Israel is marking the 20th anniversary of a massive airlift of Ethiopian Jews called Operation Solomon. The arrival and integration of tens of thousands of Ethiopians into Israeli society have presented major challenges and brought many lessons.
Early morning at the Beit Canada Absorption Center in Ashkelon, one of 16 in the country that are new arrivals' first home. Recent immigrants from Ethiopia are studying Hebrew. They are called Falasha Mura, Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity but who have chosen to return to Judaism. They have been granted the same right of return to Israel that Jewish law gives all Jews.
More than 80,000 Ethiopian Jews have immigrated to Israel in the past three decades - 15,000 of them in a three-day airlift 20 years ago called Operation Solomon. They now total 120,000.
Gadi Yamharan was one of them. He currently works with the privately funded Jewish Agency that manages the complicated process of immigration and integration.
"I take them to the Ministry of Interior, to the banks, to the Ministry of Absorption. I accompany them through all the procedures," said Yamharan.
The young adults learn more quickly than their elders. This group is already speaking Hebrew.
"It was very hard [in Ethiopia], but in Israel it's easy. I am happy here," said one young woman who immigrated.
The children go to public schools in Ashkelon during the day. Afterwards they come here for activities, like skills development and sports.
The director of the program, Leah Golan, said the center aims to provide a comfort zone.
"It's really a holistic approach, very culturally sensitive, in order to make sure that after two years in the absorption center, moving and becoming part of the Israeli society will be as smooth as possible. And it's never smooth. It's always very, very challenging," said Golan.
Adapting to a new life
Yamharan said many immigrants are coming from rural areas in a developing country to the urbanized life of a developed state.
"When they come they find it difficult, whether the language or the culture, even the weather, everything is hard for them," he observed.
Although there are many success stories in the Ethiopian community, rates of unemployment and poverty remain higher that in the general society. Golan, whose parents emigrated from Romania, said there also is discrimination, though that is changing.
"Today I think there is a much more healthy attitude towards people coming from different backgrounds, first of all respecting the differences, and then understanding that each of the colors in the mosaic are entitled to get their own color, but at the same [time] create one society," said Golan.
Israeli officials plan to wind down this program in a few years after the remaining Ethiopian Jews have arrived. Although great efforts are being made to help them adjust, for some immigrants it may take generations to really feel at home.
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