How one Ethiopian-Israeli Jew’s experience led her to help others.
By Noga Shavit
Minneapolis Community Shlicha
Miri Picado-Aharoni is an Ethiopian Jew who faced ridicule and hardship while growing up in Ethiopia. But her family’s strength and perseverance eventually led them to Israel where Miri found a happy ending.
Currently, Miri works as the Director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's PACT* program (Parents And Children Together) an initiative, funded in part by the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, that helps Ethiopian-Israeli preschoolers enter Israel’s educational framework on equal footing with their Israeli peers. In her position, Miri is able to help other Ethiopian families adjust to life in Israel and she provides them with the tools they need to succeed.
Several months ago, Miri brought her remarkable Aliyah (Immigration to Israel) story to Minneapolis, where her experiences touched the hearts of many in our local community. I had the opportunity to catch up with Miri when I interviewed her over the phone a couple of weeks ago. She was nursing her new baby boy, who recently joined his 1 1/2 year old brother. Miri is married to Adam, a student of industrial design whose family is a third generation in Israel with origins in Ukraine and Hungary and has worked with immigrants from Argentina and the former USSR – an Israeli story indeed.
Miri and her family – her mother and seven siblings – arrived in Israel in 1980, four years before Operation Moses that airlifted some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel and 11 years before Operation Solomon in 1991, that brought some 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel through non-stop flights of 34 Israeli aircrafts. “We were practically the first black Jews in Israel,” she says, without laundering words, “and it was a very challenging experience.” Miri’s father was killed shortly before their exhausting on-foot journey from Ethiopia to Sudan, from where they were flown to Israel, forcing her mother to provide for the large family single-handedly. Yet, Miri observes, “she was so grateful and happy to finally be in Israel that she never complained.”
Up until 4th grade she remembers a miserable childhood, being constantly insulted and bullied in school for her skin color, background and the traditions that she brought with her. It all changed when a teacher noticed her beautiful voice and invited her to join the choir. Although singing is no longer part of her life, she takes that memory with her, personally and professionally, as an example as to how one person can make a positive impact on the life of another person.
“Sometimes all it takes is one kind gesture, one little push,” she says. However, she has experienced many other offensive incidents where she was underappreciated because of her Ethiopian origin. It happened in the army, where she served for two years as a supply inventory manager, and later on as a university student, a professional and in many other settings. “It’s all about how you choose to respond to these insults,” she explains. “You can either take them to heart, become angry and bitter and completely lose your self esteem, or you can decide to ignore them and move on.” Not everyone is as strong as her, though, she admits.
As a social worker, she worked mostly with new immigrants. She remembers working with Russian teenagers who made Aliyah without their families as one of the most rewarding experiences of her life. “It took them a while to accept me,” she reminisces, “but once we crossed that bridge and they developed trust in me, it was wonderful.”
For the last three years, she has been in charge of the PACT program in Beersheva, a southern city with the largest community of Ethiopian-Israeli Jews in Israel. PACT aims to help minimize learning and social gaps between young Ethiopian-Israeli children and their veteran-Israeli peers, while at the same time working with the entire family and community. She brings to her work not just memories of her own childhood, when she had no one to help her with her homework or encourage her to read books, but also the current difficulties she is facing as a student at Ben Gurion University. “I missed so much as a child in terms of literacy and learning skills, that it’s still hard for me to perform tasks that are quite simple for Israeli born students. This is why we have to start working with the kids as young as possible, while simultaneously helping their parents understand the importance of spending quality enriching time with their children,” she explains.
When I ask her about the future Miri says that there is still a lot to be done, especially in terms of education. In a country where higher education is such a key factor in social mobility, there are still a very small number of Ethiopian-Israeli university graduates.
Miri returned to Ethiopia a few years ago to visit the village in which she was born and her father’s grave. She said that in Ethiopia she could tell how strong her Jewish-Israeli identity was. “I felt no sense of belonging when I was there,” she says. “In fact, I was much more moved by my recent visit to Minneapolis. The way people responded to my story and the way the Minneapolis Jewish community has helped Ethiopian Jews in Israel, made me realize how united the Jewish people are as a nation.” With all the hardships she and her family have been through and the many struggles she faces on a daily basis, Miri says that she is very proud to be a citizen of Israel – the Jewish State.
*The Minneapolis Jewish Federation has been a longstanding partner of JDC's PACT program in Hadera and has been funding it since the year 2000.