The following is a re-post of an interview by Yahel fellow (now alumna!) Aliza with Dr. Nigist Mengesha. It was originally shared in the Times of Israel (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/an-honest-conversation-with-dr-nigist-mengesha/).
I have had the privilege of working with the Fidel Association this year as part of my Yahel Fellowship in Lod, Israel. The Yahel Social Change Fellowship is a nine-month community-based immersive service learning experience in Israel. Fellows work hand-in-hand with a diversity of schools, community centers and non-profit organizations focused on meeting their local community’s needs.
This service is paired with social change-related education including seminars, meetings with local activists, and peer-led learning, which has allowed me to meet some of the most inspiring movers and shakers in the country, pushed me to ask difficult and meaningful questions that spark important and uncomfortable conversations, and enabled me to contribute to nuanced dialogue surrounding social change in Israel.
I joined the Fidel team with very little background or education in Ethiopian Jewry or the plight of Ethiopian Israelis. Over the past 8 months during my internship with Fidel, I’ve learned and developed an appreciation for the incredibly rich history and culture of Ethiopian Jewry. I have actively been contributing to their Resource Development work and supporting their programs with the Fidel Youth Center.
As a woman who hopes to continue pursuing work towards social change and justice, Dr. Nigist Mengesha, Executive Director of Fidel Association, is a huge inspiration for me. Her infectious energy and warm smile brighten the Fidel office here in Lod. I wanted to hear more about her story and perspective on issues facing her community. I’m excited to share my conversation with Nigist and illuminate her insights and vision for a bright future for the Ethiopian Israeli community.
Aliza: Hello everyone. I’m here with Nigist Mengesha who is the Executive Director of the Fidel Association. Nigist is a role model within the Ethiopian-Israeli community and an inspiration for many women. So we’ll jump in and speak about some of the accomplishments and professional experiences that she’s had being a leader in the Ethiopian-Israeli community. The first question I have is how has your personal story and your experiences as an Ethiopian-Israeli woman inspired your service?
Nigist: Thank you very much. Fidel is an Association for the education and social integration of the Ethiopian Jews – addressing problems within education and finding solutions to help empower and lift up the Ethiopian-Israeli community. I initiated and established the Fidel Association in 1997 because the school system and immigrant absorption in Israel was so problematic. When we arrived in Israel, we faced many challenges related to sending a child to the Israeli school system – especially the cultural misunderstandings and social problems.
Being an immigrant in Israeli society – we call it “Olim” – it’s not simple. Leaving a country, coming and learning a new language, a new environment, a new mentality, new people. It’s so difficult. We needed experts to find the solution to our problems. When I founded Fidel, I made sure the organization was established with Ethiopian-Israelis and non-Ethiopians together. I believe the Ethiopian-Israel problems are Israeli social problems. The solution should come together with both populations (the Ethiopian Israelis and also the non-Ethiopian Israelis).
I’m an academic woman. I have a PhD in Education. I saw that, especially in my kids, the capacity to influence (and impact) Ethiopian-Israeli students was so minimal in the school system. Consequently, I decided to educate Ethiopian-Israelis in social and educational matters and train them to be mediators within the education system. The mediators understand both Ethiopian and Israeli culture and are well-equipped to work on issues in the school system. They train the school staff and give them the right tools to work with Ethiopian-Israeli kids, especially addressing issues related to cultural differences. Sometimes, because of misunderstandings, many Ethiopian-Israeli children are accidentally sent to special education programs. To prevent this from happening, we gave the right skills to those social and education mediators to reach out to those kids and their parents.
We work very closely with the Ministry of Education. When Fidel was founded, the Israeli Ministry of Education didn’t know how to work with Ethiopian-Israeli kids. Fidel trained the school principals and teachers as well as other government Ministries. I believe the only key to be integrated into Israeli society is through education. In and before 1996, there were not many Ethiopian-Israelis in Universities and colleges, especially compared to today. Thank God that today, we have Ethiopian-Israeli representation in many different occupations, such as medical doctors, government ministers, social workers and professionals working in high-tech companies. So there is progress! Education is the key to penetrate into Israeli society and reach equity.
I have a PhD in Education and a Bachelor and Master degrees in Social Work. The combination of studying both social work and education gave me a better insight and a wider perspective to approach issues facing the community. I worked as a Director of the Education Division of the whole Israeli city of Rosh HaAyin, which is one of my most prideful accomplishments. I’m an Ethiopian immigrant and I was taking on a very important and meaningful responsibility, especially as I was the only Ethiopian immigrant in Israel that is a Municipal Director of Education. I was serving all of Israeli society! This is my way of giving back. My role is to inspire others. I came here as an immigrant, educated with three degrees, and as a mother of four kids and a grandmother. I tell my story to everybody. I even wrote my book “Here I Am” that tells my whole story and the story of Immigrant Absorption in the Ethiopian-Israeli community. I have to say thank you to everybody – the donors, the Israeli government ministries, and my family that has supported me as I give back to the community.
Aliza: Thank you so much, Nigist, for those beautiful insights. So now as we’re already speaking more generally about the Ethiopian-Israeli community, it’s been 30 years since Operation Solomon and a lot has happened since then. So I’m wondering from your perspective, what are the biggest needs and where are the biggest gaps facing the Ethiopian-Israeli community today in 2021?
Nigist: Ethiopian-Israeli Aliyah did not stop after Operation Solomon. There are always waves of Ethiopian Aliyah. People are immigrating to Israel in different time periods with different levels of education. So we are dealing with both the second generation of the Olim and as well as “first-generation” Olim who are making Aliyah now. So that means we didn’t stop the path of immigration after Operation Solomon and now we solved all the problems. There is still a gap. There is an economical gap, especially now in 2021 due to COVID-19. These social gaps and economic gaps are getting wider and wider. The biggest problem is unemployment. Some Ethiopian-Israelis are working but often earning low (or minimum) wages and struggling to close the achievement gap. In many Ethiopian-Israeli communities, education is the most important key to solving economic problems. Ethiopian Olim often live in very poor neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods, the schools are often unsupported, poorly budgeted by the government and are staffed with “second class teachers” – but Fidel’s role is not to replace anybody. We don’t want to replace the government, the Ministries, other voluntary organizations or the parents. We go to the areas where there is a vacuum of support. Most often, the needs of Ethiopian-Israeli kids and their parents are not being met. In response, we have parent workshops and youth at-risk centers in those neighborhoods. We deal with prevention and closing gaps.
Aliza: So on the flip side of that question, because it has been quite a long time that the Ethiopian-Israeli community has had a strong presence in Israel, what do you think are some of the most note-worthy accomplishments that the community has achieved since being here?
Nigist: So I can say Israel is a politically-oriented society. Our community’s involvement in different political parties (every year for every election) is very impressive. Right now, we have two Ethiopian-Israeli Knesset members. We have even one Minister and one Deputy Minister. I think that’s a big achievement for a very small community – only about 160,000 Ethiopian-Israelis in the country. We are highly involved in politics.
Another big achievement that we can see is more and more involvement of parents in the school system. The parents are now coming to their children’s schools and they ask questions! It’s a huge achievement because in Ethiopia, nobody goes to school to ask how their child is doing. It’s not a cultural practice there. This is our intensive work at Fidel – there is now high parental involvement in the school system.
Another achievement is the number of trained professionals coming from the Ethiopian-Israeli community. The achievement gaps that we accumulated after we came from Ethiopia are in the process of closing. Today, Ethiopian Israelis are doctors in the hospitals, teachers, pilots, and social workers. We even have a very small number of University lecturers and researchers. This is significant for us, especially because now we are improving our access to education, and that comes because of the support of many different organizations and government institutions. We are only expecting more and more achievements in Israeli society.
Aliza: I’d love to zoom out a little bit and speak about liberation and social change on a larger scale. So especially in recent months, but also in the whole year of 2020, there was a lot of activity and uproar in the United States where I come from related to the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality against Black communities in America. So I was wondering how do you relate to this conversation happening in America as an Ethiopian-Israeli woman and do you identify with the narrative of Black Americans? Why or why not? What’s your relationship with that story?
Nigist: Unfortunately, racism is all over. There is racism where there are immigrants. Racism is molded in the minds of those who are not open to others. So unfortunately in the United States, the police mistreat Black Americans or Afro-Americans all the time. Now there is a legal sentence for Derek Chauvin, the murderer of George Floyd. I hope there will be more accountability in the future.
Israel is different from the United States. There are about 160,000 Ethiopian-Israelis here in Israel, and there is racism. We are conscious of racism and we put up a fight. We are here. It’s our country. We belong. We are all Jews. No one can refrain me from getting something because I am Black and a woman.
There were some cases of police violence against the Ethiopian community in Israel. Our response to this violence was one of resistance – the Deputy Minister of the Police is Ethiopian-Israeli. And I am happy – this is the answer for those racists. They don’t see Ethiopians equally and yet this is exactly what we have here in Israel. We will be the leaders of our communities.
I know the history of various waves of Aliyah – Yeminites, Morrocans, other Mizrachi and North African Jews – they suffered the same problems that we are now facing. I know it’s only a matter of time for us to reach equality but we will never give up. We will never give in to those racists and accept their prejudice. We are here. This is our country. Our kids are serving in the army. My four kids served in the army. One was in Lebanon, the other was in Jenin. We are good fighters. We are good professionals.
We are here because this is our country. This was a dream of my grandmother, my grandfather, and myself as a small child. This is my country and I will never give up on myself or my children. Nobody can stop us from accomplishing what we desire. We have to reach equality. This is Fidel. Fidel is an opportunity. Fidel is an investment.
More about Dr. Nigist Mengesha:
Dr. Mengesha was born in Ethiopia where she worked as a Social Worker at the Prison Authority before making Aliyah in 1984. In Israel, she earned a B.A. in Social Work at Bar Ilan University, followed by an M.A. at the Hebrew University. In 2007, she received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Sussex. Her doctoral dissertation dealt with socio-educational mediation among Ethiopian students in the Israeli school system. Dr. Mengesha is also a graduate of the prestigious Mandel School for Educational Leadership. Apart from having served as FIDEL’s first Director, she worked for the Ministry of Welfare, for Shatil, and as CEO of the Ethiopian National Project. She also represented Israel at the UN’s Durban conference against racism in 2001. Dr. Mengesha received Hebrew University’s “Shmuel Rotenberg Prize for Jewish Education”, a Leadership Prize from Bar Ilan University, and an award from the Open University. She recently published the book “Here I Am” which details the rich experiences of her life on the road to success in Israel. Dr. Mengesha served on the Board of Directors of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and has volunteered as a Board Member for numerous organizations including the Achva Academic College, Amigour Housing Management Company and Hebrew University. She joined the Fidel Association team again officially in early 2021 and now serves as the Executive Director of the organization.