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Starving in Gondar

For the most vulnerable of the 8,000 Ethiopians desperately waiting to reach Israel, one meal a day is not enough
This little boy is actually 9 years old.
This little boy is actually 9 years old.

Imagine you have two children, ages 3 and 5, and you have only enough food to provide each of them with one stable meal per day. At your recent visit to the doctor, you are told that the 5 year-old, while not in great shape, is getting by. However, the 3 year-old’s physical and mental development is really suffering by only having one meal per day. In order to prevent irreversible damage, the 3 year-old needs two meals per day. You are now forced to choose—keep on feeding them each one meal per day, or take away the meal from the 5 year old so that the 3 year old has two meals per day. No one should have to make this gut-wrenching decision. But I may have to.

Currently, there are about 8,000 Jewish Ethiopians in Gondar and Addis Ababa, waiting to come to Israel. The 8,000 people waiting in Gondar and Addis Ababa appear on a list which has been examined, vetted, and approved by the Interior Ministry in Israel. In 2015, the cabinet unanimously approved this group (resolution 716) for Aliyah. More than 70% of these people have a first degree relative in Israel such as parents, siblings or children. And yet, they continue to languish there in extreme poverty. These people gave up what meager possessions or means to earn a living they had in order to come to Gondar or Addis Ababa to make Aliyah.

Last year, my son Jonah and I helped conduct a study (along with Prof. Arthur Eidelman of Shaare Zedek Medical Center and public health officials from Gondar University) of the nutrition status of children under the age of five in the community. We found that half of the children ages five and under suffer from stunting, underweight and wasting, at a rate higher than that of the average for Ethiopia.

We brought together a number of organizations to start a program that provides one stable meal per day to nearly 500 kids under the age of five. Why only one meal? Budget constraints. The program receives no support from the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency or the Jewish Federation.

The children in the program are closely monitored by a local pediatrician. While there are encouraging signs of growth and weight gain, it is clear now that the youngest kids really need that second meal. But the program can’t afford it. Do we take away one meal from the older kids in order to give an additional meal to the younger kids?

I just returned from my seventh trip to the Jewish community of Gondar, along with the amazing group Rescuers Without Borders (SSF-Sauveteurs sans frontieres). We examined and treated over 700 people for eye problems and taught basic first aid to nearly 60 youths.

Watching the kids get their daily meal, I am always amazed at how quiet and orderly they are, as they wait patiently for their plate with a potato, an egg and a roll. One kid even offered to share his plate with me. Still I am shocked and pained when I see these kids who are way too small for their age, with toothpick-like arms (small mid-upper arm diameter is a diagnostic sign of malnutrition.) We are doing what we can with our limited resources to try and nourish these kids back to a normal growth curve, including investigating Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) supported by UNICEF.

Israel prides itself on being a first-responder when there is natural disaster anywhere in the world which is admirable. Israel should be the first responder here. These malnourished children are part of families that are on a list that has been approved for Aliyah. We would be thrilled to shut down the program if the Israeli government would fulfill its promise and bring them to Israel immediately. Otherwise, we will be forced to decide who gets that second meal.

Donations can be made via The Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry. 100% of the funds go toward the feeding program.

About the Author
Morris E. Hartstein is a Harvard-trained ophthalmic plastic surgeon, director of Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center. He has authored 3 best-selling textbooks in oculoplastic surgery. Dr. Hartstein made aliyah 14 years ago with his wife and 4 kids; they live in Raanana.
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