Culture Shock

ICEJ AID reaches out to Ethiopian olim

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Posted on: 
9 Jun 2010
Culture Shock

Many journeys in life are filled with hardships, trials and joys. It is no small thing for any 13 year-old girl to travel by foot across mountains and deserts from Ethiopia to Sudan for endless weeks, in hopes of realising her people’s 2000 year-old vision of coming home to Israel. Besides observing all the biblical laws concerning kosher diets and keeping Shabbat, the ancient Ethiopian Jewish community always clung to a distant dream of making it home to the Land of Israel one day. But for many, the fulfillment of that dream has come at great cost.

For the survivors, painful memories of those arduous times were quickly buried and never really dealt with, producing an endless stream of new problems when these newcomers began the process of integrating into a society that did not understand the grueling trials they had just experienced.

As these new Ethiopian immigrants began settling in Israel, local aid agencies focused on providing them food and shelter and clothing – the basics of life. Yet the trauma of their long and difficult journey remained hidden inside – an unseen root that hindered their ability to adjust to their new, modern surroundings.

Finally, the Israel Center for Psychotrauma at Herzog Hospital discerned that many of these families desperately needed special therapy to deal with the traumatic episodes which many years later were still being pushed aside.

Today, ICEJ AID is assisting the staff at the Israel Center for Psychotrauma as they seek to break the endless cycle of failure among Ethiopian immigrants caused by the trauma of their difficult journey to Israel. With our help, the center is providing individual psycho-traumatic treatments for these Ethiopian olim (newcomers). In one such program, the center films their stories on video as a means of walking them through a therapeutic healing process at both the individual and group levels.

Asher Rahamim, the director of services for the Ethiopian Jewish community at Herzog Hospital, explained that “personal treatment is very significant because it enables them to tell the story that they couldn’t before in front of family members. And it gives them permission to talk, and to know how to deal with memories. To help them see it differently.”

“When you tell of the journey, the whole atmosphere changes… They are closing the circle. It enables them to see the process [of integration] and it is something they go through together”, Rahamim added.

This closure is so needed, he explained, because many Ethiopians Jews face a whole new shock trying to transition into becoming Israelis. In Ethiopia, people lived as a close-knit community, sharing everything. But in Israel, the family unity gets fractured, as everyone is spread out. Parental counseling was always a foundation of life in Ethiopia, but it loses its centrality in Israel because of the reduced emphasis on communal living.

This crisis alone has “created an empty space of support, lack of respect of the father, language barriers”, he said. There is also a tendency towards silence, as Ethiopians typically process life quietly as a group. “Cutting at the very root of family life and ridding the family of spiritual authority and leadership is a whole new trauma for these immigrants”, Rahamim insisted.

These complex issues facing Ethiopian Jews help one understand better the high suicide rate among them, as well as their much higher rate of post-traumatic stress disorder than the general Israeli population. “Putting down your identity to become something else in order to fit into society is not easy”, Rahamim said.

Immigration and Absorption centers and Ethiopian community advocates must thus learn how to be innovative in providing the assistance and care they need.

Another ICEJ-AID project for Ethiopian Jews involves those youth who have been disconnected from their family roots in the effort to fit into Israeli society. Many are considered high-risk. They may have lost respect for parents who cannot speak Hebrew and thus are unable to find a decent-paying job. Some 70% of Ethiopian Jews in Israel live below the poverty line, and many youngsters end up dropping out of school and are eventually placed in detention centers.

ICEJ-AID has partnered with Sha’ale Tikvah, an after-school program in the “Harlem” area of Bet Shemesh which targets teenagers in the last stages to delinquency. This facility provides them with a safe place to come and gain stronger reading abilities, which will prevent many from dropping out of school due to difficulties with Hebrew and behavioural problems. They also have trained social workers to meet with their parents in an effort to create a wider circle of assistance and bring the family members closer together. So far, not one of the teens in their program has dropped out of school!

After some 25 years since the first mass wave of Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel, the lack of awareness of the unique challenges they present has decreased significantly. But in the beginning, workers from the absorptions centers did not understand they should have been helping the Ethiopians adjust to more than just a modern world of sinks, toilets, elevators, and paying bills on time. Still, new Ethiopian arrivals today face even new challenges, as Israel becomes ever more developed and urbanized.

Yet even with all these difficulties, Rahamim assured that, “You won’t find people among the Ethiopian community who will say they don’t love Israel. To have the privilege to live here and keep a strong connection to the land, to Jerusalem, is worth the cost.”

ICEJ AID is there seeking to touch their lives on behalf of our faithful Christian donors and friends worldwide. Please support our efforts by making your gift today, and mark it for “ICEJ AID”.


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