TORONTO — An Israeli teenager who left a leadership exchange program visiting Toronto without permission is no longer considered missing.
The 16-year-old boy, Raphael Arega Tesfaye, has been in contact with his parents in Eilat, and they are confident he is well and in no danger, said Brian Keshen, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s vice-president of community capacity building, who supervised the exchange program.
“The family feels he’s safe, with a friend. We haven’t heard back directly, but he’s been in contact with his family,” Keshen said.
“They’re following his lead.”
The teenager, originally from Ethiopia, was in Toronto as a member of the Diller Teen Fellows, a Jewish leadership program that includes a visit to an overseas Jewish community where they meet and interact with other Diller Teen Fellows. The program is run under the auspices of the Jewish Agency For Israel, in partnership with the federation, along with other communities in North America and Israel.
Prior to arriving in mid-March for the 10-day visit, Arega Tesfaye had asked for permission to leave the group for a time. His request was turned down and mid-way through the trip, while at the Vaughan Mills shopping centre, he sneaked away. York Region police were informed, as was the Israeli Consulate.
Arega Tesfaye, who goes by the Facebook alias Rephael Bruk, subsequently contacted his parents and sister and indicated he’d meet up with the group as they prepared to return to Israel just before Passover. He did not.
In the last week, he’s reached out to his parents two more times, Keshen said.
“His parents have expressed a great deal of confidence that he’s with somebody that he’s comfortable with and that he’s safe. They know who it is,” though that information has not been shared with people in Toronto.
Nevertheless, Keshen added, federation officials would like to contact Arega Tesfaye. “We remain worried as we would for someone who is truant at school, but the sense of risk has gone down. We’d like to help him as much as possible.”
Federation remains in possession of Arega Tesfaye’s luggage and passport, which contains a six-month visa, he said.
“We’re still trying to reach out. His parents said they’d speak to him to tell him we’re available to help. This is a very bright, innovative kid. I can’t tell you what… he’s feeling, fearing or searching for.”
Arega Tesfaye’s disappearance has not affected plans to send 10 youngsters from Toronto to Eilat this summer as part of the Diller program.
“The rest of the kids [from Israel] had an amazing experience and we’re looking forward to our trip to Eilat this summer,” Keshen said.