Ethiopian Jewish children rediscover their parents

July 05, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

PARDESS HANNA, Israel -- When Melkamo Bimaro's uncle appeared at the Orthodox Jewish children's home where Melkamo lives, he brought astonishing news: The 6-year-old's parents were not dead but had been airlifted to Israel in Operation Solomon.

People at Neve Michael Youth Village marveled upon hearing that Melkamo was no longer an orphan. But for those closest to him, and for Melkamo, the news was strangely disturbing.

Haddas Said, his house mother, wept. She had talked with psychologists before she told him his mother had died in the first place. Now, she did not know how to say his mother was alive.

But Melkamo could tell something had happened by her sudden silence and sadness. So he asked.

"They have come, your mother and father," Mrs. Said told him. "There was a mistake."

Melkamo is one of an untallied number of Ethiopian Jewish children whose parents are suddenly reappearing after years of separation. For many of these youngsters who have spent a third or a half of their lives away from their families, the arrival of parents believed lost or dead strikes as much uncertainty as awe.

About one-quarter of the Ethiopians coming to Israel in the 1985 Operation Moses and later, smaller airlifts died, most of them en route to Sudan.

Some children heard that their parents had died. They mourned, and came to love others in their place.

Others hoped they would join parents they had missed all these years without realizing how far their paths had diverged.

Still others prayed to be magically reunited with parents who had divorced before the children even began their odyssey through the desert to Sudan and on to Israel.

Now, these youngsters dress in jeans and T-shirts and speak Hebrew. They have already caught up on the last 3,000 years of Judaism; their parents' religious practices and knowledge of Judaism's history stopped at the construction of King Solomon's temple, said Chaim Rosen, an anthropologist working for the Israeli Absorption Ministry.

The boys and girls are beginning to shed Ethiopian restraint for the free and easy manner of Israeli youngsters, which their parents take for insolence. The earrings boys here wear are usually reserved for shamans and wizards in Ethiopia.

Yaffa Ayalo, 18, has been here four years. When she told he xTC mother goodbye at their home in Gonder, northern Ethiopia, her name was Eeno Ayalo.

It took Yaffa a year to walk to Sudan and get transport to Israel Her mother went to Addis Ababa, from which she was to reach Israel using secret connections. But each time, she turned back and went home to Gonder.

"The whole time I was walking, I was dreaming of seeing my mother here. But I don't know what she was thinking about," Yaffa said.

When she realized that her mother was not here yet, Yaffa began writing letters home. They came back stamped, "Nobody living at this address" or "This family does not exist," she recalled. "I had a feeling I would never see my mother again."

When she got word that her mother had reached Israel, she rushed to see her.

"I remembered only her smile and her teeth, and when I saw her smile, I knew it was my mother," Yaffa said. Her mother was at first surprised to see her daughter. "Then she said I was too skinny," Yaffa said.

Yaffa said that she would like to live with her mother, though she thought it improbable.

"I want to study," she said. "I can't actually live with my mother."

Though their parents now are in absorption centers, often less than an hour's drive from here, young Ethiopians like Yaffa and Melkamo are not expected to be leaving Neve Michael to join their parents.

Rather, social workers here believe that children who are coming with their parents would be better off living among Israeli youths who could help them adapt more quickly.

"The parents are going to be busy getting a place to live, learning the language, finding a job. It's less of a strain on them, and it helps the kids learn Israeli ways," said Shlomo Kessler, chief counselor here. "And let's face it. They're black, and integration won't be so easy for them."

While Melkamo's parents want him to come live with them, he is squarely against leaving Neve Michael, sources at the youth village said.

"He remembers when he was a small boy, shepherding the flock with his father and living in a hut," said Esther Laufer, a spokeswoman for the village. "He believes he'd be going back to the same village, to the same way of life."

When Melkamo went to meet his parents in Tiberias, there was no instant joy.

"I don't know her," he pronounced upon seeing his mother. When his father held him, though, Melkamo wept in recognition.

The two-day visit with his parents left him quiet and withdrawn.

"It's a big shock for him," said Ms. Laufer. "First believing that his mother is no longer on this earth. And then he comes to love Haddas like his mother. And suddenly his mother is here."

"There's a whole two-year gap in his life with his family," said Mr. Kessler. "That's more than a quarter of his life he hasn't seen them. He can't just jump over that."

The child lives in a group home with Haddas Said, her husband, Bezalel, and their two children, along with 11 more of Neve Michael's young charges. Like all the children who have relatives in Israel, Melkamo now will spend every other weekend with his family, gradually getting used to them once again.

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