possibility of negotiations with the Interior Ministry," she said. "I would like to get six, or at least four, months before you have to leave, and I am now hoping that we might be able to speed up the process in Canada, or else arrange for them to fly somewhere else for the time being. "Sending them all back to Ethiopia, however, is akin to killing them - especially after all the media attention their struggle has received. I have no complaints against the court verdict, which was what the judge could do within the framework of the law. But I hope it will open up the possibility of considering their cases individually - as Jews, we cannot simply close our eyes and say we don't care."