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Q & A with Yuvi Tashome: Transforming Ethiopian Jewish life

Yuvi Tashome

Yuvi Tashome is the co-founder of Friends by Nature, an umbrella organization established in 2005, that works in Israeli neighbourhoods where Ethiopian Jews have settled. She was in Toronto in January to raise funds for their programming.

Why did you and your friends feel like there was a need for that kind of organization?

There are 150,000 Ethiopian Israelis living in Israel, and they are in specific neighbourhoods. So, when you see what’s happening in, let’s say, Kiryat Moshe in Rehovot, where 80 per cent of the population is from Ethiopia, there’s a lot of drugs, a lot of unemployment, you’ve probably heard. But then when you go deeper, you ask yourself, “What’s happening?”

So our organization’s conclusion is that in this neighbourhood there is a narrative that says all the good ones have a chance to get out. Statistically, maybe 10 per cent of people get out. And the ones who stay contribute to the narrative in two ways: One is, we didn’t get out, and so we are a failure. And the other one is that they are the role models for the next generation. So each year, it gets deeper and worse, because the role models become worse and worse. In the first generation, it’s a matter of “I’m a new immigrant.” In the second generation, it’s “I’m a failure.” In the third generation, that’s it. It’s like a circle of poverty. And we want to prevent that.

So I told my friends that are lawyers and accountants, and who managed to get out of this neighbourhood, that we should go back. Then, the teenagers that grow up in this neighbourhood will see a drug dealer, but also a lawyer. And they will have the opportunity to choose. So there were 30 people in my house, and I told them my vision, and they said, “No. We managed to get out of this neighbourhood. You want us to go back?” And I said, “Why not?” And they said, “First of all, the education is bad. There are no lights in the streets. There’s garbage all over.” So we made a list of what wasn’t working, and I said, “Wow. That looks like what we need to change.”

So we are already 15 years in, and the next generation of youth is staying. They find it’s a very good place for them, for the kids. And the ones who left, after ten years of us working in the neighbourhood, came back to rent houses around their families.

How did you decide to start it?

My husband, who is an engineer, he was traveling a lot. One day, the whole neighbourhood came to ask if I’m okay. And I said, “Yeah I’m okay. What’s wrong?” And they said, “Haven’t you heard? Somebody from the north murdered his wife.” And I said, “Someone that we know?” And they said, “An Ethiopian guy. So we are just checking if you are okay.” They lived really far away. The only connection is that we both came from Ethiopia. And my neighbours, they are not bad people, they are just worried. But this connection eventually made me understand that every Ethiopian in this country is going to influence my life, so I should do something to influence their life.

What kinds of programs do you do?

In Ethiopia, kids didn’t go to school. They learned by watching their parents. When we came to a Western country, well, everybody needs to go to school. So in my generation we were taken to a boarding school. So my parents never learned that this is their responsibility. They are not dumb, they are not stupid. They just didn’t understand it is their responsibility to create an environment of learning. So we created a program called Homework at Home. And the idea is to do that at home. Not at a club, not at a boarding school, at home. The mother just watches what’s happening, and after three months, she already creates silence, environment and light, whatever it takes.

In Ethiopia, you learn everything from your parents, meaning your parents are like God. You appreciate them. You admire them. When you admire them, you admire yourself. But here, you don’t have the opportunity to see your parents leading.

So we created a community garden, around 80 participants working there, and they are the best at growing food. We want the kids to see that. So they bring in the food, and we bring Israeli groups to learn the process of growing organic food, and the kids see that native Israelis want to learn from their parents. They think, “My parents have something very important. If they have something important, it means I’m important.”

What results have you seen?

We hired a new person for Homework at Home, and after two weeks, she said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Every house in this neighbourhood, they know how to do homework. The parents are taking responsibility. I don’t think we need Homework at Home anymore.

Another thing is, 15 years ago other Israeli people came to the neighbourhood in order to give something to these “new” immigrants, even though they weren’t even new immigrants anymore. It could be clothes, food, computers that you don’t use, refrigerators that you don’t use. But the method was giving. And what’s happening now? A lot of people are coming to the neighbourhood, but to buy something. So they’re taking cooking classes, how to cook healthy Ethiopian food.

They have Ethiopian hospitality experiences. They’re coming to buy organic vegetables. So the direction is changing. And the most important thing is, the kids are feeling like they still want to live in this neighbourhood because it’s a good neighbourhood. In locations where we don’t operate, rental prices have doubled in the past 15 years. In the locations where we do, they have grown four times. So something definitely happened there.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity