JENDA, Ethiopia — In a secluded village in northern Ethiopia, near the foot of the Blue Nile, Zahava Aregito Zagaya, 16, and a group of other Israeli-Ethiopian teens were walking through expansive green and yellow pastures of grass and teff, the sour grain used to make injera, the region’s ubiquitous, spongy flatbread. They stopped and asked a farmer if he could point them in the direction of Jenda — a circle of gojos, or wooden huts — the village where Zahava’s father, Ashabur, was born.
The rowdy bunch — part of a Jewish Agency-affiliated pilot program, Samai (“the sky” or “listen to me” in Amharic), that brought 15 Israeli-Ethiopian teens on a visit to their ancestral homeland earlier this month — had been cooped up on a tiny bus for several hours, indulging in sugar cane and belting out a mix of Rihanna tunes and Amharic pop songs.
They were a light-hearted, polite, and often hilarious group of 16 to 18-year-olds, many of them Orthodox, from all corners of Israel. And they seemed to glide between Amharic and Hebrew, or laughter and sadness, with the same ease.
Now, as they marched in single file toward Jenda, they were in high spirits. Zahava, who was born in Addis Ababa and moved to Israel when she was a one-year-old, said she wanted to see what it looked like — this place her dad came from.
They reached Jenda and an elderly woman said she knew the Zagayas. She said she could tell who Zahava was from her round-shaped face, a distinguishing trait of her family, and recalled that she used to drink buna, rich Ethiopian coffee, with her uncles. Zahava was skeptical — that is, until she met another group, and a woman told Zahava she too knew her family. This woman recited the names of her uncles — “Furnus, Seged, Tangut” — at which point Zahava knew it was true.
“Your father’s the godfather of Mulu — who lives here in the village,” the woman said.
Tears welled up in Zahava’s eyes. Seeing her father’s village herself made her heritage seem “very real.” She called her dad back in Israel on her mobile phone and they shared a rare tender moment when she told him she’d visited his remote childhood home. “I love you, dad,” she said — one of the first times she’d said it so openly, she acknowledged, so clearly.
The visit to the next village, Gorgora Buchare, the birthplace of Zahava’s mother, Tigus, was meant to be a short pit-stop because it was getting dark. As the group made its way, its number slowly ballooned as giggling schoolchildren, mothers with babies on their backs, and other curious locals joined in.
When they reached the clearing of gojos, a friendly man, Mekdes, and his wife came out of their home to see what the commotion was all about. Zahava asked them about her mother’s family, and after a round of questions, her face lit up. She turned to the group and said that her grandmother, a midwife, had helped deliver some of the village’s children. Mekdes, a kind and patient man, pointed out where Zahava’s grandfather, his former neighbor and friend, was buried.
In an instant, years of stories about her family in Ethiopia became tangible; she no longer had to imagine them. It was as if a giant puzzle had been completed. “This was so worth it,” she told the other teens, who had trekked half a day with her here in search of her family’s roots. “This was worth everything to me.”
These village encounters — short but momentous — made an impression on Zahava. She later said she was was no longer embarrassed about her Amharic name, as she had been in second grade. “My real name is Aregito (“roots”) in Amharic,” she said.
‘A generation with no past has no future’
To bring Israeli-Ethiopian teens back to their ancestral homeland, to show them the place they came from and the world their parents grew up in, is the purpose of the Samai “birthright” program, of which this was the pilot trip. It’s the brainchild of Danny Adeno Abebe, an Ethiopian-Israeli activist and Yedioth Ahronoth reporter, who claims Ethiopian-Israeli youth are lost in their search for identity.
Samai seeks to boost the teens’ sense of their Israeli selves through their Ethiopian-ness – an identity that’s been, in part, stripped down and washed away during their process of adapting to a new life in Israel — and help them integrate the two identities.
According to Vered Achihon, who heads the Ethiopian absorption programs at the Jewish Agency, the process of getting Ethiopian Jews acclimated to Israel spans many aspects of personal and daily life — “from putting children on a schoolbus to learning Hebrew and the Jewish holidays,” she said. They are inculcated with Western manners and given tools for getting along in Israeli society. Some have to be taught how to use utensils, or walk in shoes. Some have to learn how to use toilet paper or Western bathrooms as opposed to holes in the ground. Still, others are taught what Israeli children eat for lunch or how to buy products from a grocery store — that a lemon on a plastic bottle doesn’t necessarily mean the product on display is lemons, but that it could be bleach — Achihon explained.
“These kids try so hard to fit into Israeli society that they lose themselves in the process – they change their Amharic names to Hebrew ones, they speak Hebrew to the exclusion of Amharic, they stop eating injera,” said Abebe over a Dashen beer in Gondar, a town in the north of the country that was the cradle of the Ethiopian-Jewish community. “I wanted to open their eyes to their past, to their roots.”
‘During this trip they feel connected to their parents because they begin to understand where they came from and all that they achieved, coming from the 16th century and reaching the 21st’
Abebe, who speaks with calm clarity and bears a striking resemblance to Bob Marley, said desperation within the Ethiopian-Israeli community led him to look for new alternatives. Ethiopian Jews have been Israel for some 30 years. A majority of the 125,000-member community live beneath the poverty line.
He described a situation in which many Ethiopian-Israeli teens find themselves — taking on the role of translators for their parents and playing mom or dad to their own mothers and fathers who are infantilized in Israel.
“A lot of the problems these kids have are with their own parents. They become alienated from them, or harbor feelings of embarrassment toward their mother and father because they perceive them as illiterate or primitive,” Abebe explained. “During this trip they feel reconnected to their parents because they begin to understand where they came from and all that they achieved, starting from the 16th century and reaching the 21st,” he said.
The idea for the trip came from his own life story. As a young soldier at Army Radio, Abebe’s commander and mentor, Moshe Shlonsky, urged him to return to his roots. “To get your Israeli identity, you’ve got to go back to Ethiopia, the place from where you became an Israeli,” Shlonsky told him. “Understanding your heritage will give you strength.”
The words stuck with Abebe, who hadn’t been back to his birthplace since he was 9, when his family fled to Sudan and was airlifted to Israel during Operation Moshe in 1984. Although he had planned a trip to South America after his army service, he stopped in Ethiopia for 10 days. He kept the visit a surprise, and when he told his dad back in Israel, his father broke down in tears. It was the first time Abebe saw his father — a security guard at a mall whose supervisor, 20 years his junior, had yet to learn his name — show emotion, let alone cry.
Ultimately, Abebe came to understand that his trip back to Ethiopia didn’t just help him bridge the rift that had grown between himself and his father, and it didn’t just help him appreciate his colorfully rich past. It had also, finally, given him a sense of self.
Daniel Toajo Bekele — what’s in a name?
Sporting high-top sneakers and a leather jacket over a sweatshirt, Daniel, 18, looked like an ordinary Israeli teenager. Tough and talkative, he seemed so well-adjusted that it was hard to imagine him living in Ethiopia several years ago, scavenging for food in garbage cans or walking around in scraggy clothing.
Sitting at a café in his hometown of Petah Tikva, Daniel reflected on his recent participation in the Samai trip. He paused for a few moments and said: “It made me grateful.”
He described saying goodbye to the children at the synagogue in Gondar. “We all cried on the bus after saying bye to them,” Daniel said. “Some of the kids bothered me during the week,” he chuckled. “But when we said bye to them, they started crying. I hugged three kids — tiny little ones — and they bawled. One of them got my shirt soaking wet with his tears that ran down my sleeve.”
For the group of 15 teens, the emotional parting from the kids was powerful, in part, because many of them have walked in those children’s shoes. Some of the participants still have family in Gondar and Addis Ababa. For others, the journey to the promised land — being ripped apart from their tightly-knit villages and thrown into a strikingly different, and sometimes hostile, world — is a poignant memory.
‘I almost forgot what it used to be like there. I’d even throw food away – me, the one who used to go through garbage to look for food’
Daniel’s family, for example, moved to Israel from Addis Ababa when he was 9. “I was that small Ethiopian boy who ran around without shoes, who walked around with ripped clothes. I was that child,” he said, a rawness in his voice as he described the children he saw during his recent visit. “There weren’t always things to eat… It was hard.”
That all changed when Daniel got to Israel. “When I came here in 2004, I got it all — clothes, food, money — and I almost forgot what it used to be like there. I got annoyed when I didn’t get what I wanted; I’d even throw food away – me, the one who used to go through garbage to look for food… But when I got back to Ethiopia now, I remembered it all — I saw myself there, running around with those kids we met,” he said.
Returning to his birthplace, Daniel said, was also about retracing his father’s footsteps — from poor, barefoot villager in rural Ethiopia to factory worker in suburban Israel. For Daniel, the trip back home was a visceral reminder of all that his father had conquered and of how different his own life used to be. It exemplified that ageless adage: To know where you’re going, look at where you’ve been.
Daniel’s father, Pekado Bekele, is from Bebbej, a poor village near Gondar. The eldest of 9 children, Pekado Bekele was his family’s caretaker after their mother died. Calamity found him again when all three of his children, from two separate marriages, inexplicably died. Despite these trials, Pekado found the strength to build a new family with Daniel’s mother and move them to Israel against the wishes of their village. (Daniel’s birth-given name, Toajo, means “leave them” in Amharic.)
Daniel had come full circle — back to Ethiopia, the very soil of his childhood memories — only to bring him closer to his father.
“All this, and he never complains,” said Daniel about his dad. “He’s a hero.”
The Samai trip was funded by the Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod-UIA, with assistance from The Society for Advancement of Education, Jerusalem; The Steering Center for Ethiopian Immigrants in Education; The Rashi Foundation; and the Harvest Scholarship Fund. The writer was the guest of the Jewish Agency.