'Talk to the people,' Ethiopian leaders tell Knesset committee

Representatives of Ethiopian organizations urged the Knesset's Committee on Immigrant Absorption and the Diaspora on Monday to go out into the troubled Ethiopian neighborhoods country-wide and learn for themselves about the growing social and economic crises facing the community. "You need to go to places like Rishon Lezion, Kiryat Malachi, Kiryat Gat, Gadera and Beersheba, see these areas, see the neighborhoods surrounding those areas and talk to the people that live there," said David Meharet, head of the Education Ministry's steering committee on Ethiopian immigrants. Another Education Ministry representative, Ya'acov Melakmo, echoed his words. "Go to the neighborhoods, it is important for you to go out into the field and talk to the people." The committee, which is now chaired by MK Michael Nudelman, heard from a wide range of government ministries, members of Knesset and Ethiopian organizations about the difficulties of aliya and immigration facing Ethiopian Israelis. "Where is the integration?" asked Nudelman. "I call on Ze'ev Boim, the minister of immigrant absorption, to put together a team of experts to examine the status of Ethiopian Israelis and bring its recommendations before this committee within three months." Opening the proceedings, outgoing committee chairwoman Collette Avital said: "A week does not go by without us hearing about a case of violence or suicide in the Ethiopian community... Out of the 105,000 strong community, 70 percent are without jobs, we are hearing about suicide and rape, drugs and alcohol nearly every day," she continued. "With that picture, we now have to ask ourselves where did we go wrong? If something is not succeeding we have to stop and ask what are the problems and not continue pouring money into projects that do not work." Reuven Merhav, chairman of the government appointed Ethiopian National Project, which runs programs for teenagers, said that there was no way to cut corners in terms of budgets and that education was the key to helping the immigrants enter successfully into the community. The organization, which was supposed to have received half of its 2005 budget from the government has yet to receive a shekel from that source. "The statistics speak for themselves," Nigist Mengashe, director of ENP, told the committee. "We are always in the headlines and we need a change within the community." While most of the emphasis was on working with children and youth, MK Yitzhak Zvi of the Gil Pensioners Party said that assistance should also be given to older Ethiopian immigrants who come to Israel with nothing, have difficulties learning the language and finding employment. And MK Avraham Michaeli, who lives in Or Yehuda - a town with some of the worst cases of poverty in the Ethiopian community - brought up the issue of racism against Ethiopians from veteran Israelis. "We are a racist society," he stated. "In many cases as soon as Ethiopians move into a certain neighborhood the Israelis move out. We are not dealing with that problem." He added that the Social Affairs Ministry did not have the means to address the community's social problems. A representative from the Social Affairs Ministry added that there was a severe shortage of Ethiopian social workers. The committee also heard from Dr. Rafi Yungman of the Rupin Institute, which has conducted several studies of the Ethiopian community. He called on the committee to conduct further research into the connection between immigration and mental health for Ethiopians. Hanoch Tzamir from the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption gave the committee some background on the programs run by the ministry and highlighted some of the achievements of the community. He said that Boim was planning to set up a committee to deal with violence among immigrant youth.