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The Woman with Ethiopia in her Backyard

Hava Almo in the Ethiopian Cultural Heritage Center she’s created in her own home in Beit Shean

Story and Photos: Lydia Aisenberg 

Hava Almo originates from Ambober, a small mountain hamlet 40 kms from Gondar in Ethiopia. Nowadays Hava lives in the Israeli city of Beit Shean, one of the most ancient of cities in the country known for the impressive excavation of the enormous site. Hava lives a short distance from the ancient site. When sitting in the Ethiopian Cultural Heritage Center which she has created in her own home, an, one is transported to Ethiopia through the telling of her own powerful story accompanied by the sounds, tastes and vibrant colors of Ethiopia she has skillfully and lovingly arranged in her courtyard. Ethiopian culture, ancient traditions, dress codes and norms of daily life in Ambober are energetically and excitedly narrated by Hava to Israeli and overseas visitors who pop into her Ethiopian center. . Many young Israelis of Ethiopian descent also visit Hava's center so that they can learn more about the history, culture and beliefs of their parents and grandparents.

Hava, the mother of eight and grandma of one seemed incapable of staying still for a moment as she reiterated the riveting story of how she and so many others of the Beta Israel risked death in order to reach Israel. Addressing a large group of Israelis and sitting in her bamboo walled traditional Ethiopian home, a microphone strapped to her cheek and speaker on a strap around her waist, Hava began her harrowing tale of her own and her people's struggle for freedom.

"My name in Ethiopia was Zina. Even now, after all these years, it is still really difficult to tell the story of how I, as a 10 year old child, defied my parents to join my brother to reach Jerusalem, a dream of my people for thousands of years. My brother was active with a small group of friends preparing to leave for the Sudan having heard it was possible to fly to Israel from there. My parents didn't know what he was planning but the evening they left Ambober he sat drinking coffee with them and I overheard him tell them he was going. He asked for their blessing. They were obviously afraid for him but on the other hand they had always talked and dreamed about doing just that, and eventually agreed."

Asking her parents if she could also join her brother Hava received a resounding negative reply. However, when the group of 80 mostly young people began to leave the village and start their long arduous trek to Sudan, the determined child tagged along behind an aunt, pretending she was playing as she darted in and out between the people departing at dusk in a long silent line. She was barefooted and had no water container. A number of times her aunt tried to shoo her away and encourage her to return home but she steadfastly refused and continued to tag along.

"My aunt became very angry and kept yelling at me. Eventually she tied some food around my waist and left me in one of the Ethiopian villages we passed along the way. My brother was furious with me as well and agreed I should stay in that village but after they left me I told myself I would be strong and get to Jerusalem and started to walk after them."

Three days later she caught up with the group only to find that their non-Jewish guide had informed on them to a gang of bandits who robbed them of their money and possessions. After that disastrous attack, the large group of Beta Israel found themselves without possessions, very little water but still resolved to carry on toward Sudan.

"In the area where we were at that time there was no fresh drinking water and I was sent to fill up a jerry can from a small stream but it was polluted, brown in color and also full of sand. When I came back with what I had managed to get into the jerry can people lost their temper with me and told me if that was all I could get I should drink it. I didn't have any choice as there was no other water source. Children fainted along the way and I will never forget seeing the bodies of those who didn't make it."

Having lost contact with her brother and aunt, Hava walked alongside a woman with two babies, one strapped to her back and the other to her chest. "The woman became so exhausted that she fell. The people behind her were pushing forward, exhausted and in a panic, and they just trod on her – killing one of the babies.

"I spent 14 months in a camp in Sudan and many people died there - some 4,500 didn't survive that horrific journey - before we were brought from the Sudan to Israel onOperation Moses in 1984."

Hava managed to reconnect with her brother in the Sudanese camp and when the time came for evacuation they were quickly herded, in the dark, toward a plane and in the confusion, once more brother and sister were separated. She heard him call her name but couldn't see him. When she called back she was reprimanded by one of the Israeli rescuers who said they must keep quiet as they were in danger of being discovered.

Yiftach Arnon, visiting the Ethiopian Center from a nearby kibbutz, becomes an instant Ethiopian elder at the hands of Hava

"I was standing by a bush and I heard a child whimpering from within the undergrowth. It was a 4-year old boy who had become separated from his parents in the dark and so I took him with me. We managed to find my brother once we were on the plane and also the family of the boy. We arrived in Israel on the 10th December, 1984." As she said the last sentence, Hava momentarily bowed her head as if silently honoring those of her people who did not make it.

Hava was sent to Kfar Hassidim youth village located at the eastern base of the Carmel Mountains. She attained a high-school diploma and later studied social work. Currently

she is involved with TeLeM, established in 1998 by the kibbutz movement in order to assist young Ethiopian immigrants who, after finishing army service, find themselves lacking basic skills compared to their Israeli peers. "Many of these young Israeli-born people find it extremely difficult to find jobs, leading to serious problems of integration. Living and working on a kibbutz, being offered courses to improve their academic knowledge and possibly learn a trade in which they will later find work, is all important at this most crucial stage in their lives and promises each and every one of them a better future in Israel," explained Hava. She is also working together with the Beit Shean Regional Council and Cleveland Partnership 2000 to build a new center for Ethiopian Culture and Heritage in the city.

Hava, who is married to Uzi, a fellow Ethiopian immigrant whom she met at the youth village, and today a prison officer, explained that when she began to talk about creating a new Ethiopian center in Beit Shean people said "no way". "Their reaction was more like in your dreams sort of thing," said the feisty lady with a mission and insatiable determination to achieve her goal.

"Well, we already know that some dreams do come true," said Hava with a broad smile before launching into an explanation of Ethiopian marriage and many of the other customs of her country of birth.



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Wednesday, 21 February 2024

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