First in a Series: Ethiopians starving as they wait to emigrate

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — In a eucalyptus grove inside the Jewish cemetery of Addis Ababa, 43-year-old Berihun Ambau has buried four family members during the last eight years.

Today he watches his wife, Tsehanesh Tamrat, wailing beside the grave of the couple's 8-year-old daughter, who died five months ago from complications from an ear infection.

Tamrat's body rocks up and down, her arms flail as she cries out, overcome with grief. When she has no voice left, she leans against a tree, eyes red with tears, hiding her face in her scarf.

"We starved ourselves to take Alem to the clinic but we had no money for medicine," says Berihun, who earns 5 birr a day, or 85 cents, carrying stones when he can find the work.

The family is ineligible for aid from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Yet they, like most of the other 3,800 people in Addis Ababa commonly referred to as Falas Mura, have family in Israel, live an Orthodox religious life, and qualify under the Law of Return for immigration to Israel because of their Jewish lineage.

The family came from Gondar three years ago hoping to join Berihun's brother and sister in Israel. Instead, two years ago, his mother, father and other brother died of starvation. They lie buried in the same cemetery as his daughter.

"If we had all gone to Israel we would all have gotten medical treatment," Berihun says. "Here we wait for the embassy to take us to Israel, but now we are starving and dying."

Berihun, Tsehanesh and the other Falas Mura are stuck in the bureaucratic nightmare that followed Operation Solomon. After the miraculous 36-hour airlift that brought 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the Israeli government insisted there were no more Jews left in Ethiopia. Yet 111 members of Falas Mura have been buried in the Jewish cemetery in Addis Ababa since May of 1991, when the last El Al plane left.

During the weeks before Operation Solomon, Jewish Agency emissaries beckoned Jews to come to Addis Ababa, where they were met by officials carrying a rough census of Jewish villages and families. Ethiopians on the list were classified as Beta Yisrael and given clearance to go to Israel; the others were Falas Mura, descendents of Jews who, according to the Jewish Agency, had converted or assimilated. As the Beta Yisrael left on the planes, the Falas Mura were told they would be leaving the next day.

Five years later, 1,000 people draped in white sit in an open-air compound in Addis Ababa listening to the Torah being read on Shabbat. An Israeli flag flaps gently in the wind as a young man takes the fringes of his prayer shawl in his hand, kisses them, and touches them to the standing, blue Sephardi-style scroll and recites the proper blessing in Hebrew.

"Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who chose us from among all the peoples and gave us the Torah…"

The men close and dress the Torah. The service ends with 1,000 strong, clear voices quietly singing "Am Yisrael Chai," "The people of Israel lives."

***

Each weekday morning in the former Solomon compound administered by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), community members gather for morning prayer. The adults meet in and around the synagogue for the full shacharit service while the first shift of school children line up in the courtyard to say the morning blessings and sing the Israeli national anthem.

On this spring morning two school children stand below the Israeli flag, next to torches that commemorate Israelis lost in recent bombings. Bayush, an 11-year-old girl, says, "I wish that their families will have comfort, and I think about the peace in Israel."

The compound is the center of the Falas Mura community here, although many live outside in rented one-room shanties. The school, which serves two shifts of children each day, provides adult education classes most afternoons. One member from each of 427 families works daily in the compound's embroidery program, which produces pillows, bags, wall hangings, an occasional chuppah as well as challah and matzah covers.

The compound also houses the children's lunch program, the administrative office, and the ritual bath that has served more than 550 women since it opened two months ago.

Tebka, 10, is one of 1,160 children in the school. Since her grandparents left for Israel a year ago — says Aschalew Feanta, the school's director — Tebka misses them so much she can't concentrate.

Her grandparents left under Israel's family reunification policy, which permits Israelis to bring in immediate family members for humanitarian reasons.

Until her grandparents left, Tebka had family to care for her and a living subsidy from the JDC. Orphaned at birth and raised by her grandparents, she has lived half her life around the compound in Addis Ababa.

The Jewish Agency and the Israeli Interior Ministry refused the grandparents' request to bring Tebka with them to Israel because she is not their daughter. She was left by herself with no income because she's not eligible to receive money from the JDC. Her 13-year-old sister was eventually brought down from Gondar to care for her, and supports them both by spinning cotton.

"I want to go to Israel, I want to be with my grandparents," Tebka says in a whisper. "Can you help me join my grandparents?" she asks a visitor.

***

Since Operation Solomon five years ago, everyone in the community has been waiting to leave "tomorrow." The synagogue and school rooms are temporary structures, stick frames stretched with blue canvas or filled with earth and straw. After years of being self-taught, the community requested teachers from Israel, and now everyone studies Hebrew and learns about Israeli culture in preparation for their life in Israel.

According to Tesfahun Worku, who heads the steering committee for the community, members have turned down offers of seed money from the JDC to start businesses in Addis Ababa.

"We are not able to invest ourselves here in Addis Ababa," Worku says. "All the people's minds are in Israel, on our life and future there."

The JDC, also known as the Joint, is the humanitarian relief arm of the organized American Jewish community and provides medical care and an average of 30 birr per month, less than $5, to 70 percent of the Falas Mura. The amount has not increased during the past five years despite a sharp rise in the cost of basic goods.

Even so, every month 400 families contribute one birr apiece, or 15 cents, to the steering committee fund to help those who have nothing. About 100 Falas Mura escape the poverty and leave for Israel each month but only 60 to 80 come from the NACOEJ compound while the rest are brought from other regions of Ethiopia.

"At the current rate we will be finished with our task by the year 2001 or 2002," says Michael Schneider, head of the JDC.

***

Takele Alemayehu, 76, and his wife, Molajaye Engeday, 44, hope they will soon be among those leaving.

They awake each morning in the single room they share with seven of their eight children, ages 3 to 19. Their eldest son, Kasaw Takele, 23, serves in the Israeli army.

The tiny shack has walls of earth and straw packed onto wood poles. Every surface inside is lined with newspaper. All of the families' possessions hang in bags from nails on the wall.

Alemayehu says, "We think of our son in Israel, and we live like this so the end of life will be good."

Fekadu Gesse, the member of the committee in charge of the cemetery, says "the main problem of our community is the inability to leave as soon as possible, and the result is that Jews are dying here."

Aschalew Feanta, the director of the school, notes, "Other Jewish people from Russia are not given a special name and have no problem going to Israel. We have been waiting for six years, suffering, and we have a great wish to go to Israel. What is the problem here? Is it our color? Is it because we are from a Third World country?"

In his view, it is against Jewish tradition to keep him and other Falas Mura out of Israel.

"Since God has promised to gather us all together in Israel, the promise should be kept," he says. "For the Jews from the rich countries not to help the Jews from the poor countries is interfering in the plan of God. It is not fair."