At the moment, over 50 Ethiopian Israeli students attend the IDC Herzliya College (IDC). Sponsors provide scholarships for outstanding students like Naomi, Shlomit and Avi to help them get the academic degree they aspire. Also, the college sent several of them on speaking tours to countries such as Canada, The USA, South Africa, Britain and The Netherlands.
‘They serve as ambassadors of good will of IDC and the state of Israël’, says vice president of IDC Jonathan Davis. ‘Plus, this gives them a chance to tell their stories that are now part of Israels history and to gain some travel experience to help them grow.’
The Israeli embassy helps students find their way in the countries they visit, but does not interfere.
In Groningen they met with students from Middle Eastern Studies, with whom they talked about their lives in Israel. It gave the Dutch students a chance to speak Modern Hebrew.
‘Hardly anyone knows that there are about 130,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, let alone the details of their tumultuous history or what drives them today. So we are here to show how cosmopolitan Israel is’, Naomi Shafraw (28), speaking in the Harmoniegebouw canteen, says of their week-long visit to Dutch universities.
‘And to express that there is much more to Israel than what you see in the media’, Shlomit Bukaya (27) adds. ‘We’d like to show a different side of the country, share our stories, answer questions and share our perspective on what is really going on there.’
The two girls and their male colleague, Avi Negossa (27), were selected for this trip by their college, the Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC) in Herzliya and one of the best private colleges in Israel. They’re all part of the programme for outstanding students there, a development that was unthinkable for their parents at that age.
Now they’re making this trip, which hasn’t been organized by the embassy, by the way. Nor is it to promote Israel. It is because they have been given the chance by their college and because they have a message. They want to take a stand for anyone who needs it.
Negossa and Shafraw were born in Israel, but Bukaya and her parents, like most Ethiopian Jews in Israel, left their homeland during two secretive immigration exercises organized by the Israeli government: Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991).
The latter operation was Bukaya and her family’s second emigration attempt . When they started their first, her mother was pregnant with her. That caused her family to turn back and wait for the next chance.
‘They all made huge sacrifices to go to Israel’, Shafraw says. ‘My family, for example, lost my older brother. It took a while to come to terms with that. But now they say that moving paid off, because they are living in a beautiful country with all the Jews together.’
Their acceptance hasn’t been easy, though. ‘Our parents came from small isolated villages in a Third World country to the modern world’, Bukaya says. ‘Most of them had never learned how to write in their own language, never mind Hebrew. Some of them now understand Hebrew, but in most cases their kids still act as interpreters.’ Also, there were many cultural differences to get used to. ‘Here, women were suddenly equal to men.’
Although the students grew up with Ethiopian traditions, they see themselves as Israelis and part of the Israeli culture. They have fulfilled their obligatory national duties, serving in the army or doing national service. Shafraw chose the latter option. ‘I worked at a school for kids with special needs for a year, as a teacher’s assistant. The other year I worked at an immigrant crisis centre, translating for Ethiopians, for example.’ Negossa was in the army as a lieutenant. He also took part in the Second Lebanon War.
‘We won’t forget our roots’, he says. ‘But it’s not like we are a small group, caught in a conflict between two larger groups, like people sometimes assume. We are part of one of these groups. As for the Palestinian conflict, of course I dream of future peace, that some day the two sides will talk to each other and reach a solution.’
They know where they stand, but that doesn’t mean their immigration process is complete. Negossa says: ‘There are still people who have a stereotypical view of Ethiopians and their problems. They see us as weak, underdeveloped and educated only in life.’ On TV, they are barely represented, Shafraw adds. ‘There is one Ethiopian contestant in a reality show, but that programme is not exactly the representation we are looking for.’
All three of them want to become good representatives of the Ethiopian community. Bukaya says: ‘It’s our duty to do well, not only for ourselves but for the whole community.’ For example, Negossa studies communications because he is fascinated by film and because he knows the media has the power to change things. He has already explored that view in the radio show he hosts with some fellow students. ‘It’s a bit on the edge. We criticize institutions, for example, or discuss racism, society and even ourselves in a humoristic manner.’
The girls study law and want to end up working for a law firm, and/or in politics. Shafraw says: ‘When it comes to more equality, I have a full agenda. I want to take a stand for Ethiopians, females, gay people… anyone who needs it.’