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Trapped in the dark in Ethiopia

Another reason to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel: in Gondar, cataracts mean blindness
(Zack Hartstein)
(Zack Hartstein)

Imagine you were slowly going blind. First, you had trouble reading signs on the road. Then your vision worsened to the point where you couldn’t recognize the faces of people close to you. Finally, your vision became limited to distinguishing between light and dark. By this time, of course, you couldn’t continue to work or even do basic chores around the house. In Ethiopia, your life would now consist of just sitting around in the dark, except when perhaps a friend or family member could lead you around.

I am not describing some mysterious sight-robbing disease. This is simply what eventually happens with untreated cataracts. For those of us living in Israel, there would never be a deterioration like this because there is a simple operation that can remove cataracts to restore our vision to 20/20 (6/6.) For a significant number of the 6,000 Jews in Gondar, Ethiopia, there is no option of cataract surgery or eyecare of any kind. They are literally trapped in the dark.

Many years ago, Jews in Ethiopia left their villages, their homes and livelihoods, and gathered in Gondar, where the Jewish Agency set up a school and program to prepare them for aliyah. In 2013, the Jewish Agency ceased their operations in Gondar, stranding thousands of people still waiting to make aliyah. Over 80 percent have first-degree relatives in Israel. IDF soldiers who fought in Gaza have siblings and parents stuck in Gondar. Many have been waiting for more than 20 years. In 2015, the Israeli cabinet unanimously approved bringing the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Last year, 1,300 were brought, but there are no current plans to bring the rest.

I was unaware of any of this on my first trip to Gondar in 2014, where I went to visit the Jewish compound with my family. Word spread quickly that there was an ophthalmologist on the premises. Very impromptu, I ended up examining more than 100 people. But there was little I could do without proper instruments, medications, and an operating room. I referred patients to the local hospital, but most of the Jews in Gondar could not afford the NIS 1.50 ($.43) cost for an evaluation, let alone cover the cost of surgery.

Since that trip, I have obtained an Ethiopian medical license and have made three more trips with my family to the Jewish compound in Gondar, where we set up a very makeshift eye clinic. We have examined the eyes of over 1,000 people in the Jewish compound. We provide patients with necessary medications and glasses, which we bring with us in overstuffed suitcases from Israel. (Fortunately, Ethiopian Air allows two bags of 23 kilograms (50 lbs) per person.)

The makeshift clinic in Gondar. (Zack Hartstein)

However, for many in Gondar, including elderly people and children, surgery is the only option to regain or to not lose their sight. Through relationships I have built with the local hospital ophthalmology staff, some of these blind patients are now able to undergo sight-restoring surgery. The costs of surgery are currently being covered by a private charity in the US.

There was much excitement in the Knesset last week when the new budget was passed, but with a glaring omission. There was no mention of including the remaining Ethiopians in the budget, despite the 2015 resolution, despite pleas from some MKs, and protests right outside the front gates of the Knesset.

The Jews in Ethiopia, living under harsh conditions, continue to wait, and too many of them lose their sight. Why should a 6-year-old Jewish child in Gondar go blind when he could be here in Israel receiving proper eyecare?

Next week, we will be celebrating our redemption from Egypt. Our brethren in Ethiopia are hoping and praying, as they do every year, that this Passover will bring their redemption, and they will be reunited with their families here in Israel. And once in Israel, they will have access to the basic eye care to which we are already accustomed. Unless the Knesset adds the Ethiopian aliyah back into the budget, those in Gondar will remain trapped in the dark.

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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