Thirty years ago this month, nearly 15,000 Ethiopian immigrants came to Israel as part of Operation Solomon, a covert Israeli government mission that not only saved my people from civil war but brought them to freedom.
I was fortunate to come much later, when aliyah was still very much a dream, but not as impossible as we once thought.
I came as a naïve and scared 11-year-old in 2007 from Gondar in Ethiopia. My mother waited patiently for over 10 years to see the Land of Milk and Honey in person, only to fall pregnant with me and be told that she would have to wait.
So, after a decade-long wait, our dream for Zion was finally realized.
I remember vividly being whisked away to Tzfat (Safed) once we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport. The journey to that holy northern Israeli town was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Steep hills, a bumpy and tumultuous ride had me grasping my mother’s hand asking myself, “What have we done?”
Like most Ethiopian olim, we were placed in an absorption center. The one in Tzfat was as far removed from my previous home in Ethiopia as possible.
And, yet, slowly but surely, I found ways to acclimate. I’d explore the city every Saturday with friends. I’d attend synagogue every Shabbat. I took the opportunity to absorb every aspect of this holy and righteous city.
But what helped me the most were the young women in IDF uniforms who taught me Hebrew. They patiently sat with me as I struggled to learn how to read and write, and were dedicated to making sure that by the time I left the center, I’d be able to talk like an Israeli.
Fast forward seven years later and I knew I wanted to don that uniform and pay forward the generous gift of education they had given me.
While serving in the IDF, that is exactly what I did. I went to absorption centers where I saw children who were just like I had been — afraid, lacking confidence and homesick — who desperately wanted to no longer feel like a stranger in a strange land.
It’s not easy to be a new immigrant in Israel at first. This is especially true of Ethiopian olim, who were the “other” back home and, once in Israel, due to the color of their skin, vastly different culture, and no knowledge of Hebrew, that feeling of “otherness” didn’t necessarily stop just because they reached the Holy Land.
So when a young oleh would tell me, “I want to go back to Ethiopia,” I understood.
I knew what it was like to escort your mother to the doctor or to the bank because they cannot contend with the rapid-fire Hebrew that Israelis speak. I knew what it was like to feel like you have one foot firmly planted in between not only two cultures, but two universes.
And yet, I also knew what it was like to feel the slow transformation to feeling like you’re a sabra, born in Israel: to speak the language freely and openly, to wear that IDF uniform, and to say proudly, “I’m part of Am Israel.” I knew what it was like to celebrate our holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashana and take pride in the rest of the country celebrating these joyful occasions with us.
Those IDF soldiers made this happen for me and I’m so grateful I can complete the circle and give that gift to other olim.
Today, I’m studying computer science at The Jerusalem College of Technology. Although I don’t know what the future will hold, I look forward to being part of the Start-up Nation enterprise. There, I’m enrolled in the school’s Reuven Surkis program, which helps give Ethiopian students a leg-up so that we too can enjoy the social and financial mobility that comes with being part of Israel’s hi-tech sector. I’m proud to be part of an initiative that empowers us to get our foot in the door of lucrative and dynamic industries in business, tech, and the military.
In the meantime, being able to reside in Jerusalem — a city that my ancestors thought was so holy it was literally made out of gold — is the epitome of the Zionist dream realized. It is no accident that my parents called me “Eyerus” — taken from Yerushalayim, Jerusalem. Living in the city of my namesake is a blessing that I cherish every day.
To all olim who came before me I thank you for paving the path. To all the olim who came after me — especially the ones who recently came on the Tzur Israel flights — I say: Welcome home. The journey is difficult, yes, but the rewards are numerous.