Over the past few days we have spent a lot of time visiting programs dedicated to the advancement of the Ethiopian community in Israeli society, funded in part by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. As with any immigrant community, the integration process is not an easy one. The radical culture shock of coming from rural Africa to modern western society is not easily absorbed, especially by the older generation. A natural split often occurs where the young generation, who is more integrated into the local culture becomes estranged from their parents and their heritage. This estrangement from their parents often leaves the immigrant children without role models. They feel segregated from the native Israelis and alienated from their parents. With nowhere else to turn these children often end up involved in drugs, alcohol, and anything else they may pick up from hanging out on the street. This picture represents the side of immigration that we are most often exposed to, especially in the philanthropic community where the focus is commonly to help the weakest elements of society.
Yesterday, in between visiting centres for Ethiopian youth at risk, we were privileged to see a glimpse of the brighter side of Ethiopian integration. Abaye Zorde is one of the youngest elected municipal representatives in all of Israel, and the only Ethiopian on the city council of Rehovot. Having worked his way up through the municipal ranks, Abaye has put himself into a position where he has the capacity to help his native community, and he has taken full advantage of that opportunity.
But the programming and advocacy Abaye has initiated for the Ethiopian community is only his second most important role in the city. More importantly, Abaye gives Ethiopian youth confidence. By achieving what he has, Abaye shows Ethiopian kids that there are other opportunities for them beyond life on the street. One of the co-ordinators of an Ethiopian youth centre told us that when she asked the young girls what they wanted to be when they grow up the most popular answer was ‘a cleaning lady’. “It’s natural” she told us “that’s what they see around them, and they don’t think of anything else. But when kids don’t dream, they can’t achieve.”. When Ethiopian youth see one of their ranks who has become a successful, contributing member of Israeli society, they too are given the opportunity to dream.
Immigration can never be made easy, and integration by nature is not seamless; but if we can change the image of immigrant populations and give the spotlight to people like Abaye perhaps the mindset of the immigrants themselves will be shifted. When immigrant populations are painted as destitute and helpless it can become a self fulfilling prophecy, but if they are shown their own potential, maybe in the near future we can be asking for their help in our own Aliya process.