Based on the writings of Elie Klein, Central New Jersey; Julie Marder and Jeremy Pollock, Southern New Jersey, Kefiada Counselors.
During our time here in Arad, we have had the opportunity to visit both the Ethiopian Absorption Center and the Ethiopian Youth Center, and interact with some of the other immigrants in the city. We have seen the incredible work that goes on in Arad, and witnessed the transformation of the Ethiopian immigrants into everyday Israeli citizens. We watched the Ethiopian families become a close knit community.
The Absorption Center in Arad provides Ethiopian immigrants with a means of integrating into modern Israeli culture. During their few months there, they learn everything from the basics of buying packaged groceries and disposable school supplies, to speaking Hebrew, using NIS, and understanding Israeli customs.
On one of our visits to the Center we met Gambo, an Ethiopian immigrant whose family waited nine years before coming to Israel. Immediately upon arrival, Gambo enrolled himself in the center’s Ulpan class. Ulpan, an intensive Hebrew study, runs 6 days a week but is off on Shabbat. After just five to eight months, Gambo and the other members of his class should be proficient in Hebrew. Ulpan is just one of many services offered by the Absorption Center which helps immigrants become part of society.
For the Ethiopian children, the community has established the Ethiopian Youth Center, aimed at providing them with the opportunities they need so that they too can enjoy the benefits of living in a modern day country. The kids need a place to go while their parents are out and where they can learn to play games and do everyday kid activities.
The Ethiopian Youth Center in Arad is a one room building, which at first glance does not look too exciting. But after speaking with some of the teens who go there, it is obvious how important it is. On the most basic level, the center provides a place for kids of all ages to relax with each other and participate in normal childhood activities that many people take for granted. Even more, it gets children involved in programs that they care about. Recently, the Ethiopian Youth Center put together a music program. They raised money to bring in a teacher from Beer Sheva who taught them how to set up and play a host of instruments. The children who learned to play were able to form a band which now performs once a week for everyone at the center. After the success of the music program, the kids are now interested in a hiring a dance teacher which the center is looking into.
Although the Youth Center primarily focuses on helping children acclimate into Israeli society, it also helps to link all Ethiopian families in the community. It provides them with a support group that they can utilize throughout their transition into modern Israeli citizens. During one of our visits, we met Chava, an Ethiopian girl, who described the Ethiopian community as a big family where everyone knows everyone else and genuinely cares about each other. She feels this sense of community stems from the Youth Center, where Ethiopian families are able to meet each other and form long lasting relationships. The camaraderie between the Ethiopians is immediately apparent to anyone who comes to visit. As soon as someone walks into the Center he is greeted with a hug and kisses on both cheeks, and is encouraged to join any of the ongoing activities. We were told that children who met at the Youth Center have continued their relationships throughout their school years.
Over the course of our time in Arad, we learned that most Ethiopian immigrants come to Israel because of religious idealism. Once they get there though, they are often dealt some pretty tough challenges. In addition to not understanding the language, many of them have to work extremely hard and put in extra hours so that their educational and vocational gains made in Ethiopia can be recognized in Israel. For instance, carpenters have to transition from working with wood to concrete. Students, who in Ethiopia had qualified for free university tuition, need to study in Israel for an extra two years in order to meet requirements for the same benefit. The Ethiopians are willing to endure these struggles so that their future descendants, native born Israeli’s, will be able to lead regular lives. Organizations such as the Absorption Center and the Youth Center help them deal with their issues.
Some activities, although informal, also help the immigrants acclimate. During our first couple of days in Arad we were invited to play basketball with a group of Ethiopians kids. While playing, the language and cultural barriers between us were nonexistent, and it felt like we were playing just another pick up game at our neighborhood JCC. The basketball game was a great experience and we all felt as if we bonded really well with the Ethiopians. A few days later we played with them again, this time a game of their football or our soccer. We arranged that each team would have both Ethiopians and Americans. Again, the language barrier was invisible. While we played, we realized how comfortable these immigrants were in their new surroundings, and how quickly they were able to adapt and interact with people that they barely knew. It gave us confidence that they would be able to successfully become integral members of the Israeli world.
Looking back at Ethiopian history, it is truly incredible to see how far they’ve come. Everyone we met, whether they have lived in Israel for a matter months, or are second generation Israelis, impressed on us their desire to move forward and create better lives for themselves and their families. Their ability to integrate into society while maintaining their unique sense of community is striking. As long as the Ethiopians continue to progress at such a rate, we are certain that they will find success.