Ethiopian teachers train to work in Israel

Maru Asmara is a tall, slender Ethiopian man with an air of tranquility. His wire-rimmed glasses and gentle manner give him an intellectual look.

He was born 28 years ago in Gondar in northern Ethiopia, where he graduated from high school and a teachers' training college. He taught in a high school for six years until he was drafted into the Ethiopian army.

In 1990, his entire extended family began their long journey to Israel. They abandoned their homes in Gondar and made their way to Addis Ababa — Ethiopia's capital. His brother sought his army unit out in a remote village in the Ethiopian countryside, and told him that he must come to Addis. It was time to go to Israel.

Asmara asked the army for permission to visit his parents and was given a six-day leave. Had his superiors known he was Jewish, he is certain they would have denied his request.

Asmara traveled to Addis Ababa — a three-day journey on an Ethiopian bus — to join his family. They waited for almost a year for permission to leave for Israel.

In May 1991, they flew to Israel with more than 14,000 fellow Ethiopian Jews in the airlift known as Operation Solomon.

Today, "I think the Ethiopian army is still looking for me," he says smiling.

Strolling along Jerusalem's bustling Ben Yehuda street, Asmara is clearly at home. He walks with the slow, determined saunter of a native Israeli.

He is intense, gentle and a bit shy as he speaks in fluent English.

Today he is married with two children. They live in Givat Hamatos — a caravan (mobile home) town on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It is among the sites erected hastily as a temporary solution to the severe housing shortage caused by the massive influx of immigrants.

"When I arrived in Israel three years ago, everything was new. Especially the language. I didn't even know aleph (A). I learned Hebrew in the Jewish school in Teda (in Ethiopia), but I forgot," he says.

"I studied Hebrew and I looked for a job, but I wasn't successful. I told them that I was a teacher. I studied 13 years and worked for six years as a teacher in Ethiopia and I would like to have a job. They told me `No, no, we don't have a job for you.'"

He wasn't certified to teach in Israel. He eventually found work in a supermarket arranging fruits and vegetables. But then he discovered an innovative three-year course designed for Ethiopian immigrant teachers who want to continue their profession in Israel.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, in partnership with the Israeli Ministries of Immigrant Absorption and Education, organized and funded the course, which is supported like all JDC programs by funds raised in United Jewish Appeal/Federation campaigns in the United States.

Seventeen new Ethiopian immigrants who were teachers in Ethiopia, are now enrolled in the program at the David Yellin Teachers Training College in Jerusalem.

The immigrants learn to master Hebrew and study English, math, science, and other academic subjects. They also get hands-on experience in Israeli classrooms as student teachers.

But most important, they learn how children are taught in Israel.

Asmara feels the most crucial obstacle he must overcome is not learning math and science, but understanding children, their parents and the role of teachers in Israeli society.

"Biology isn't different. Or chemistry or psychology. The only difficult thing is the relationships among parents, teachers and students. It is very important that we start to know what the children and parents are like, and what they are thinking," he says.

"In Ethiopia a child respects his teacher like a parent. Students know the teacher is important and respected in the community. You don't see noisy, fidgety children — you don't see the chutzpah you see in schools here," he says.

These teachers have just completed their second year of studies, and have one more year left before they are certified to teach in Israeli schools.

Asmara and the other teachers received JDC scholarships to join Jews from around the world in a march to the sites of Nazi death camps in Poland.

Learning about the Holocaust and its impact on Israel and the Jewish people is essential for any Israeli educator.

"I read about the Holocaust as a high school student in Ethiopia, but to see is to believe. Just to kill. It makes me very sad and very angry. How could it be? Why did they do this? Why especially the Jews?"