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The First Word: Save us from the social workers
The First Word: Save us from the social workers

In April of last year, Ilu Beja killed his wife, Adelu, and himself. In
December 2006, Anteneh Taddese, a 47-year-old Ethiopian from Holon,
killed his wife and attempted to kill himself. The Holon incident is
the latest in a series of family violence reports among Ethiopians. The
situation is getting worse and no one seems to be doing anything to
stop it. Some of these killings have been committed in front of

Why does the highest level of violence appear to be taking place among one of the tiniest communities in the country? In Ethiopia, women may have been dominated or beaten, but they were not murdered.

This is a "made in Israel" phenomenon.

What explains it? Simply put: too much poverty, too little education and a
gratuitous undermining of our traditions that virtually destroys the
fabric of Ethiopian Jewish family life.

We have basically been forced to abandon our traditions and embrace the
modern ways of Israel. But this has led to tragic results in Ethiopian
family life. Left unchecked, our current travails are likely to produce
more criminals and potential killers.

But what to do? The best approach is to allow Ethiopians to help other
Ethiopians. And the best resource we have within our community are the shimagles, or elders. Given the chance, and with the right support, they could
play a pivotal role in solving the predicaments the community finds
itself in.

The Amharic verb meshemgel has two meanings. One is to advance in age, to become old. The second is to mediate, to arbitrate and to solve conflicts that arise among community members - conflicts among neighbors, or between husband and wife.

IN ETHIOPIAN tradition, an old person is considered wise. The belief is
that with age, an individual accumulates wisdom. Hence he becomes a
shimagle - an old person who has rich life experiences that enable him
to be a peacemaker in the community. The young respect him.

Back in Ethiopia, the shimagles played a constructive role in settling disputes and
reconciling people. Whenever a conflict emerged between husband and
wife, for instance, village elders would intervene and mediate between
the parties. These elders knew the mentality of the people because they
came from the community. They knew when and how to mediate, when and
how to act.

Sometimes, after a sudden outburst of anger, a husband and wife would quarrel and bring their case to the elders, and might ask them to help them
divorce. The shimagles, knowing that when their anger died the couple
would likely come to their senses and want to go on living together,
would find a way to make this happen. Intensive mediation would take
place; sometimes it would take several days, even weeks. In the
meantime, the wife would stay in her parents' house.

The main goal of the shimagles would be to solve the conflict and help the
couple to live together in harmony; not to separate them. The elders
knew the detrimental impact separating a couple would have on the
welfare of their children. They also knew that if the couple divorced,
they would regret their separation afterwards.

Here in Israel, social workers have replaced elders. When faced with
problems, instead of mediating, they often opt to break up families.
They become part of the problem. A minor conflict that, handled with
the proper cultural sensitivity, could have been easily solved becomes
a divisive issue in the hands of Israeli social workers.

When some Ethiopian men discover that an Israeli social worker - usually
female - is about to investigate their family disputes, they literally
contemplate suicide. The man anticipates that the social worker isn't
coming to mediate, but to banish him from his house. And if he is
thrown out of his house, he has nowhere to go - for, like many in his
community, he is probably unemployed and living on a meager income. He
cannot rent a house.

Out of hopelessness and desperation, he kills his wife and himself in front of his children.

IF A husband is a threat to his wife, by all means remove him from his
home. But he has to go somewhere. To throw an individual out of his
home without giving him shelter is inhuman.

Moreover, too many social workers are indifferent concerning the welfare of our
children. The fear of growing up in foster homes, something unknown in
our culture, is frightening. In a television interview after the latest
murder in Holon, one of the children of the victim asked that they be
allowed to be taken care of by their elder sister. He said they wanted
to be together as a family, an indication that they didn't want to go
to foster parents or foster homes.

The family crisis so rampant in the Ethiopian community might have been
averted had the government not dispossessed the shimagles of their
mediating role among their own community.

Why can't the authorities effectively tackle the difficulties that beset
Ethiopians? We are, after all, the most adaptable and soft-spoken of
immigrant communities. We have a tradition of obeying and trusting
authority. It also boggles the mind that a country founded by
immigrants, with long-standing experience in absorbing immigrants, can
be so inept in dealing with the difficulties that face a tiny community
like ours.

The truth is that the authorities are unwilling to help for reasons not clear to us.

But if I am wrong and they do want what's best for us, then the authorities
should train Ethiopian social workers and give them the opportunity to
solve the community's pressing family problems by themselves. Under
such a plan, Ethiopian social workers would work in collaboration with
the shimagles, who speak the language of the people and have the
experience of mediation. These young social workers would be taught to
respect and to learn from the elders. Age is something one has to take
into account when one deals with Ethiopians.

LET ME now return to the issues of poverty and education. The violence
undermining our family structure also stems from the fact that our
children are deprived of a good education. And many of the educated
ones are either unemployed or underemployed. Out of those Ethiopians
who are employed, more than 90 percent, educated or not, work as
security guards and earn a meager income.

Why would Ethiopian youngsters want to struggle for a higher education if
they think it will make no difference to their ultimate position in

Finally, every day young Ethiopians see crime, violence and drug addiction
around them. Surrounded by hopelessness, they begin to feel they also
have no bright future. It is madness to expect sanity from a hopeless
and desperate people.

Sometimes it seems as if the only visitors to our community are researchers,
psychologists and anthropologists, as if we were not a people to be
helped, but subjects to be studied.

Unless there is a sadistic satisfaction on the part of the Israeli authorities
in seeing us murder each other, let them show a willingness to help us
help ourselves.

The only thing Ethiopians ask is to be treated like human beings, and to be allowed to live like human beings. Is this too much to ask?

The writer is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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