For 23 days Ethiopian Israelis have been occupying a protest tent outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, demonstrating against what they consider paralyzing racism and discrimination against them in Israeli society. Jerusalem, Israel. 6-Mar-2012.
Shetu Yaacov, 31, born in the district of Gondar in Ethiopia, immigrated to Israel in 1990 at the age of nine. Shetu lives, just barely, in a rented apartment in Jerusalem. He is late with his monthly rent payments and will soon have no choice but to leave Jerusalem to find an apartment with lower rent elsewhere. Although he has a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work and is currently employed by the Jerusalem Municipality indirectly, he cannot find a more stable job and must settle working through contractors on projects that deal solely with the Ethiopian community – he’s not wanted for anything else. Shetu believes it was his financial hardships that lead to his divorce. His ex-wife and one-year-old daughter have moved to his wife’s parents and he does his best to visit his daughter once every two weeks.
A recent study by Dr. Erez Siniver, chairman of the School of Economics at the College of Management, Academic Studies and Prof. Gil Epstein of Bar-Ilan University, based on Central Bureau of Statistics data from 2010 and comparing data for people with 12 years of schooling or less concludes that Ethiopian immigrants to Israel earn 30%-40% less then Israeli Arabs, until recently occupying the bottom of the scale.
Shetu Yaacov does his best to occupy the protest test whenever he can. He comes on weekends and between work shifts. He was here last week, freezing in the snow, when temperatures in Jerusalem hit zero. He believes it’s important to continuously occupy the protest tent until Ethiopians receive what they are entitled to and is very worried about the eviction order they were served by the Jerusalem Municipality, to be debated in the Jerusalem District court this afternoon.
Shetu details the demands of the protestors. First on their agenda is housing – many are unable to fund rent. They don’t even dream of buying an apartment. They can receive no assistance from their parents who in most cases are worst off. 95% of the working community are exploited by contractors, he explains, in low-pay jobs such as cleaning and security. “The younger generations, those of us who have married and brought children, cannot survive.” Many marriages break up and the people go back to living with their parents. “The government doesn’t care about us. That’s why we’re here. They close us in ghettos and isolate us from society.”
Second on the agenda is education and schooling; “After thirty years our community is in the country I cannot understand the racism that forces our children to go to separate kindergartens and schools.”
Shetu is frustrated with, what he calls, paralyzing racism, that won’t allow him to work as a social worker with communities other than Ethiopians. Many of his friends cannot get jobs at all. He heard from a young woman who changed her name on a job application so that she could not be identified as Ethiopian. She was summoned for an interview but as soon as she entered the room it was obvious to her she would not get the job.
Suicides are becoming very frequent, Shetu explains with great emotion; “People who have been through the hell of the camps of Gondar, come to Israel, lose hope and kill themselves.”
“My personal situation is relatively good. Others have lost hope” he summarizes.