The Long Road Home - Quara Jews
by Gail Lichtman
Mullu Trunech was a young soldier in the Ethiopian army when he first heard that Ethiopian Jews were secretly crossing the border into Sudan in order to reach Israel. Trunech wanted to go too, but he could not get out of the army. When he was finally demobilized, he organized a group to cross into Sudan. It was a difficult trek, through extremely arduous terrain. Some of the members of his family died on the way. When the group finally reached Sudan, they were accused of being spies and beaten. But the worst moment came when they realized that the window of opportunity to reach Israel through Sudan had closed.
"We had to flee for our lives back to Ethiopia," Trunech recalls."We had to flee for our lives back to Ethiopia," Trunech recalls.
In1991, when during Operation Solomon, more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were dramatically airlifted to Israel in the space of less than 48 hours, Trunech once again missed out. In his home province of Quara, one of the most remote regions of Ethiopia, the news of Operation Solomon only reached the Jewish community after the fact.
"The Jews of Quara may have missed out on Operation Solomon, but it helped us to believe that one day we, too, would eventually reach Israel," he states.
It was following Operation Solomon that members of the Quaran community started to sell their meager possessions and move to Gondar, a region where the Jewish community had contact with Israeli officials.
Two years ago, Trunech, married and the father of two young children, moved his family to Gondar to join the other Quaran Jews waiting to come to Israel.
"Conditions in Gondar were terrible," Trunech relates. "There was disease and malnutrition. The water was not clean. People got dysentery and died. I almost died. One of my brothers died. I lost my three-year-old son. The hardest part was that there was no place to bury our dead. There was no Jewish village with a cemetery near where we were."
Sitting in the Jewish Agency’s Lod Absorption Center, Trunech, who arrived in Israel at the end of July 1999, still can’t believe he is truly home. "For me, being here is like a dream come true. I thought it would take years to realize. My parents are still in Gondar and I worry about their fate. I only hope that very soon, they too can join us in Israel."
Trunech is one of more than 2,500 Quaran Jews who have been brought to Israel since the end of April 1999 as part of an urgent rescue operation undertaken by the Israeli government at the initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Hundreds more, trapped for the duration of the rainy season, are expected to join their brethren later this year.
Joint Israeli government-JAFI teams in Ethiopia are working round the clock to expedite the immigration procedure. Conditions in Ethiopia are very difficult and the community suffers from dire poverty and poor health. Over the years, more than 200 Quaran Jews have died from illnesses while waiting to make aliyah.
The Quaran Jews come from one of the most isolated regions of Ethiopia, with no paved roads, no hospitals, almost no telecommunications. The community has been cut off from the main centers of Ethiopian Jewry since the late 1970s, in part because Quara was the last bastion of guerilla groups fighting the Ethiopian government.
Absorption of Quaran Jews into the State of Israel is a major challenge. They come from a rural, tribal, pre-industrial society. Literally overnight, these new immigrants are being asked to make a leap of centuries into the modern technological world at the end of the 20th century.
Even before they leave Ethiopia, the Quaran Jews receive a two-week, crash course to help familiarize them with the basic workings of life in Israel. Once in the country, they are housed in five JAFI absorption centers around Israel - in Nahariya, Kiryat Yam, Lod, Kiryat Gat and Beersheva, plus the Israeli government center in Mevasseret Zion.
Building on its long-standing experience in immigrant absorption, JAFI provides the staff and essential services necessary to help the new arrivals make the transition into Israeli society.
Since most of the Quaran Jews arrive with little more than the clothing on their backs, JAFI provides the basic necessities - clothing, shoes, blankets, linens, pots and pans, etc. - they need to start their new lives in Israel.
Trunech is one of 77 Quaran Jews who arrived at the Lod Absorption Center at the end of July/beginning of August 1999. They range in age from a tiny baby girl born the morning after the first group arrived to a couple well into their 70s.
The Lod Center, like its counterparts around the country, provides housing, Hebrew-language ulpan classes and pre-school activities for the Quaran immigrants, as well as social clubs. It is estimated that, on the average, Quaran Jews will stay for about two years. During that time, they will be assisted in attaining the skills and tools necessary to find work, buy their own apartments and move out to independent lives.
In making the transition from Quara to Israel, the new immigrants are being assisted by a JAFI staff which includes many veteran Ethiopian olim to Israel, who not only speak the new arrivals’ language but understand what they are going through.
"These olim have to make a very acute transition from outback Africa to a modern, western country," explains Rachel Adgraychue, a social worker at the Mevesseret Zion Absorption Center near Jerusalem, who immigrated to Israel from Gondar 15 years ago. "This is not an easy process. It is very difficult for them to adapt to what is going on in Israel. Most were never in a bank before in their lives. Many used barter and not money in their day-to-day transactions. In Ethiopia, they grew most of what they needed. Here, they have to buy everything. Most of the children were never in school on a regular basis. We do want we can, providing staff to help them every step of the way."
On the front lines are the translators and support personnel, all veteran olim from Ethiopia, who accompany the Quarans in their encounters with Israeli life. The support personnel are there from day one, explaining to the new arrivals everything from how to use the gas stoves in their apartments, public transportation or an ATM machine, to how to cross a busy urban street with traffic lights. They go with the olim to the banks, to the clinics, to the supermarkets, etc. They explain what the children need for school.
Akiva Elias, 61, was one of the first Ethiopian Jews to reach Israel. That was in 1956. He remained in the country eight years, studying agriculture, before returning to Ethiopia, where for 20 years, he was an agricultural advisor to the Ethiopian government. In July 1985, he returned to Israel. A year ago, he was recruited by JAFI to serve as a translator for Ethiopian immigrants.
"The focus is on preparing these olim to find jobs, buy apartments and become integrated into Israeli society," Elias says. "It will not be easy for them, but the Ethiopian olim who have come before them have done it and they serve as an example for the Quarans."
Nevertheless, most of the older Quarans realize that they are "the generation of the desert" and their hopes are pinned on the future for their children. "My five-year-old daughter is in kindergarten and is being given every opportunity to learn," says Trunech. "I know that she will grow up to be a real Israeli."
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