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High Achievers

Immigrants from Ethiopia, like Yarden Fanta Vagenshtein, Baruch Dagan, and Abaynesh Tessema, have overcome tremendous obstacles to successfully integrate into Israeli society. The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency for Israel launched a campaign to make the public aware of the Israeli-Ethiopian community’s ability and desire to contribute to building Israel into a flourishing, modern state. by Heidi J. Gleit

 

The first time that Yarden Fanta Vagenshtein, 33, a Ph.D. student at Tel Aviv University, set foot in a classroom she was 14. She spent the first 12 years of her life helping her family tend cows in Macha, a tiny, remote Ethiopian village with almost no connection to the modern world. It took Fanta and her family two years to travel from there to Israel, via Sudan, and to settle into a new home in Netanya.

 

The transition to the classroom, and the Western world, was not easy for Fanta, who was illiterate like her parents and most Macha residents. However, “I figured if I could survive all the difficulties we encountered on the way to Israel, then I could handle this,” she recalled during an interview in her home in Givatayim.

 

Like many of her fellow immigrants from Ethiopia, she more than succeeded not only in learning to read, but also in integrating into Israeli society. Despite this achievement, much of the Israeli public is only aware of the cases of extreme failure that make headlines when a member of the Ethiopian-Israeli community is involved in a tragedy. Since there are only about 105,000 Ethiopian Israelis, roughly half of whom are under 19, and most of the community is concentrated in a handful of towns, many Israelis do not personally know members of the community or understand the difficulties they encountered and sacrifices they made in order to immigrate to Israel. As a result, many Ethiopians must work twice as hard – fighting the mistaken perceptions in addition to their own personal battles.

 

The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) recently teamed up to change this with a public awareness campaign and initiatives to open doors to the community in the job market, academia, and other arenas of Israeli society.

 

“We decided to work toward making Israeli society more open to and willing to give opportunities to Ethiopian immigrants,” explained Minister of Immigrant Absorption Tzipi Livni at a press conference that launched the campaign. “There is a gap between the public’s belief in immigration and daily life. Immigrants are not received with open arms. We are telling everyone, whether he is a mayor or a teacher, to ask himself if he is influenced by stereotypes.”

 

“The campaign will make it possible for Israelis to become acquainted with the accomplishments of the Ethiopian community, which are many, though unfortunately they have not received attention,” JAFI Chairman Zeev Bielski added.

 

The Ethiopian-Israeli community’s accomplishments are even more impressive when the obstacles the community had to overcome are considered. Difficult does not seem a sufficient word to describe Fanta’s journey from Ethiopia to Israel.

 

The village she was born in was almost completely cut off from the modern world – it did not have electricity, let alone radios, telephones, or televisions. Though she has visited Ethiopia twice since immigrating to Israel, she did not visit her village because it is not accessible by car and she did not want to ask the groups she was traveling with to make the long journey on foot to reach it.

 

For as long as they could remember, Fanta’s family had heard the people around them talking about Jerusalem and how much they wished they could go there, but that the journey was impossible. In 1985, that situation changed. Family by family, the Jews from her village slowly began to head toward Jerusalem. At the time, it was illegal to emigrate from Ethiopia to Israel, and so they had to do so clandestinely – disappearing from the village at night and walking along little-known paths in the dark so that they would not be caught. “We held each others’ hands while walking along narrow mountain paths in pitch darkness,” Fanta recalls. “I was carrying one of my younger sisters and holding on to the hand of another sister. I was terrified that if I let go of her hand she would go off in the wrong direction and be lost forever. Looking back, I’m amazed that I could do that at such a young age.”

 

It took Fanta, her parents, nine siblings, and grandmother a full month to walk to the Sudanese border. The Sudanese placed them in a refugee camp, where they waited to be able to immigrate to Israel. “It was a nightmare,” she says. “It was extremely hot, we lived in tents, disease was rampant, there were constantly people dying, and there was the eternal suspense – would we receive permission to go to Israel that day? We lived from day to day and did not know whether we would die or make it to Israel.” She added that one of her sisters and several other relatives died in the refugee camp.

 

In Israel, her family spent nearly a year moving from one immigrant absorption center to another until they finally settled in a home of their own in Netanya. Fanta began studying at a boarding school in Holon, where she succeeded academically, with the help of extra time and attention from teachers and tutors. Even so, the idea of attending university seemed out of reach to her until she participated in a science program for youth at a university. “I suddenly saw that there was a light at the end of the tunnel and that it was not out of reach,” says Fanta, who completed high school with honors and earned a B.A. from Bar-Ilan University and an M.A. from Tel Aviv University.

 

This experience led her to establish a program called “Thinking Science,” with the assistance of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and Tel Aviv University in 2001. The program exposes 13-15-year-old Ethiopian-Israelis to science and technology and provides them with support in science-related subjects in school. Volunteers work regularly with some 350 pupils at their schools and several times a year the pupils go to Tel Aviv University to perform experiments in the labs there. The program provided some of the pupils with the tools to succeed in honors courses and Fanta hopes that they will go on to do well at university.

 

Fanta’s belief in the importance of education led her to pursue graduate studies in education. She recently submitted her doctoral dissertation and is waiting for it to be accepted. Her research focused on how illiterate people adapt to modern technology, she said, noting that many of the older members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community have not learned to read Hebrew. Fanta’s findings were surprising – she found that illiteracy is not necessarily connected to lack of intelligence or inability to learn, but to lack of opportunity and a need for hands-on instruction. She found that they have an impressive ability to memorize signs and symbols that allows them to function in society – for example, they memorize the pattern they must dial to make a phone call, instead of the digits. She hopes that her research will help erase the stigma against illiterate people in the West and improve educational programs for them. Though her research focused on illiterate members of the Ethiopian-Israeli population, the lessons drawn from it can be applied to people around the world.

 

Thus far, the campaign has been met with a warm response. Over 1,500 people  responded in the weeks after it was launched – 1,000 called the hotline to offer to volunteer, 200 offered to provide employment, and many others just called to offer support and encouragement. The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency emphasized that the campaign is only one of many steps aimed at reinforcing Israeli society’s active role in immigration.

 
The full article appeared in ERETZ Magazine 103. To read it, subscribe to ERETZ Magazine.

Yarden Fanta Vagenshtein

 

 

Baruch Dagan

 

The full article appeared in ERETZ Magazine 103. To read it, subscribe to ERETZ Magazine.

 

 

 

 

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