Ethiopian dream

Tebeka aims to develop leadership that can enter the centers of power to build a strong Ethiopian community.

The bus driver shut the door on Yedanu Workie and didn’t open it despite her pounding.
Perhaps he failed to see her because she is short, she thought. The driver pulled away, but stopped again when he spotted another woman running for the bus.
Workie scrambled on behind her. The 24-year-old student was on her way to class at the College of Management in Rishon Lezion.
She handed the driver the money for the fare and what happened next made her realize that the reason he didn’t open the door for her was the color of her skin.
“In Ethiopia you didn’t have buses, so why don’t you walk like you did in Ethiopia?” the driver snapped at her, looking at her through dark glasses. “You didn’t even have shoes.
Here at least you have shoes, so why don’t you walk?” It got even uglier, as the driver escalated his tirade against Ethiopians.
Shaken and humiliated by the incident, Workie decided to fight back. She turned to Tebeka, a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to more than 1,000 Ethiopian immigrants a year. Tebeka’s lawyers sued the driver and the Egged bus company, which, they argued, had a responsibility to educate its drivers. Tebeka won its case, and the driver was compelled to apologize and pay a fine of 60,000 shekels.
“This watchdog doesn’t just bark, it also bites,” says Tebeka founder Itzik Dessie. “If you hit them in the pocket, they learn to be careful.”
Four years after the incident Workie says the humiliation still smarts. “But today, thanks to the fact that I fought back, I feel empowered,” she tells The Jerusalem Report in a telephone interview. Workie is running for election to the city council in her hometown of Lod. “I learned that you can lead, that you can influence,” she says.
This is exactly what Ethiopian Israeli attorney Dessie had in mind when he established Tebeka 13 years ago. The NGO has helped thousands of Ethiopians with a myriad of legal problems, but Dessie has a larger vision.
“The goal is the integration of the Ethiopians in Israeli society and to develop leadership that can enter the centers of power to build a strong community,” he says in an interview in his Tebeka office, located in a small shopping center in Rishon Lezion. On the wall hangs a large poster of Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Dessie has some dreams of his own. “The community lost its strength when it came to Israel,” he says in a mild voice that resonates with a tone of steely determination. He speaks as if he is still on the long journey he began as a 13-year-old boy, a treacherous 800-mile trek, at times on foot, from Ethiopia, north into Sudan and then the flight to Israel.
“We need to build the community anew.
We need leaders; we need rich individuals; and we need educated individuals. We need to push people into the Knesset, people who will be ambassadors, ministers and CEOs of companies,” he asserts.
There have been some successes. So far, six Ethiopians have served in the Knesset, including two in the current session. The first ambassador of Ethiopian descent is Belaynesh Zevadia, who is the ambassador to Ethiopia. Many Ethiopians serve as officers in the IDF, and Ethiopians have done well recently in Israeli pop culture. The current winner of the Miss Israel beauty pageant is Yityish Aynaw, who met US President Barack Obama during his last visit. An Ethiopian won the popular vote in the A Star is Born television singing contest and another in the Big Brother reality show.
In one of Tebeka’s programs, a group of 13 carefully chosen young professionals with proven leadership skills receive one-on-one mentoring by retirees of the Prime Minister’s Office, along with academic training in a variety of practical tools and skills. The year-long pilot program is called Rakia (Hebrew for sky), reflecting Tebeka’s vision that the sky is the limit. The participants are part of a growing group of Israeli-born Ethiopians who are increasingly educated and professional, but need an extra push to achieve their potential.
“We’re at a crucial moment in the Ethiopian story and we’re empowering a strong network of young professionals who can help each other and help the community,” says Rachel Present Schreter, Tebeka’s director of resource development and international relations.
“Chapter one was when they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, and chapter two is what happens next; and we’re writing that story.”
Dessie, 43, has the distinction of being the first Ethiopian lawyer in Israel. Previously, he served in the army as the first Ethiopian combat medic; and after completing his law degree at the University of Haifa, he interned at the prestigious Haim Zadok & Co. law firm in Tel Aviv. When he opened a private office in 1998, he faced an unusual problem for a rookie lawyer – too many clients.
He was inundated by Ethiopians in need of professional legal services but without the ability to pay.
“I had a dilemma,” he says. “I volunteered to work pro bono but I understood that the problem is too big for me to handle alone, so we established Tebeka. Our presumption was that if the new immigrants don’t know their rights, they can’t ask for them. Many had lived in villages, some were illiterate even in Amharic, and they found it difficult to deal with a complicated bureaucracy where they don’t understand the language and don’t understand the basic rules of the game.”
Tebeka, which means “advocate of justice” in Amharic, operates with an annual budget of $500,000, funded exclusively from donations both in Israel and abroad. The organization has an impressive list of supporters, among them eminent US jurist Alan Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler, Canadian MP and former minister of justice, who are honorary co-chairmen.
Today, Tebeka can have its pick from an ever- growing cadre of Ethiopian-Israeli lawyers.
Since Dessie joined the bar in 1998, more than 100 Ethiopians have followed suit, with another 120 students enrolled in law school.
Tebeka awards law school scholarships, skills training and job placement.
“I can’t even keep track of how many lawyers there are now. It just shows that if you give people an equal opportunity, the potential is there,” says Dessie, who is stepping down from his role as Tebeka’s CEO this month to pursue his personal dreams. He plans to study for a doctorate degree and after that “become one of the influential people in Israel.”
Tebeka’s new CEO, Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, who directed two immigrant absorption centers and represented Keren Hayesod in Sydney, Australia, hopes to be out of a job soon.
“We want to put ourselves out of business so there won’t be a need for our services,” he tells The Report. “Israel cannot afford to have second-class citizens of Ethiopian origins.
We want a normal society in which Ethiopians won’t be different to anyone else. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.”
Statistics show that the 130,000 or so Ethiopian Israelis are three times more likely to live in poverty than non-Ethiopian Jewish Israelis. Among those of working age, twice as many are likely to be unemployed, and those who are employed work in lowgrade jobs, often as contract workers with little hope of advancement. The community is concentrated in low-income neighborhoods and, as a consequence, some kindergartens and schools have become almost exclusively Ethiopian. In addition, the ultra- Orthodox-dominated religious establishment has been less than accommodating to the new immigrants, whose very claim to being Jewish it has questioned.
Since its founding, Tebeka has fought and won several discrimination cases in the High Court of Justice.
For several years, each September saw the reenactment of what was becoming a back-to-school ritual – Ethiopian children in Petah Tikva were either placed in segregated classrooms or denied access to several state-funded religious schools and private schools. Tebeka filed a petition demanding that the Ministry of Education cut off public funding to schools that discriminate. In 2010, the High Court upheld Tebeka’s arguments.
The all-Ethiopian school was disbanded and its students were integrated into area schools.
When Jewish couples decide to marry, they must register at their local religious council, but Ethiopians had to go an extra step. They first had to visit Rabbi Yosef Adana, the one Ethiopian rabbi recognized by the religious authorities, so he could verify that they were Jewish. This entailed taking time off from work. In 2002, Tebeka petitioned the High Court of Justice asking that Ethiopians receive religious services in a council near their home just like other Jews.
Tebeka won and now there are nine Ethiopian rabbis spread out across the country. Ethiopians must still first prove that they are Jewish, but can do so close to home.
Israeli public radio ran two broadcasts in the Amharic language, at noon and in the evening. When the Israel Broadcast Authority decided in 2002 to cancel the evening program, Tebeka petitioned the High Court asking for an injunction. The Amharic program is essential for the new immigrants who do not have access to newspapers or television.
The court granted the injunction and to this day, Israel Radio broadcasts in Amharic every evening.
Just a few hours spent at one of Tebeka’s free legal clinics is enough to get a glimpse of the kind of problems Ethiopians face. The bulk of the cases, about 40 percent, are work related, often involving employers who take advantage of Ethiopians, and about 15 percent are racial discrimination cases.
Tebeka attorney Ariel Azala, 37, meets his clients in a small, austere office in an immigrant absorption center in Petah Tikva.
It has nothing but a desk, a few chairs and several law books. Azala’s framed diplomas from the prestigious Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya hang on the ochre-colored wall, which is scuffed, cracked and peeling. A noisy air-conditioner barely cools the space.
The first client is a woman in her 30s who was fired from her job in a shoe store, after 10 years. The reason was a report by a company undercover shopper that claimed she smelled bad. The memo was visible to employees in the entire chain. She was fired without a hearing. The next client comes on his wife’s behalf. Her employers changed her supermarket morning shift to the afternoon, which is when her children come back from school. When she didn’t agree, she was fired without compensation and 3,000 shekels were docked from her paycheck.
The next case is already at an advanced stage of litigation. Two weeks before his wedding, Yaakov Lagasa, 26, was told by the rabbi at his local religious council that he wouldn’t be able to get married. The rabbi claimed Lagasa’s certificate of Jewishness was forged. The invitations had already been sent, deposits paid and his bride had already bought her wedding dress.
“As soon as he told me the paper was forged without even checking with the Ethiopian rabbi who signed it, I turned to Tebeka,” Lagasa says, pointing out that his older brother and sister had married in Israel before him, meaning that the family’s Jewish background had already been properly vetted.
Azala is suing the rabbi and the Rosh Ha’ayin Religious Council for 50,000 shekels. Lagasa got married on time, but only after he had to hastily register in Jerusalem with the chief Ethiopian rabbi. It was precisely this issue that Tebeka fought in the High Court of Justice 11 years ago.
Tebeka attorney Ariel Azala (GULI COHEN)Tebeka attorney Ariel Azala (GULI COHEN)
“I don’t have any control over racism by private individuals, I can’t educate the whole world, but official authorities cannot discriminate,” says Azala.
He and Lagasa pile into a car and drive to Lod to meet the Ethiopian rabbi, Eliyahu Kabeda, who signed the original certificate.
Azala wants the rabbi to sign an affidavit affirming that he researched Lagasa’s family tree going back five generations and that the document he issued is genuine.
But Kabeda is worried that a lawsuit against the rabbi and the Rosh Ha’ayin Religious Council might arouse antagonism against Ethiopians. He tells them that he has already heard rumors that the rabbinical authorities are furious that one of their own is being sued by an Ethiopian. He has heard it said they are pushing to cancel the authority of the nine Ethiopian rabbis in the country.
“I am afraid that we can cause more problems for the community,” he says, looking decidedly uncomfortable.
He signs the affidavit despite his misgivings.
“Good luck,” he says as the two leave, adding a common expression among the Ethiopian Israeli community, “We made it through Sudan – we’ll make it through this as well.