Nothing could have prepared me for my visit to Gondar in Ethiopia. Although I was ready for the challenges of launching a program to benefit young Ethiopian Jews and provide them with life skills, arriving in the city was a huge culture shock, even for a well-travelled professional.
There is a huge problem with employability in Ethiopia in general. The communities are not equipped with any skills other than farming and agriculture. But realising that the young people have no future plans, not even any concept of what their futures might hold, was a real emotional blow.
Not having a vision or a dream is common for children from very low socio-economic backgrounds. They do not make education a priority, partly because they do not see the potential future benefits, and partly because their attention is elsewhere – in the case of the Ethiopian Jewish community, it is on making Aliyah.
In the market a small girl came up to me, she cannot have been more than six years old, and she had a baby, maybe two or three months old strapped to her back. She was asking for money. Then a few days later we saw her on the other side of Gondar – she was clearly spending every day walking across the city. It was heart-breaking to know her parents had sent her and the sibling out because the family does not have enough food.
The challenge for ORT is to find a way to give these young children hope for the future, to provide them with the life skills they need – not to be a data analyst or a CEO perhaps – but to have options; maybe to move to a bigger city in Ethiopia, to work in an office or with a computer rather than in the fields.
This is a country where work is not a 9-to-5 thing. When you labor in the fields, you wake up when you wake up, you go to sleep when the sun goes down. To help these communities succeed in the modern world – as these young Jews will need to when they succeed in making Aliyah – they need to understand the different values that are associated with today’s workplace.
The program developed by World ORT Kadima Mada, in Israel, includes workshops and instructors to facilitate basic technology skills training. Working with the World ORT International Co-operation department and in partnership with Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ) – supported by the Buncher Foundation – we will ultimately reach 300 Ethiopian Jewish students aged 14 to 21 in the city.
They will learn how to construct resumes, prepare for job interviews, gain communication skills and receive an introduction to innovation and entrepreneurship.
Meeting the students I understood the complex nature of what our trainers will face. Ethiopians are very welcoming but humble people. When I spoke to the teenagers about the courses, they did not have the confidence to make eye contact.
WOKM is providing trainers to run the program, both virtual and in-person. The workshops officially began on Zoom in late January. In total the students will benefit from 20 three-hour sessions. Two of our trainers are Ethiopian immigrants based in Israel who will deliver the training remotely in the local language, Amharic. Both – one male and one female – are studying at Israeli universities and serve as role models for the Ethiopian students. A third instructor, Yosef, is based in Gondar and has been trained by us to lead on the ground.
By the time the course finishes in June, the students will be able to build a PowerPoint presentation, and they will have developed the skills they need to speak in front of a group or be interviewed for a job. In September our trainers will travel from Israel to Gondar and lead a hackathon, putting the students’ new skills into action, face-to-face.
As I flew out of Ethiopia after spending days with these young people, I thought about how this project encapsulates the story of ORT over the past 143 years.
In 1880 we focused on teaching Russian Jews how to put shoes on horses or plough a field. In 2023 we are still providing students with the skills they need to thrive, through high-quality teaching and training.
We will do everything possible to empower these young Jewish Ethiopians so that they can grow and develop successful futures, whether at home or in Israel.
Sadly we cannot train everyone. The girl in the market may still be there on my next visit to Gondar, but I know that in developing this program and starting our work to transform lives through education, we can make a huge difference to the Ethiopian Jewish community.