Difference Maker

Asher Elias uses high-tech training to lift Ethiopian Jews in Israel

In Israel, most Ethiopian Jews are trapped at the bottom of society in dead-end jobs. Asher Elias gives them high-tech training to boost their upward mobility.

By , / Correspondent

The poster in Tech-Career's simple office shows a young black man and woman, each with dreadlocks, leaning on each other as they work away on laptop computers.

"Narrow the digital gaps," it proclaims.

In an adjoining classroom, 20 Ethiopian-Israelis, who are listening intently to their instructor in a course titled "Introduction to Systems Activ­a­tion for Windows 7," are doing exactly that.

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The course is part of Tech-Career, an intensive program of study designed to equip Ethiopian-Israelis – who constitute the poorest segment of the Jewish population – with the tools to join Israel's dynamic and high-paying high-tech industry. The program also aims to develop young leaders who will help lift the Ethiopian-Israeli community out of poverty, stagnation, and marginalization.

Asher Elias, whose parents were among the first Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to Israel in the 1960s, launched Tech-Career seven years ago, continuing his social activism, which began with his membership in an advocacy group called the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry (IAEJ).

In 2004, only four Ethiopian-Israelis worked in the high-tech sector here, all of them trained in Ethiopia. Now there are more than 200, the vast majority of them Tech-Career graduates. They work at leading companies such as Amdocs, Matrix, and the Israel Discount Bank.

Jolted into a path of activism

Mr. Elias, a soft-spoken, upbeat man who invariably answers with "superbly" when asked how he is doing, first became interested in computers as a teenager. After his mandatory military service, he graduated from Jerusalem's College of Management with a degree in business and computers and went to work for a marketing firm in Tel Aviv.

In 1996, he was jolted into pursuing the path of activism.

The Israeli government, it was revealed, had been discarding all blood donations from Ethiopian immigrants out of fear they were infected. Ethiopian-Israelis staged a huge protest that included clashes with police. Many in the Ethiopian community saw the government's actions as clear evidence of racism.

"The big protest came at a time when I had decided to do something meaningful with my life, and it struck me that I could play a role," Elias recalls. "On the one hand, there was this amazing [Ethiopian] community that arrived in the country and wanted to fit in. And on the other hand, there was this Israeli society that did not recognize it or know it.

"The sense was of a great loss, a missed opportunity. My feeling was to work on making this connection for the benefit of all."

To do this, Elias began working for the IAEJ as it strove to make gains for Ethiopian Jews in employment, housing, education, and other realms.

Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel amid great fanfare: 14,325 were flown covertly from Ethiopia in 72 hours in a stunning 1991 operation when they were threatened by political instability there. But the community's integration into Israeli society has often been unsuccessful, especially compared with that of other groups, such as immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Many of the Ethiopians were uneducated, came from rural backgrounds, and lacked the skills needed to succeed in the Israeli economy.

Half the income of others

At first the government encouraged sending Ethiopian children to boarding schools that were often below standard and prepared them for only menial jobs. According to the IAEJ, today 60 percent of Ethiopian-Israelis work in unskilled jobs, often as cleaners or security guards. The average household income of Ethiopian immigrants is about half that of other Israelis, the IAEJ says.

Ethiopian Jews who search for work may encounter prejudice. A survey of employers two years ago showed that 53 percent preferred not to hire an Ethiopian immigrant.

At the start of every school year, disturbing reports surface of school principals in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva refusing to accommodate new Ethiopian-Israeli pupils in their schools because of a concern – shared by some parents – that they will bring down the educational level.

To bring real change and integration into Israeli society, Elias says, a new group of young, well-educated Ethiopian-Israeli leaders needs to emerge. He hopes that Tech-Career can play a part in that.

"If [Ethiopian-Israelis] have financial security, it enables them not to worry about their own interests and to be open to working for others," Elias says. "Many people in history did great things when they were financially secure."

So Elias set his sights on opening the high-tech field to Ethiopian immigrants. They are virtually nonexistent on the computer science faculties of Israel's leading universities because the entrance exams are "culturally biased," he says. Moreover, the tuition to study technology at Israeli universities is well beyond the reach of most Ethiopian families.

In addition to running Tech-Career, Elias leads a weekly personal-development session for students where they can raise topics of their own choosing, from racism to the financial crisis in Europe.

Though there are "individual phenomena of racism" against Ethiopian-Israelis, Israeli society as a whole does not view them as "racially inferior," Elias says. The main problem is ignorance, he says. Those Israelis who get to know Ethiopians tend to accept them.

'Our youth have enormous capabilities'

But, most important, it is up to Ethiopian-Israelis to better their own lot, he says.

"It is definitely possible not only to fit in but also to influence and to lead. Our youth have enormous capabilities," he says.

Elias wasn't fazed by a recent report from the Knesset (parliament) saying that many government ministries are not following through on affirmative-action legislation that is supposed to promote employing Ethiopians.

"I don't count on government officials to make it happen," Elias says. "It's our problem, and we have to be more active to make sure [the law] is implemented."

Elias has made sure that the Tech-Career program of study is demanding.

"We had classes from 8 to 3, and then we worked on projects, sometimes till 1 in the morning," recalls Shlomi Desta, who now works in software development for Callflow Software in Tel Aviv.

Before enrolling in Tech-Career, Mr. Desta was a ­security guard.

"The program gave me knowledge in the field I'm engaged in, and it taught me how to handle pressure," he says. Beyond that, Tech-Career helped transform Desta into an activist for Ethiopian community rights, he says.

Last year, Desta helped found the group Ethiopians United Among the People. Among other things, it advocated closing an all-Ethiopian school in Petah Tikva on the grounds that it was a "ghetto" that offered no chance for a decent education. The school was closed in August by the minister of education, Gideon Saar, with whom Desta had met.

Another graduate, Hadas Gavihu, says she found that Tech-Career taught her much more than how to work with computers. "The staff was very supportive and instilled motivation to perform and succeed," Ms. Gavihu says. "The sessions with Asher about the community planted pride in us."

Gavihu was recently promoted from program tester to team supervisor at Bank HaPoalim in Tel Aviv.

Israel Discount Bank, one of the country's leading financial institutions, employs 12 Tech-Career graduates. The bank's deputy director general, Shai Vardi, heads Tech-Career's advisory board and lectures to its students about how to conduct job interviews.

"I don't give any discounts to them," Mr. Vardi says when asked about Tech-Career graduates. "Their quality is like every other group of workers in Israel. Some of them are excellent.

"I agree with Asher's approach. If we want to help the Ethiopian-Israelis fit in, we must give them opportunities to integrate into worthwhile and desirable professions."

 

 

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