By Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz
ADDIS ABABA – Holoager Kasa gathers her older children around her. Subalo is 7 and Bainchjlem is 5. The three-month old, Dastayo, is fastened in a carrier on her back. They are dressed for the final stretch of their voyage.
In the last 10 days, Kasa has been staying with some 50 other Ethiopians in a small compound near the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa. In two hours they will board the bus that will take them to the airport.
Her husband, Tafso, is out making last-minute purchases. Holoager’s delicate face registers incomprehension when asked how she obtained a permit to go to Israel. “I have two brothers and sisters and an uncle in Israel,” she says. “One of them applied for me, and five years ago I was called to Gondar for an interview.”
She does not know where her Israeli relatives live or where she is supposed to stay once she arrives, but they told her it was near Jerusalem. She doesn’t speak a word of Hebrew and the only thing she knows about Judaism is Sabbath, but she knows that in the past her family was Jewish.
Tafso is Christian, but his wife says that he agreed to covert to Judaism in Israel, and this made their trip possible. Asked what she expects in Israel, she says, “I don’t know. I just want a good life.”
She will miss nothing from her life in Ethiopia.
Kasa’s family is one of the last to leave Ethiopia for Israel. Only 474 Falashmura with permits to immigrate to Israel remain in Gondar – eight more flights. The Jewish Agency office in Addis Ababa is to be shut at the beginning of June. More immigrants to Israel have passed through this office in recent years than through any other Jewish Agency office in the world – 300 a month, 4,600 a year.
“However, throughout 2007 we brought only one woman to Israel,” says Jewish Agency envoy Uri Conforti.
He says that 95 percent of the immigrants to Israel in recent years have been Jews according to the halakha, while the rest have Jewish parents or grandparents. The former receive a blue immigrant card on arrival, and that is replaced by an identity card a few days later. The others receive a green immigrant card, and only after a year and a half are they eligible for citizenship, after converting to Judaism. Then they also receive their Israeli housing grants and be eligible to vote.
The Ethiopians are a calm, reserved people. Unlike immigrants from the West, they don’t sing Hebrew songs, wave flags, kiss the holy soil and weep when they arrive. They have already been through a complex process to get to this point. They have waited for a long time, sometimes years, before receiving a date to report to the Jewish Agency’s compound at Gondar. They are photographed for the travel card, interviewed about their medical condition, briefed about travel arrangments to Addis Ababa, the capital, and receive an allowance for expenses and lodging on the way. Every Sunday a busload of immigrants, accompanied by paramedics and an armed guard, leaves the compound.
The immigration candidates are sent to a private hospital for x-rays of their lungs, to make sure they don’t have tuberculosis. If they do, their trip to Israel is delayed for preliminary medical treatment. In a clinic operating out of the embassy compound, the immigrants are vaccinated against various diseases. Their medical files will be sent to an Israeli health maintenance organizations (HMO).
The would-be immigrants are shown films to prepare them for life in Israel. They learn what a toilet bowl, refrigerator, stove and disposable diapers are, as well as how to open a bank account and what an HMO and absorption grants are.
At the airport’s entrance, they are briefed about regular stairs and moving stairs, the latter of which they are warned not to use, to avoid accidents. They sit quietly by the gate. Nobody goes to shop in the duty free. The immigrants are afraid to use the toilets on the planes and the Jewish Agency envoy makes sure they all go to the airport toilet before the flight.
On the Ethiopian Airlines plane they are seated in the back, by the galley. Holoager and Tafso are enjoying every moment of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Once they have landed at Ben-Gurion airport, the mothers are led to a diaper-changing corner. The rest are ushered into small rooms, sign for immigrant cards and receive their first immigrant grant, based on the size of their family.