Ethiopian teens visit old home to relive memories, close the past

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JERUSALEM — Eli Sabo, a 16-year-old high school student, remembers the day more than seven years ago when he and his family began their long journey to Israel.

"One day, a man came to our village and told us we would be taken to Israel," he said, his voice barely a whisper. "It was all very sudden and unexpected."

Sabo and his family boarded a bus in the rural province of Gondar for the two-to-three-day journey to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where they would be flown to Israel.

"We waited and waited, but my father never saw his dream come true," Sabo said. "He died in Addis the week before the airlift."

Sabo, who still finds it difficult to talk about his father's death, as well as the loss of three of his siblings in Gondar, recently returned to his homeland and confronted some painful memories.

In late May, exactly five years after he arrived via the Operation Solomon airlift that brought some 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in a single weekend, Sabo and seven of his classmates flew to Ethiopia for a two-week "rediscovery tour" sponsored by British Emunah, with help from the organization's North American chapters.

The teenagers, who are residents of the Emunah-funded Sarah Herzog Children's Home in Afula, "needed to find some emotional closure," said Shaharit Vazan, the home's assistant administrator.

Although the eight teens are excellent students, Vazan said, "like many Ethiopian kids, they suffered from a lack of self-esteem and identity problems."

"The purpose of the trip was to show them that the country and culture they come from is beautiful," Vazan said. "We want them to be proud of both their cultures: Ethiopian and Israeli."

In many cases, Vazan said, "Ethiopian children, like child survivors of the Holocaust, were forced to leave their homes very suddenly and they were traumatized. It's as if their roots were chopped off before they knew what was going on."

Not quite sure what to expect when they arrived, the teens said they were full of hope and trepidation.

"I was nervous about going back, and I didn't want to be disappointed," said Asher Samuel, 16, who was nine when he left Azazo, his village in Gondar.

"Although I was young when I left Azazo, I still remember a lot," he said. "I remembered my mother's house, the river and many friends. I did see some friends, but others weren't there and I was disappointed.

"What really surprised me was how poor everything seemed. Growing up, we didn't think we were so poor. I'm glad we don't live there anymore."

One thing that touched him deeply, he said, was the sudden appearance of two old friends, who walked several miles to greet him.

"We had already gone on to Gondar village, several miles away from Azazo, and I was walking outside when I heard someone call my name. Two boys I used to know walked overnight to Gondar after they'd heard I was visiting. It was really incredible."

Shlomit Ya'akov, 16, also met some long-lost friends in the large village of Ambova, which once contained the area's only synagogue.

"Visiting the village was very special because I saw my teacher. He seemed happy to see me, and I know I was happy to see him.

"I wish I could have seen our old house, but it was torn down, and the synagogue was all boarded up. Even so, I'm glad I came because it puts a lot of things into perspective."

Although Sabo did not visit his home village because the journey would have taken several days, he and his classmates held a memorial service for his father in Addis Ababa.

"We went to the cemetery and said Kaddish, and it felt very good," he said. "I know he would be happy that I'm living in Israel."

Shocked by the poverty in Ethiopia, and at times feeling a bit guilty at their own relative good fortune, the teens decided to adopt a school in the city of Axum. In addition to donating some money while they were in Ethiopia, the group plans to send used books, clothes and other supplies to the impoverished school.

"We're so fortunate in Israel," said Sabo. "It's the least we can do."