An organization established a year and a half ago to tackle the growing problems in the Ethiopian community has yet to receive a single shekel of the millions promised to it by the government, The Jerusalem Post has learned. The Ethiopian National Project - which runs in-school programs for Ethiopian children, outreach centers for youth at risk and provides the community with the tools to be more proactive - was inaugurated in November 2002 and actually started working in January 2005 with funds raised primarily by the United Jewish Communities-Federations of North America (UJC). The Israeli government was meant to match the money raised abroad to the sum of NIS 9 million for 2005. Nigist Mengesha, the ENP director-general, told the Post Sunday that "nearly two years have passed since we started this project and we still have not received one shekel. Our budget is stuck in a bureaucratic process, meaning that we are losing Ethiopian children every day. We are talking about suicides, youth dropping out of the educational program and losing hope." ENP's chairman Reuven Merhav - a former Mossad agent and Foreign Ministry official who has been working with the Ethiopian community for the past 40 years - said that the money, which is meant to come via the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, is still on hold for Finance Ministry approval before it can be distributed. "It has been sitting there for a year," he said Tuesday. "Mirla Gal, director-general of the Absorption Ministry, assured me three days ago that the money would be released in the next few days, but she has been promising me that for over a year. It is a bureaucratic problem and we already need to start thinking about the 2006-7 budget." "The delay has been due to the bureaucracy of the Finance Ministry in finalizing the details of this contract," said Tamar Abramovitch, spokeswoman at the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. The Finance Ministry acknowledged the delay and responded by saying that there were still some fine details of the contract that must be ironed out. Meetings have been held over the last few days between representatives of the organization, Finance Ministry accountants and legal advisers in attempt to expedite the matter, said the ministry's spokesperson. The ENP was meant to have been a partnership between the government and the UJC, representatives of Ethiopian Jewish community organizations, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Israel and Keren Hayesod. "We cannot survive with just the help of the UJC and other global Jewish bodies," said Mengesha. "ENP was set up at the request of the government to help solve the problems of Ethiopian absorption." Nachman Shai, director-general of the United Jewish Communities-Israel, expressed to the Post his disappointment that the budget had still not been released to the ENP. According to the ENP, the Ethiopian population has the highest rate of poverty of any social group in Israel. The project works on the belief that by helping Ethiopian youth in their high school matriculation exams, running outreach centers to keep youth off the streets and by encouraging the community to set up its own organizations, the socio-economic conditions of Ethiopian Israelis will ultimately improve. "We have an excellent project already in place, with 13 outreach centers already running around the country and treating more than 5,000 children, we just need the financial backup," said Merhav. Even as the ENP is fighting to receive the money promised to it for 2005, Mengesha and Merhav are growing concerned about the budget for 2006-7. "We need NIS 8m. to continue the work we are doing," said Merhav. "So far, we have a verbal commitment from the UJC, but the government wants to see that in writing before agreeing to include it in its budget." Merhav added that the promised UJC funds for 2006-7 are to be taken out of the budget for Operation Promise. Last year, the UJC voted to raise an additional $100m. over the next five years to bring the remaining 20,000 Falash Mura to Israel. Mengesha said that $37m. of that is intended for long-term integration programs. "All our hope is now focused on Operation Promise," said Mengesha, adding that one of the main issues now is to try to regain trust in the community." The ENP works alongside projects run by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which alone invests NIS 500m. per year into the absorption of the Ethiopian community, said Abramovitch.