I stand three steps behind him as my translator knocks on a door at the Beit Alfa absorption center for Ethiopian Jews who have recently come to Israel. The door opens and a woman in a flower-patterned dress peeks out. She motions us inside. Sitting in what looks to be a comfortable arm chair is a muscular young man. In the dim light I do not immediately recognize him. “My God,” I blurt out. “It’s Gezahegn!”
Gezahegn Derebe is the young man who starred in the recently released documentary film “The Passengers,” about the urgent need to bring the remaining Jewish families in Ethiopia to Israel. I hardly recognize him because even after only four months in Israel, this is a more physically powerful version of the skinny guy I’d first heard two years earlier speaking Hebrew from the bimah at the Romemu congregation in Manhattan. I had burst into tears then, listening to the plight of the remaining families. Today, the tears are with me again.
Gezahegn had been brought to speak to congregations and major Jewish organizations in the United States by Dr. David Elcott of New York University. The film that chronicles this journey is building awareness. And Gezahegn has made it to Israel. He tells me of his plans to enter the “Mechina” preparatory program towards a nursing degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Listening in on this is Gezahegn’s 14-year-old sister. I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. “A doctor,” she says giving a sideways glance to her brother. And then she adds, in a lower voice that comes, as body-centered psychotherapists say, “straight from the belly.” “A SURGEON.” A strong Israeli woman, I think. She’ll fit right in with the Israeli Defense Forces Officer training and then on to head a Department of Surgery somewhere at one of the leading Israeli hospitals.
Gezahegn’s mother Ayalnesh sits down in a chair near us and her son translates from Amharic. Her name means “you become strong.” Fifty-five years ago, she and her twin brother were born after 10 hours of excruciating labor at home because there was no hospital near their Jewish village high up in Ethiopia’s northern mountains. Ayalnesh’s name reflects, I realize, the fortitude of Gezahegn’s grandmother who nurtured her children’s Jewish heritage under the direst of circumstances. Now buried in Gondar Ethiopia’s Jewish cemetery, she died at age 79, a year before she would have likely been admitted to Israel.
“We are Jewish on both sides of our family, from mother and father,” Ayalnesh says. Still waiting in Ethiopia are her twin brother and three sisters. Gezahegn’s 29-year-old sister and her 12-year-old son have not yet been permitted to join them in Israel because the current policy does not allow married children, such as Ayalnesh’s daughter to make aliyah.
My body shakes with frustration as I listen. In Ethiopia, the entire family including the siblings of Gezahegn’s mother had lived within minutes of each other, buying food and eating meals together nightly. A closely knit family unit. Gezahegn’s sister has hypertension. She has fainted and fallen down in the Gondar streets more than once. Health services formerly supported by Jewish organizations were closed down years ago and the family cannot afford medical care. Her son has asthma and emphysema, medical conditions easily treated when this boy gets to Israel, and which put him in danger in Gondar.
Gezahegn tells me what it was like for a Jewish kid to grow up in Ethiopia. The discrimination at school where non-Jewish teachers were willing to help Christian kids with difficult subjects, but denied help to Jewish students. The classmates who demanded to know why he didn’t make the sign of the cross when he passed the local church, calling him “Buda” (“hyena’ in Amharic.)
He says that sending the little money they have to their family in Ethiopia for basic necessities puts huge pressure on them as newcomers in Israel, just as Gezahegn and his sister are about to put their educational achievement into gear. How hard all of this is on their mom, who seems the rock on whom the rest of the family revolves. Gezahegn reminds me that the remaining family in Ethiopia are in an especially dangerous position now, given conflicts between local Tigray and Amhara factions. And the shooting in the Gondar streets just before I left Ethiopia supports what Gezahegn fears.
Gezahegn’s mother has a few parting words about her remaining family in Ethiopia. “There is no one left for them,” she says. “If something bad happens, they are alone with no one to help them. What can you say to the people who decide who comes to Israel? Please bring us our family. They cannot stand by themselves. That’s why we request they are brought to join us here. We are all from Sarah and Abraham.”
As I sit with Gezahegn and his family today in Israel, witnessing their joy and the pain of separation from those still waiting, my tears are with me, once again.