Be patient and the dream will come true

“I knew I had to work with the Ethiopian community because I know how difficult it is for the families not to be able to decide for their kids."

(photo credit: YOHANIS AZZEU)
Michal Avera Samuel was only eight years old when her family set out on foot from Gondar, Ethiopia. Throughout the difficult six-week trek, she and her parents and eight siblings – the oldest son had been kidnapped several years before by Mengistu’s forces – kept up their spirits by reminding themselves of their ultimate destination.
“When we started our journey, we knew we were heading to Jerusalem, so we were very excited and did not complain, but in Sudan a lot of people died and there was disease and we had nothing to do. My parents had no jobs and didn’t speak the language. I remember asking, ‘Is this the dream you promised us?’ They told us to be patient and the dream would come true,” Samuel recalls.
It took a year until the family finally boarded a train and then a plane, neither of which they’d ever seen before. This was the huge Ethiopian airlift dubbed Operation Moses, at the end of 1984. Some 8,000 Jews were brought to Israel, 200 at a time, over the course of seven weeks.
“Suddenly we arrived in Israel, but it was not Jerusalem. The first misunderstanding for an Ethiopian Jew is that he thinks he is arriving in Jerusalem – but it was Lod,” she says.
The family bounced around from an Ashkelon absorption center to Acre to Or Akiva and eventually settled in Kfar Saba. Michal and her siblings were sent to religious boarding schools by the government. “It was a shock for me. Many of the kids came from broken families. We were being educated with those kids and not seeing the best of Israeli society. There were low expectations and a low level of education.”
Eventually, on the strength of her academic achievements, Michal was transferred to a better boarding school and earned her matriculation certificate in 1992. Only a year before that she had finally been reunited with the long-lost older brother.
“My parents never believed he was dead,” she says.
“In 1991, one of my brothers was in the Israeli army and was involved in Operation Solomon,” the covert 36- hour military airlift that brought 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. He made inquiries in Addis Ababa and discovered that their older sibling had escaped from the Ethiopian army and come back to the family’s village only to discover that his family was no longer there. Through contacts at the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Agency, the brothers found one another.
“My soldier brother called and said he had a surprise for us. Our older brother came to Israel in Operation Solomon. We took a taxi to Ashkelon and I asked the security guard if I could see him. My brother did not remember me. I was only two years old when he disappeared.” She describes their reunion as “exciting and amazing.”
After high school, Samuel did her National Service in an absorption center.
“I knew I had to work with the Ethiopian community because I know how difficult it is for the families not to be able to decide for their kids. I wanted people to be involved in their children’s education,” she says.
She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in educational counseling at the University of Haifa and then spent a year in the US as one of the Israeli representatives in the Epcot Millennium Village pavilion in Orlando, Florida.
“It was an honor to represent Israel as a black Jewish woman,” she says.
Upon her return, she worked as a research assistant to former MK Nomi Blumenthal in the Knesset’s immigration committee, but she very much wanted to continue working with Ethiopian immigrants on their integration into Israeli society.
“I considered several organizations and was accepted to Fidel, the association for education and social integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. I started as a guidance counselor in 2000 and I really grew up there.”
For the past six years, Samuel has served as executive director of Fidel (“alphabet” in Amharic), which recently marked its 20th anniversary. The chairman of the board is Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin.
“We have an important mission,” says Samuel. “First, we work with our community to improve education and day-to-day life and to preserve our identity and learn about our own culture and history. We also work with Israeli society toward acceptance and raising expectations for our lives. We have to believe that we can achieve everything.”
In cooperation with the Education Ministry, Fidel trains and sustains a cadre of school and social mediators who work with parents, children and teachers as advocates in order to overcome educational and social obstacles in more than 180 schools. All in all, Fidel touches the lives of close to 10,000 Ethiopian Israelis of all ages.
Fidel maintains seven youth centers in underprivileged neighborhoods across Israel, providing scholastic support and field trips as well as workshops on subjects such as robotics, computers and arts after school hours and during school vacations. Samuel says that in neighborhoods where the youth centers are located, dropout rates and petty crime have decreased.
Fidel also runs seven leadership-training groups for about 100 participants, which offer volunteering opportunities and mentorship from employees of hitech companies.
Samuel stresses that the key to the success of the community is not forgetting the critical role of parents, so Fidel offers parents empowerment seminars that encourage greater involvement in their children’s education while fostering local leadership.
She also works as a counselor in a school in Haifa and meets regularly with Knesset Committee for Immigration and Absorption chair MK Avraham Neguise to offer her input on improving academic achievement among immigrant populations.
Samuel lives in Hod Hasharon with her husband, an Ethiopian Israeli engineer, and their three children, ages 12, nine and four. “They’re very Israeli,” she says of her kids.
Although she is proud of the improved educational opportunities for Ethiopian immigrants in Israel today, Samuel sees much more work ahead for Fidel and herself.
“The most critical problem is prejudice and racism. You are less accepted if you’re a different color or have a different personal history. Unfortunately, we are still fighting for acceptance and the majority sees us as weak. If we work on this, we can improve the situation not only for Ethiopian Jews but for all of Israeli society.”