The First Word: Save us from the social workers

In Ethiopia women may have been dominated, but they were not murdered.

ethiopian child 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ethiopian child 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In April of last year, Ilu Beja killed his wife, Adelu, and himself. In December 2006, Anteneh Taddese, a 47-year-old Ethiopian from Holon, killed his wife and attempted to kill himself. The Holon incident is the latest in a series of family violence reports among Ethiopians. The situation is getting worse and no one seems to be doing anything to stop it. Some of these killings have been committed in front of children. Why does the highest level of violence appear to be taking place among one of the tiniest communities in the country? In Ethiopia, women may have been dominated or beaten, but they were not murdered. This is a "made in Israel" phenomenon. What explains it? Simply put: too much poverty, too little education and a gratuitous undermining of our traditions that virtually destroys the fabric of Ethiopian Jewish family life. We have basically been forced to abandon our traditions and embrace the modern ways of Israel. But this has led to tragic results in Ethiopian family life. Left unchecked, our current travails are likely to produce more criminals and potential killers. But what to do? The best approach is to allow Ethiopians to help other Ethiopians. And the best resource we have within our community are the shimagles, or elders. Given the chance, and with the right support, they could play a pivotal role in solving the predicaments the community finds itself in. The Amharic verb meshemgel has two meanings. One is to advance in age, to become old. The second is to mediate, to arbitrate and to solve conflicts that arise among community members - conflicts among neighbors, or between husband and wife. IN ETHIOPIAN tradition, an old person is considered wise. The belief is that with age, an individual accumulates wisdom. Hence he becomes a shimagle - an old person who has rich life experiences that enable him to be a peacemaker in the community. The young respect him. Back in Ethiopia, the shimagles played a constructive role in settling disputes and reconciling people. Whenever a conflict emerged between husband and wife, for instance, village elders would intervene and mediate between the parties. These elders knew the mentality of the people because they came from the community. They knew when and how to mediate, when and how to act. Sometimes, after a sudden outburst of anger, a husband and wife would quarrel and bring their case to the elders, and might ask them to help them divorce. The shimagles, knowing that when their anger died the couple would likely come to their senses and want to go on living together, would find a way to make this happen. Intensive mediation would take place; sometimes it would take several days, even weeks. In the meantime, the wife would stay in her parents' house. The main goal of the shimagles would be to solve the conflict and help the couple to live together in harmony; not to separate them. The elders knew the detrimental impact separating a couple would have on the welfare of their children. They also knew that if the couple divorced, they would regret their separation afterwards. Here in Israel, social workers have replaced elders. When faced with problems, instead of mediating, they often opt to break up families. They become part of the problem. A minor conflict that, handled with the proper cultural sensitivity, could have been easily solved becomes a divisive issue in the hands of Israeli social workers. When some Ethiopian men discover that an Israeli social worker - usually female - is about to investigate their family disputes, they literally contemplate suicide. The man anticipates that the social worker isn't coming to mediate, but to banish him from his house. And if he is thrown out of his house, he has nowhere to go - for, like many in his community, he is probably unemployed and living on a meager income. He cannot rent a house. Out of hopelessness and desperation, he kills his wife and himself in front of his children. IF A husband is a threat to his wife, by all means remove him from his home. But he has to go somewhere. To throw an individual out of his home without giving him shelter is inhuman. Moreover, too many social workers are indifferent concerning the welfare of our children. The fear of growing up in foster homes, something unknown in our culture, is frightening. In a television interview after the latest murder in Holon, one of the children of the victim asked that they be allowed to be taken care of by their elder sister. He said they wanted to be together as a family, an indication that they didn't want to go to foster parents or foster homes. The family crisis so rampant in the Ethiopian community might have been averted had the government not dispossessed the shimagles of their mediating role among their own community. Why can't the authorities effectively tackle the difficulties that beset Ethiopians? We are, after all, the most adaptable and soft-spoken of immigrant communities. We have a tradition of obeying and trusting authority. It also boggles the mind that a country founded by immigrants, with long-standing experience in absorbing immigrants, can be so inept in dealing with the difficulties that face a tiny community like ours. The truth is that the authorities are unwilling to help for reasons not clear to us. But if I am wrong and they do want what's best for us, then the authorities should train Ethiopian social workers and give them the opportunity to solve the community's pressing family problems by themselves. Under such a plan, Ethiopian social workers would work in collaboration with the shimagles, who speak the language of the people and have the experience of mediation. These young social workers would be taught to respect and to learn from the elders. Age is something one has to take into account when one deals with Ethiopians. LET ME now return to the issues of poverty and education. The violence undermining our family structure also stems from the fact that our children are deprived of a good education. And many of the educated ones are either unemployed or underemployed. Out of those Ethiopians who are employed, more than 90 percent, educated or not, work as security guards and earn a meager income. Why would Ethiopian youngsters want to struggle for a higher education if they think it will make no difference to their ultimate position in life? Finally, every day young Ethiopians see crime, violence and drug addiction around them. Surrounded by hopelessness, they begin to feel they also have no bright future. It is madness to expect sanity from a hopeless and desperate people. Sometimes it seems as if the only visitors to our community are researchers, psychologists and anthropologists, as if we were not a people to be helped, but subjects to be studied. Unless there is a sadistic satisfaction on the part of the Israeli authorities in seeing us murder each other, let them show a willingness to help us help ourselves. The only thing Ethiopians ask is to be treated like human beings, and to be allowed to live like human beings. Is this too much to ask? The writer is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.