Out of Africa, and Back

A delegation of outstanding Ethiopian-Israeli high school students visited the country where their parents were born. Zahava remembered that the name she was given at birth was Aregitu (meaning roots) – Netanel filmed a movie of the school where his father studied – Daniel connected with a young child who is waiting to make Aliyah – Gila was touched by singing Hatikva in the Jewish cemetery at Wolleka – All of the participants returned more mature, valuing life, and feeling more connected to both their pasts and Israel.

Meghi, Maya and Zahava in the synagogue at Ambovar; photo Omer Kalderon/The Jewish Agency for Israel.

by Israeli-Ethiopian Teens
exclusive to eJP

15 outstanding Ethiopian Israeli students from across the country participated in a roots tour to Ethiopia. Some of us had never visited Ethiopia, others made Aliyah when they were babies, and a few had memories of their childhood in Africa.

We were all shaken up by the experience, which taught us where we came from and where we are going within Israeli society, of which we are an inseparable part.

We experienced moments of hope and angst, laughter and tears, excitement and pain. We visited the villages where our parents were born and grew up. We toured the sites which are central to the heritage of Ethiopian Jewry. We volunteered at The Jewish Agency Center in Gondar with the community that is waiting to make Aliyah to Israel. We met relatives, whose dream to make Aliyah has not yet been realized.

After two fascinating weeks we returned to Israel different people. Perhaps more mature, prouder, valuing life more. Today we understand a little more about our parents, after having seen from up close the huge changes they experienced. Now they are fighting for their right to integrate into Israeli society.

At the preparatory seminar in Jerusalem, the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky said: “You are not leaving on a roots tour, because your roots are in Israel.” After visiting Ethiopia we understand that we have many reasons to be proud of who we are, and many reasons to appreciate what we have.

We are now back home. Without a doubt Israel is our home. What we experienced in Ethiopia will stay with us throughout our lives. In just a short time we will join the Israel Defense Forces, and thanks to this tour we have a better understanding of what we are fighting for, and what a privilege it is to live as Jews in our homeland.

We are not the first group of Ethiopian-Israelis to visit Ethiopia. In the past there have been private and local groups that have arranged roots tours. However, this is the first time that a representative group, chosen from students across the country has been organized with the support of national institutions – The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Education Ministry, and with the support of Keren Hayesod; the Rashi Foundation; the Society for the Advancement of Education; the Ariella Foundation; the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews; the Ariella Foundation.

Every member of our community should participate in a tour like this as a part of growing up and connecting to our identity as Ethiopian-Israelis. We hope that this tour will become a tradition: that we are the pioneers, and many will follow in our footsteps. Not only will the tour participants and the Ethiopian community benefit, but Israeli society as a whole.

Aregito means roots

Until this trip I lived like a white girl in a black body. I didn’t feel Ethiopian, aside from my skin color which gave me away. When I heard that I had been accepted for a place on the roots tour to Ethiopia, I was primarily excited because I would be flying overseas for the first time.

I made Aliyah when I was a one year old baby and it seemed to me that Ethiopia would be a foreign country where I would be a tourist. I have no memories from there, aside from videos that I saw on YouTube and stories that I heard from my family. I hear the beautiful language of Amharic singing in my ears at home, but I don’t really speak the language.

On the first day of the tour I was shocked. The poverty, scarcity and dirt hit me in the gut. In Israel I had never seen a mother lay her son down to sleep naked and dirty on the sidewalk. In Israel life is so easy compared to Ethiopia.

As the days went by I discovered new things about the country of my birth – some of them wonderful and some not. One moment is etched into my memory for life: The visit to Jenda, the village where my father was born. We walked to the village on foot as the narrow path was not accessible by vehicle. In Amharic, a language that I barely spoke, I asked the villagers how to get to the house that I had once been connected to.

In the place where our house once stood there was only sand and weeds. At first, I couldn’t believe that I had arrived at the right place. It was only when a group of women began to list for me the names of my aunties that I realized I was in fact in the right place. Tears filled my eyes when I realized that the neighbors still remembered the names of my family after all these years.

One of the neighbors showed me where my grandfather’s house had once stood. It turns out my grandfather was a celebrity in the village. Today he is buried there, and I had the honor of visiting his grave. My father is the godfather of Molo, a boy who still lives in the village.

I saw a small girl, about eight years old carrying her younger brother on her back while shepherding a herd of cattle. I looked at her and thought, if my parents hadn’t made Aliyah and we had stayed in Ethiopia, at my age I would already have been married off and my parents would be expecting a child from me, not a high school graduation certificate.

I called my father, and he found it hard to believe that I was really there in his village. For the first time in my life I told him in a strong clear voice, “Dad, I love you.” He told me that he also loved me. I have never felt as connected to my past as at that moment, and I have never felt as Israeli. Before the tour I had never spoken with my father about Ethiopia. Today I understand that Ethiopia is a big part of who he is, and also of whom I am.

It was especially moving to see those who had waited years to make Aliyah leaving behind their possessions, their friends and their families, and getting on the bus which would take them to the airport, from where they would fly to Israel. I understood that was exactly what my family went through after seven years of waiting. My parents also fought for their dream of making Aliyah, and succeeded in fulfilling their dream.

The roots tour to Ethiopia completed the puzzle of who am I. After I saw what my parents went through, I feel proud of them and thankful to them. Having seen where I was born, I feel at ease with my past and with my origins. I returned to Israel not only more Israeli, but a better person who can now appreciate the small things in life. And of course, I no longer want to forget where I came from.

“My name is Zahava Zagaya” – That is how I introduced myself my whole life. I can now reveal that my real name is Aregito, when means roots. How ironic.

Zahava Aregito Zagaya speaks with her father in Israel after visiting his birthplace; photo courtesy Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel.

Zahava Aregito Zagaya, 16

Proud to be a Jew

I was born in Israel and had never visited Ethiopia. The roots tour was an opportunity to experience a little of what my parents went through when they were young.

My father went to school in Ambovar which was an important center of Jewish life in Ethiopia in the past. While visiting I filmed a movie for him of the Jewish school where he studied, which is now a regular school, and imagined that it was me running amongst the school children. I have never been so happy.

In the synagogue in Ambovar I felt proud to be a Jew. Rising above Ambovar is the hill that the Jews would climb during the Sigd holiday, fasting and praying. Finally, I felt connected to my past.

In Ethiopia I met many people who were poor, but happy: People who were satisfied with a little and happy with what they had. At The Jewish Agency facilities in Gondar I met a clever seven year old called Mengistu Abebe. I can’t explain why I felt so connected to him. Little Mengistu is my hero. A child who lived in difficult conditions, but always had a wide grin plastered on his face.

When the moment came to leave Gondar on our way back to Israel, Mengistu hugged me tightly and told me through his tears that he would miss me. I gave him a piece of paper with my details, so he could contact me when he arrived in Israel. I didn’t want to let him go, and only did so when we were told that we had to get on the bus.

On the bus ride back to the hotel, the tears began to flow. What will be the fate of the sweet boy that I had left behind? Will he make Aliyah and come visit me?

The roots tour of Ethiopia returned the emotion and curiosity that I feel that I had lost. I learnt about what my parents had gone through as well as all members of the Ethiopian community in Israel, and returned to Israel to continue to learn. For years, I ignored my parent’s stories, but on the tour I learnt to appreciate them again.

Nati briefs the group in the Simien mountains; photo Omer Kalderon/The Jewish Agency for Israel.

Netanel Wote, 18

The Weeds Were Waiting for us

My roots tour began before I left the house. I sat with my father before the tour in order to hear from him about life in Ethiopia and his Aliyah to Israel. We talked as we had never talked before.

We experienced many emotional moments in Ethiopia, including fixing the memorial to those who were killed on the way to Sudan, and cleaning the cemetery at the Jewish village of Wolleka. The weeds had flourished as if they were waiting specifically for us. I felt that I was cleaning the graves of my brothers.

We escorted the Olim as they left Gondar for a better future in Israel, and we also watched those who were left behind. They didn’t say a word, and only the muffled noises and soft sounds of crying reminded us that there are still people whose dream of making Aliyah has not yet been completed. I saw in their eyes the dream of making Aliyah to Israel, and was reminded of my parents and their yearning for Jerusalem.

But the most emotional moment for me was when we first got off the bus at the synagogue. A man was waiting for us and asked: “Who is Daniel?” I told him that I was Daniel and he immediately began to hug and kiss me. It turned out that he was my uncle, whom I had never met. He is my father’s brother and has been waiting to immigrate to Israel with his wife and nine children for 15 years. His smiling face hid a deep sadness.

When the time came for the group to depart and return to Israel, the sounds of sobbing and wailing could be heard from every direction. The children in the local community, who had developed a deep connection with our group while we were in Gondar, simply did not want us to leave. We also felt the strong connection to them and our eyes also filled with tears.

One child is burnt into my memory. He hugged me, gave me a photo of himself and said: “So you don’t forget me”. I dream of meeting him again in Jerusalem: I will recognize him with the help of the photo he left in my hand.

Daniel dons tefillin in Ambovar synagagoue; photo Omer Kalderon/The Jewish Agency for Israel.

Daniel Toajo Bekele, 18

“Don’t cry, We’ll meet again in Israel”

In Ethiopia the first image that a Westerner sees is of extreme poverty.

However, after seeing the joy for life in these same people, their smiles which burst forth, you understand that we with our smartphones and tablets are not rich at all. As they say: Who is rich? He that rejoices in his portion.

The Jews of Ethiopia endured many hardships on their way to Israel. One of the most touching moments was when the group stood in the cemetery in Wolleka and sang Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem in a loud clear voice, proving to all that “Am Yisrael Hai” (the Jewish People lives on).

At The Jewish Agency center in Gondar I met Mekdes, a little girl with sparkling eyes and innocent speech. When we parted she said to me “Don’t cry. We’ll meet again in Israel.” Of course I started to cry even harder. She reminded me of my parents and the hopes that they held before their Aliyah.

I was lucky to tread on a slice of my own history when I visited the village where my father was born, Gorgora Buchara. During those moments I felt that I understood my father better than ever, understood where he came from and why life is difficult for him in Israel.

Gila; photo Omer Kalderon/The Jewish Agency for Israel.

Gila Gvianch Aweke, 16

The project was supported and organized by The Jewish Agency; Keren Hayesod; the Rashi Foundation; the Society for the Advancement of Education; the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews; The Ministry of Education; the Ariella Foundation within the framework of Samai: The Centre for Media and Excellence for Ethiopian-Israeli Youth.

Also see My Parents Are My Hero: Ethiopian-Israeli Teens Connect with Their Heritage.