Sky’s the limit: Media project for Ethiopian teens

Goal of "Semai" is to empower youth without breaking heritage ties through media communications program.

Ethopian Teens (370) (photo credit: Yoav Lin)
Ethopian Teens (370)
(photo credit: Yoav Lin)
To celebrate the appointment earlier this year of Belaynesh Zevadia, Israel’s first Ethiopian-born ambassador, as envoy to Addis Ababa, longtime journalist and media personality Danny Adino Abebe arranged for a group of young Ethiopian-Israelis to interview her.
“I will never forget how excited they were about speaking to a person from the same background as them but who overcame the odds to become incredibly successful,” Abebe, one of only three Ethiopian-born Israelis working in the local media, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
“One of the boys turned to me afterwards. He was so inspired, he said, ‘One day I will become the first Ethiopian- Israeli ambassador to Washington,’” Abebe said.
Abebe reports for Yediot Aharonot, and has also invested a great deal of time and energy into creating a media communications program aimed at empowering the next generation of Ethiopians.
Called Semai, Amharic for “sky,” (because “the sky is the limit”) the program’s goal is to change the way the Ethiopian community sees itself and how others relate to it.
“The Ethiopian community is always portrayed as poor or weak and in need of charity and help, but I want to change that and use the strong, most successful people from among us to show what can be achieved,” Abebe said.
With help from funders such as Israeli Educational Television, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and Isaac Dabah, chairman of the board and CEO of clothing company Delta Galil, Abebe formally launched Semai in June.
Over the past two months, a carefully selected group of 40 outstanding Ethiopian students from across the country, aged 16-17, has been meeting once a week to learn the basics of journalism and multimedia communication.
The students have also had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with some of the country’s most successful media figures in order to gain tips and information about the profession.
“I am amazed at how willing Israeli journalists have been to help with this project,” said Abebe, pointing out that among the media stars to meet with the teens are former Channel 10 anchor Yaakov Eilon, Channel 2 investigative journalist Itai Engel and broadcast personality Erez Tal.
The group also met with Hagit Yaso, the Ethiopianborn winner of popular singing TV show Kochav Nolad (“A Star is Born”) in 2011, and the only Ethiopian-born Knesset member currently in the legislature, Shlomo Molla (Kadima).
In addition, the program has received donated equipment and been privy to tours of several media colleges, Army Radio, local radio stations and Abebe’s own Yediot Aharonot. It is also being supported by the Gvanim Association for Education and Community Involvement.
While the goal of the program is to bolster the status of the Ethiopian community within mainstream Israeli society and to give the teens confidence in the face of their Sabra peers, Abebe is also aware of the need for the youngsters to stay proud and connected to their roots.
“I realized that while they all want to feel Israeli, it is also important that they do not lose their connection to their past or their heritage,” he said.
Along those lines, Abebe hopes in the coming months to take the students back to Ethiopia to the places where they were born – most of them arrived here as tiny babies – to create films about their former villages and lifestyles, as well as to better understand the journey their parents took to Israel.
With the help of the Jewish Agency, Abebe has already found funding for part of the group and is looking for more.
“I really believe in this and I am sure that we will find others willing to support this important mission,” he said, adding that while in Ethiopia, the teens will also provide support and inspiration to those still waiting for the chance to immigrate to Israel.
Today there are roughly 4,000 Ethiopian Jews or Falash Mura – people whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity more than a century ago – living in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar.
Many have already been approved for aliya but must wait there until final preparations can be made.
“As well as making films about their own roots, they will travel back to Ethiopia as Israelis,” Abebe explained about the group hoping to make the trek backwards.
“While they are there, they will also volunteer with the community waiting in Gondar, work with the kids and teach them Hebrew in preparation for their new life in Israel.”
As part of the grand finale to the Semai project, the films they make of their journey back to Ethiopia will be screened in Israel and serve as additional inspiration for the rest of the community.
“I know that most of these students will never become journalists, but I just hope that by taking this course, by learning these skills, they will know how to better represent themselves and go on to find their own success,” Abebe said.