The surprising highlight of an action packed day one of this Anglo Israel Association tour was an evening address from a 40 year old woman who had emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel as a child.
Imagine coming home from your day’s work carrying water, caring for younger children to find your father not yet home. He and the adults are out plotting an escape from a country it is illegal to leave. He returns, and you find yourself on a three week hike to a Sudanese refugee camp that will claim the lives of your grandparents, newborn nephew and other young relatives, due to exposure and lack of basic provisions. It’s Ethiopia in the mid 1980s and you’re leaving just in time, but at great cost.
Three weeks in a refugee camp where the lowest of conditions and crowded humanity make it far removed from farming life, even for a curious girl revelling in new experiences. The marched out into the desert where automatic weapons may await you, only to hear an enormous noise nearby which you walk towards only to see what can only be a great metal chicken open up its belly for you to climb into, before you, an Ethiopian descent of the lost Jewish tribe of Dan, or descendants of the converted Queen of Sheba, get whisked away to the promised land after centuries of separation.
Arriving in Israel, one of 150,000 Jewish Ethiopians to join the mass colonisation of an ancient land, you begin the process of assimilation. Hebrew is learnt and a gap quickly emerges between generations of the new arrivals. Children rapidly becoming Israeli, parents lost in memories and past.
Her story continues with her faking her parents signature to continue schooling, an abortive start at an exclusive boarding school, before meeting several patrons who eventually gave her the chance to read law in the USA. Returning home having seen Ethiopian Jews struggling in the news she did various roles including ending up as a broadcaster on national TV.
A mother of three, she returned to Ethiopia for the first time in 2014, to discover a beautiful homeland she’d like to return to annually. A clear overcomer of adversity, with a personality reminiscent of Annie in the recent 2014 musical remake, this was a fascinating tale of someone for whom economic migration had totally transformed their life within a few short years. In a world where millions play the lottery with little or no chance of winning, it should not be surprising that in an unequal world millions will also take their chances on desperate migration. Our host asked her parents recently if it had been worth it to leave Ethiopia despite parents and grandchildren dying en route. ‘We wouldn’t change a thing’, was their final conclusion.