Howard University: Israel at Heart Connects Ethiopian-Israelis to Students

Israel at Heart Connects Ethiopian-Israelis to Students

By Genet Lakew

Managing Editor

Published: Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 22:03

Three Ethiopian-Israelis traveled over 5,000 miles to the U.S. to share their personal stories of assimilation, religion and identity.

Israela Falka, Havtnesh-Liat Sabahat and Naor Baruch were sponsored by Israel at Heart, a nonprofit organization based in New York. The group gathers young Israelis from the Jewish state to travel to college campuses around the world in hopes of exposing people to their lives. These representatives also help to dispel stereotypes or correct misinformation about Israel and its people.

The department of student life and activities was instrumental in bringing the three Ethiopian-Israelis to Howard’s campus. Noelle Ojo, the department’s coordinator for intercultural programs, escorted the visitors to their event sites on Wednesday. Ojo said it is the office’s goal to provide global experiences for Howard students and expose them to different cultures.

Gregory Carr, Ph.D., chair of the Afro-American Studies department, joined Ojo to moderate a discussion with the three Ethiopian-Israelis in Founder’s Library. Afterwards, the trio attended a luncheon at The Restaurant hosted by the African Student Association.

Havtnesh-Liat Sabahat

Havtnesh-Liat Sabahat began her story in Ethiopia, where she was born. Her family decided to escape to Sudan but did so in a secret operation because the Ethiopian government at the time did not allow citizens to freely leave the country.

Seven-year-old Sabahat walked to neighboring Sudan with about 200 other people on a journey that took weeks to complete. The group faced dangerous conditions along the way, including illness, kidnapping, robbery, and lack of food and water. In Sudan, she lived in a refugee camp with her family until they were all transported to Israel to begin their new lives.

Her family experienced culture shock upon arriving in Israel. They had never seen white people and the Israelis had never seen black Jews. Sabahat called it a process of learning one another.

Fast forwarding to age 18, Sabahat, like any other Israeli citizen, was required to serve in the Israeli army. However, women have an added choice of participating in the national service where they can work in hospitals, schools and other community sites. Sabahat took the latter route and served two years. She went on to pursue university studies and is now a real estate lawyer. She recalled the struggle of trying to get through school while working three jobs and juggling family and personal life. She said there were times when she thought she would not make it to graduation.

Israela Falka

Israela Falka’s first name gives a hint as to how she got it. She, too, was born in Ethiopia, where her family lived a simple life in a rural village with no running water, electricity, or modern amenities. Her mother was a housewife and her father a rabbi. Falka’s seemingly serene life was confronted with a huge problem: being Jewish in a land of non-Jews.

“If you are not in a certain religion, they will try to convert you,” said Falka. According to the CIA World Factbook, Ethiopia is a predominately Christian and Muslim country, with 62.8 percent and 33.9 percent, respectively.

Falka’s family did not feel they could freely practice their Jewish faith in Ethiopia. Falka’s mother was nine months pregnant with her when the family set off for Israel. They longed for a place where they could retain their identity and not constantly be forced or bothered to live a certain way, especially as is related to religious freedom. Falka was born two weeks after arriving in Israel, hence her first name Israela.

Like Sabahat’s family, Falka’s family struggled to learn the new Israeli culture and assimilate into the society. She especially remembers the differences in the state of mind of her Ethiopian parents and westerners. Her parents were humble, quiet and respectful in their interactions. However, western culture dictates that a person must be loud, extroverted and outgoing in order to succeed. This “clash of cultures,” as Falka called it, led people to think her parents were shy or did not have confidence. In reality, that was not the case.

“I was born in the new culture,” she said. Her parents raised her to be proud of her new home, Israel, and instilled in her a sense of national pride. At the same time, they retained their Ethiopian identity at home and exposed her to it. “I had to be like a bridge between those gaps of culture,” said Falka.

They were proud and grateful to be living in Israel, a place they considered the holy land and true home of their faith.

“They thought of Israel in the biblical way, not in a modern way,” said Falka. She was taught to love her country despite the troubles that come with settling in a new land.

When she turned 18, Falka joined the army. Because she was proud to be an Israeli, she felt a strong desire to serve her country in an honorable way.

Although she had the choice of going into the national service, Falka joined the army and served three years as an officer. During that time, she worked at the checkpoints in Gaza and the West Bank. This experience was one of the most influential and profound in her life, she said. It taught her more about who she was and helped her dispel myths about Palestinians. She learned to look at them as individuals, not as the terrorists they were depicted as in Israeli media. She built relationships with Palestinian families and communities.

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