Helping Ethiopian Israelis get advanced degrees

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When Ethiopians Jews make aliyah, regardless of their age, they often cannot read or write and have never entered a school. They are unfamiliar with such basics as running water and are equipped for farm work, blacksmithing and ceramic-making, skills hardly in demand in Israel.

They Israeli government provides all its citizens with a free education, and various Jewish agencies help smooth the way for the new immigrants. One nonprofit organization fills a small, but vital niche, by helping Ethiopians already settled in Israel obtain their masters and Ph.Ds.


Keren Hanan Aynor is a small organization, with less than a handful of paid employees working out of a one-room office in Jerusalem. But its large all-volunteer board is active not in just deciding who gets scholarships but also in mentoring the lucky recipients in so many areas.

The late Hanan Aynor served as an ambassador to Ethiopia for five years until the Yom Kippur War, when Emperor Haile Selassie ended relations between his country and Israel. Aynor, who had fled to Palestine from Germany and served with the Allies in France as a volunteer from Palestine, left that country but retained a special place in his heart for the Ethiopian Jews he had met.

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Upon his death 20 years ago, his wife Sarah established a fund in his name to help create young leaders among the Ethiopians brought to Israel.

Sarah Aynor is now 90, lives in an apartment filled with art and books one floor up from the organization’s small office. During an interview in her apartment, Aynor continued to brush aside any questions relating to herself. Instead she spoke lovingly, maternally, about so many of the Keren Hanan Aynor scholarship recipients. The first year, with little money, five scholarships were awarded, including one to Tsega Melaku, who now has a successful broadcasting career and is the organization’s chairperson. When she received her scholarship in 1979, the organization was more geared to helping Ethiopians who were already enrolled in a good college.


Itzhak Shelef, a retired ambassador, also served in Ethiopia and serves on the organization’s board. While in Ethiopia, he befriended the Jewish community. “I visited them in their villages” along the Sudanese border. During that time, the Israeli government tried to bring the Ethiopians to Israel, but were told “that would be bad luck” for Ethiopia, Shelef recalled.

Instead, Selassie moved them into agricultural settlements by the Sudanese border. After two tough days of traveling to reach the new settlements, he realized the Jews couldn’t make a life there. There were not even tents. “The area was dry and hot, very hot, so hot that I could not sleep at night,” he recalled.

The problem was that these Jews “were forced to go down to the lowlands although they had lived most of their lives in the mountains. All of them wanted to go to Israel. You have to see how they worshipped Israel. Many of them prayed three times a day to the north, but the authorities would not allow them to leave,” Shelef said.

Then, in 1988, relations between Israel and Ethiopia were re-established. At that time, Ethiopia really wanted weapons from the United States, and “help from the United States meant you had to deal with Israel,” explained Nili Auerbach, director of public relations and resource development. She made aliyah three years ago and previously lived in Silver Spring where she taught sixth grade at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School from 2007-2010.

So the Ethiopians were able to obtain visas. Once in Israel, they strove hard to succeed, utilizing free education available to all Israelis. But that benefit ends when a person reaches 28, which proved to be a problem for the new immigrants, who often were behind in their schooling as they were simultaneously learning a new language and raising a family.

That’s where Keren Hanan Aynor steps in, offering scholarships to those already in college and seeking masters and Ph.Ds.

Ethiopians make up 1.8 percent of the country’s population, with the majority of them under 18 years. According to ELEM-Youth in Distress in Israel, Israel’s leading nonprofit dedicated to Jewish and Arab Israeli youth, that organization experienced a 70 percent increase in the number of at-risk Ethiopian youth it served during 2012. The report went on to state that 73 percent of this group said they encountered racism, 33 percent said their schools discriminated against them and 33 percent felt ostracized by people from other ethnic groups.

Yet there are many, many success stories. Keren Hanan Aynor has distributed about 3,000 scholarships to more than 1,500 people — with some people receiving more than one scholarship as their education continued. Recipients include doctors, engineers, lawyers, two members of the Knesset and artists, Auerbach said.

At its height, the group distributed 273 partial scholarships in one year. This past school year, 141 scholarships were awarded. The number is highly dependent upon donations the organization receives as well as the country’s economy in general. The group tries to offer the most scholarships it can, therefore the amount varies.

“Unfortunately we turn away 50 percent” of those seeking financial aid, Auerbach said, noting it’s great that so many people are seeking advanced degrees but not so great that everyone can’t be helped. Over 95 percent of those who do get scholarships complete their degree, she said, adding that at the same time they also often work part time, raise a family of their own and/or help out their parents.

Besides helping financially, Keren Hanan Aynor offers mentoring and emotional help, guiding the students throughout their years in school.

Israela Fanta couldn’t agree more that Keren Hanan Aynor is vital for helping Ethiopians. She came to Israel in 1992 at the age of 8, “walking for a week straight” to get from her home near the Sudanese border to where her family could be flown into Israel. She was one of the lucky ones as most Ethiopians heard the terrible stories about how many fleeing Jews were dying on route and decided to stay put.

Fanta came to Israel without ever attending school but soon excelled. She was a lab technician in the IDF and then went on to study at Tel Aviv University. Next, she went for her master’s in clinical psychology, thanks to Keren Hanan Aynor, which not only helped her but also offered her a part-time job as the organization’s student coordinator.

Fanta happily reported that she just finished her degree “with a 92 percent average” but still needs to complete her thesis.

Melaku, one of their first scholarship winners, credits Keren Hanan Aynor with so much more than allowing her to get a good education. “They gave me an opportunity to see my future,” she said. “Every self confidence … comes from my education.” Without an education, “how could I be a role model for my children?” she wondered.

When she was informed her young son couldn’t attend a particular kindergarten because he was Ethiopian, Keren Hanan Aynor, and in particular Sarah Aynor, told her to fight that. Melaku sent a letter to the education minister and within a week, her son was admitted to the school.

“The point is that Tsega dared write such a letter,” Shelef said, noting that Ethiopians tend to be “subdued, quiet and used to obeying orders.”

Although she has been finished with school for many years, Melaku continues to visit Sarah Aynor weekly, calling her grandmother. Her oldest son attends medical school, thanks to this organization.

Through her radio and television career, Melaku tries to help the Ethiopian community. When she started 25 years ago, she interviewed Israeli experts, translating their comments into Amharic. Now, she says with pride, there are plenty of Ethiopian experts able to go on her show.

“We return what we get. Now, we give back for others,” she said. Looking back on her 29 years in Israel, Melaku said, “The next 29 years, I will see many more doctors, pilots even a prime minister, why not?”

For information on contributing to the scholarship program, go to kerenaynor.org.il

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