They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. That old adage is certainly true for Michal Samuel, who left her homeland of Ethiopia by foot, traveling through Sudan, to eventually arrive in Israel as a part of Operation Moses.
“In 1984 my family decided to leave Ethiopia. We left everything but some food and horses, we didn’t say goodbye to anyone in our village. We walked from Ethiopia through Sudan. We left with 20 families and walked for weeks at night. During the day, we hid from the Ethiopian army. It was a hard journey. We were robbed along the way. There was no water. I saw many people who died, but we were optimistic because we were going to Jerusalem.”
Samuel presented her story “From Ethiopia to Israel — The Long Journey Home” on Monday, April 1, at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library. During the hourlong talk, Samuel told of her experiences from the age of 8 when her family fled Ethiopia through the present day. She is currently the executive director of Fidel, a not-for-profit organization committed to helping the Ethiopian refugee population integrate into Israeli society.
Israel decided to officially recognize the right of return for Ethiopian Jews in 1977, Samuel explained. Her family was one of 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to escape the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of then leader Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. After six weeks her family escaped to Sudan and refugee camps, administered by the Red Cross and Mossad, where they spent a year waiting to go to what they assumed would be Jerusalem. “We were lucky, we survived. There were about 4,000 Jews who died from malaria and other diseases.”
“One night we were told it was our time to go. I remember the darkness of the desert, walking through Sudan to the trucks that drove us to what I thought was the wings of an angel to take us to Jerusalem.” After a short plane ride, Samuel recounted her family kissing the ground of what they considered the Holy Land when they landed.
Several surprises awaited the young girl and her family. The first was that Israeli Jews were, by and large, white. This was the first time Samuel had seen white Jewish men and women. The second shock for the newly arrived refugees was that they weren’t actually at Jerusalem, rather they had landed at Ben Gurion airport, about 30 miles northwest of the city. It took her family another four or five years to finally arrive in Jerusalem.
“I remember it was exciting and new. There were buses and showers and lights, remember I grew up in a village without running water and went to the river to take a bath and suddenly you have showers in your home and can cook, you don’t have to collect water. We had to adapt to Israeli life. It was easy for me.”
Samuel and her family moved to different absorption centers and while they were happy to be in the Jewish homeland, they struggled to integrate into Israeli society. “My family never learned the language and couldn’t utilize their skills like they could have on a kibbutz.” She attended boarding school and college and while her education helped her integrate, “it’s been a struggle. First to recognize I’m different, a different color, from a different society.”
Living in two worlds, Samuel would spend each Sunday away from school, acting as the spokeswoman for her family, taking them to various government agencies, banks, hospitals and doctors’ appointments.
“I wanted to not be a stranger in Israeli society. I learned everything about it.”
Her new life included an Orthodox, religious school which sometimes caused conflict with her family that still practiced Judaism as they had before leaving Ethiopia. “I had to make a decision. I decided the Orthodox way was not mine. It was something I had to adopt. I decided Israel had to learn about us, they had to learn about our culture.”
Despite deciding against the Orthodoxy of her boarding school, Samuel was able to become a part of Israeli society, serving in the army and attending college. She earned a master’s degree in education.
“I was the only one of my sisters that my father chose not to get engaged. He decided I would be educated. My family is a large tribe. I have 64 nephews and nieces. I opened the door for them to study at university. My family has now been educated, there are lawyers and doctors. I decided my life would be about helping others. I wanted to help other refugees not to make the same mistakes my parents did by sending their children to boarding school.”
It’s because of this passion that Samuel now runs Fidel, one of the largest not-for-profits in Israel focused on education and the 145,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
Samuel concluded her presentation focusing on the challenges of the 30-40 year old Ethiopian community in Israel. Explaining, “we are a new generation of leaders in Israeli society. We are not a problem; you have to hear our voice. We are here to stay.”
Barbara Burstin, a member of the history faculty at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, explained that the Rayah Fund (which brought Samuel to Pittsburgh) was established to bring Israeli voices to America. “Americans just hear the political news and much of that news is not necessarily great, but what is going on in civil society is encouraging and exciting. Michal is one of the movers and shakers having an impact on her community and Israeli society in general that American Jews should hear about. These are people American Jews should understand and know there’s another voice of Israel.”
After her talk in Mt. Lebanon, Samuel attended a conference of the National Council of Jewish Women in Washington, D.C., where she was to be honored for her work in Israeli society. pjc
David Rullo is a local freelance writer.