Eight young Jewish Montrealers were transported out of their comfort zones into the harsh reality of poverty and disease in rural Ethiopia last month.
The group, aged 18 to 25, spent their winter break volunteering on non-sectarian humanitarian projects of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), joining 12 Israeli peers from Be’er Sheva/Bnei Shimon in the Negev.
“As we drove to the hotel [from the airport] and gazed out the windows, we all realized that this experience was going to be like no other,” said Tamar Medalssy.
“Poverty struck you in the face,” added Cedric Kessous. “I… wondered how one could live like that… All I could think to myself was ‘where the hell am I?’ But from that, I began to understand real poverty.”
All of the participants describe the trip as having been life-changing.
During the mission, they assisted in the construction of a new schoolhouse, distributed nutritional bars to pregnant women, and helped hand out de-worming medication to children. They also spent time leading sports and educational activities with kids, who were delighted with the school supplies, toys and colouring items they brought along.
“Looking back, my most memorable experiences were the first few days of our trip when we visited the JDC Israel Transit House in Addis [Ababa, the capital], as well as our days in Gondar when we spent time with students at a school built by the JDC, as well as the following day when we helped build another school,” wrote David Toledano, on the blog participants kept on the website of Federation CJA, which organized the trip with the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The Transit House is where the Falash Mora, Ethiopian Jews who have converted to Christianity or their descendants, are provided with basic care such as clothing and showers, while they await immigration to Israel.
“It was such a nice experience to be with them, interact with them (with Sedaka by my side to translate, of course), play and take pictures of them,” wrote Toledano, an adult volunteer who accompanied the group. “Most of the Ethiopians have never seen a digital camera before so they were so excited and found it amusing to see themselves on the camera’s screen.”
In the villages, the visitors were besieged by children asking for handouts. Toledano was struck, however, by how happy they and the adults seemed despite how little they have.
Another revelation for Toledano was their patience – everyone waited in line calmly for their medication.
The visitors pitched in alongside Ethiopian workers in the job of bricklaying for the new school. The new building will be a vast improvement over the current one, made of wood beams and mud, with no desks or chairs, just the floor to sit on and stones to work on.
The young people were also delighted to meet JDC medical director Dr. Rick Hodes, who has devoted more than 20 years to the care of Ethiopians.
“Now that we are home… it is up to us to follow up our experience with significant efforts to fundraise and to educate our communities on what we have witnessed,” said Toledano.
For Karine Arzoine, an unforgettable moment was attending a coffee ceremony in the village of Lalibela one starlit night around a campfire in the mountains. It was a welcome respite from the five days of working in Gondar and had a magical quality.
Arzoine left Ethiopia inspired by how hard women there must continue to struggle for their rights.
“This trip put a lot of things in perspective for me,” she blogged. “I realize that the life we lead in Canada is not the same for the rest of the world.
“After the poverty and misery of the Ethiopians and having discussions with the Israelis [who were mostly about to enter the army], I realize that it is important to give back to others as much as we receive.”
The other Montreal participants were Laurent Elkrief, Allie Novack, Talia Bensoussan, Elya Chalom and Jordana Bernstein. Federation staff member Elysa Ben Sabbat escorted them.
The participants’ blogs and photos are at www.federationcja.org/ethiopia.