Q&A: Ethiopian-Israeli Holocaust Museum Volunteers
by Thomas Siurkus
Banchi Avraham, Danny Ayanou and Liraz Madhani are three young Israelis of Ethiopian descent who are taking part in a program called “Israel at Heart,” a leadership program at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) open to Ethiopian Israelis. Avraham, Ayanou and Madhani are part of the delegation to Washington, DC, where they are volunteering at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Ayanou, 29, and Madhani, 26, were both born in Israel and studied communications at IDC; Avraham, 27, who studies diplomacy and government at IDC, was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel with his family at age two. Moment spoke with them about their Ethiopian roots and their work at the museum.
All of you have roots in Ethiopia. Your parents immigrated to Israel in the last century. Tell me something about your families’ backgrounds and how and when your families came to Israel.
Ayanou: Me, my mom, my brother and my two sisters came to Israel in 1991. My father came to Israel four or five years after us. He was a soldier in the Ethiopian army, so the army didn’t allow my father to immigrate to Israel. In Israel, my mother was a home maid. She stayed at home and cared for her children.
Madhani: My parents came to Israel in 1994 with Operation Moses. They went by foot all the way from Ethiopia to Sudan, in the desert, for three weeks. Then they came to Sudan. They stayed there in a refugee camp and after that they came to Israel to the immigration center.
Avraham: We immigrated in 1991 with no specific operation. The Jewish community in Ethiopia was small, and we dreamt for many years to come to Israel. So for us it was like a dream came true. We didn’t walk on foot. Many people who came from Ethiopia to Sudan were raped or killed. But they took the risk to make the dream real.
Did you and your families feel welcome when you arrived in Israel?
Ayanou: I can tell you my opinion: Most Ethiopian Jews want to go to Israel, no matter what. After they got to Israel, the treatment of the Ethiopian community from the government to the Ethiopian community wasn’t as good as they thought it was going to be. So they had a lot disappointment from the Israeli government, but even with all that, I don’t think they want to go back to Ethiopia. Israel is the only country where they want to live. The situation wasn’t that good, but it became better.
Avraham: There is a gap between the Ethiopian culture and the western Israeli culture. My parents thought that they were going to the Holy Land, to see Jerusalem. They weren’t thinking that things have changed in those thousand years. There is no electricity in the village [in Ethiopia], no bedroom. They went to the river to take a shower.
The language was the main gap. They couldn’t fit in to the Israel community, because they didn’t know the language. So suddenly the children were in the role of the parents. They were helping their own parents to be part of the community.
Of course culture was one gap. The other one was that [we were] black Jews. We have different Jewish people from all over the world in Israel. We have Moroccan people, we have Yemenite people. Even for them it wasn’t that easy. We have to struggle with some things, but still we feel like we belong to our country. We want to go nowhere else. We feel Israeli more than ever, but we need to solve our problems. It will take time.
How do you self-identify—as Ethiopian-Israelis? Ethiopian Jews? Just Israelis?
Ayanou: I started to hear that question about three years ago. Prior to then, I never noticed, I never cared about that. I just identify myself as an Israeli-Ethiopian Jew. That’s what’s important to me.
Madhani: For me, Jewish is first for sure. And then Israeli and then Ethiopian. For me the Ethiopian is only because of my parents. I wasn’t born in Ethiopia, only my parents [were]. I identify myself as an Israeli, because I’m Jewish and I love my country.
Avraham: I would identify myself as a Jewish Israeli Ethiopian.
Do you feel accepted as full members of Israeli society or is there still bias against Ethiopian Jews?
Avraham: The discrimination is always there. But still in Israel it is not like in other countries, for example like in America.
When people don’t look like the rest, then they get discriminated [against]. That’s human nature. But I feel Israeli like every other Israeli.
Are there challenges of being Ethiopian-Israeli that native Israelis don’t face?
Ayanou: From my point of view: No. But there are other Ethiopians that feel that just because they’re black and they have a different color, they have more difficulties in life. For me, I don’t feel it.
Now you’re studying at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and you’re doing an internship at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. What is the program about?
Avraham: The IDC is a private college and we’re part of a scholarship program called “Israel at Heart.” The scholarship is only open to Ethiopian Israelis. The goal is to promote leadership, to be a part of Israel’s community. One part of the program is a delegation to Washington, DC and delegations to South Africa and London.
What was your motivation to join the delegation and to deal with the topic of Holocaust?
Banchi: In my opinion, the Holocaust is a Jewish story and an Israeli story. For me it is very interesting. More than 9 million people [in 2014] came to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. For us it is very important, because people get the chance to learn more. It is really special just to be with the Holocaust survivors, to talk with them, to learn more and to listen what they have to say. It was very important to me to come and volunteer.
Madhani: In the beginning, I wanted to volunteer because my ex-boyfriend’s grandparents are Holocaust survivors, so I’m very connected to the history. And then when I came here, I saw all the Holocaust survivors. I met with them and each experience was very powerful and strong for me.
Ayanou: I grew up in Israel and even if I don’t have a direct connection to the history of the Holocaust — because my parents came from Ethiopia and weren’t in the Holocaust — the Holocaust story is connected to me because I’m a Jew.
What is your typical day like at the museum?
Madhani: We come here in the morning and do a briefing with the volunteers. There are many volunteers in the museum. Then we help the staff. We go to the information desk and to the visitor service. We help people by explaining the building and the work and answering their questions.
What is your favorite part of your work?
Madhani: Speaking with the Holocaust survivors. Every day there are two Holocaust survivors that come to the desk and speak with the visitors.
Ayanou: Just to be with them is so special.
Liraz, you’ve said that your father is your greatest supporter and that he wants you to be successful in a way that he couldn’t. Do the rest of you have similar motivations? Are there other motivations for your work?
Avraham: My parents are of course my motivation. I also love my country, even if we had a hard time between us. I want to help to develop a better community. That´s what motivates me. Also I do this for myself. Because I want to feel good with myself.
Madhani: When my father came to Israel, he didn’t know the language, so he couldn’t go to school and to college. He worked very hard in a factory, 12 hours a day. Just to give us food for every child. After [everything] he has been through, he didn’t want me to have the life that he had. He’s my motivation. He wants me to succeed.
Ayanou: I grew up without any meat. I just want for my children to have what I didn’t have when I was a child. That’s my main motivation. So I’m trying to make the world a better place to live.
What do you want to do after finishing at IDC?
Avraham: I would like to be a brand manager for a big company in Israel ten years from now.
Madhani: I would like to be a public figure in the education area.
Ayanou: I want to do something connected to Israel’s image. I maybe want to open a PR office.
Thomas Siurkus is Moment‘s inaugural Action Reconciliation Service for Peace fellow.