Sadly, in too many parts of the country, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants – especially the youth -- are not the friendliest of neighbors. Perhaps that is why it is especially heartwarming to observe barriers falling at SHATIL.
Mari Melese, 24, and Anna Gorelik, 25, both participate in the third cycle of SHATIL's year-long Social Entrepreneurs immigrant student’s course, which for the first time included Ethiopian students in addition to those from the former Soviet Union. While the participants learn and implement key social change tools such as how to map needs, plan projects and speak to the media, the regular contact and personal and working relationships that develop between Russian and Ethiopian immigrant students are also bringing about real change.
Mari Melese and Anna Gorelik hug upon meeting between course sessions
"There aren't many circumstances in which Russians and Ethiopian are together and I haven't had that much contact with Russian speakers," says Melese, who immigrated from Ethiopia at the age of one and grew up in Ashdod. "There are longstanding tensions between the two groups, so to see the collaboration in the course is amazing and beautiful. Here, I get to see the positive things that can exist between the groups."
"We make a connection between the two marginalized groups, to show them that there are common interests -- something that doesn't usually happen," said Tamar Kariti, facilitator of the Course's Immigrant Youth-at-Risk working group. "In Israel, each population group thinks that when another sector gets ahead, it's at their expense, so there is a struggle over resources. We want to create a cadre of young academics from different groups with open minds who connect with each other, thereby adding to the country's social solidarity."
If Gorelik and Melese are an example, the model is working.
Melese, who studies education and psychology at Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) said: "I enjoy the discussion, the brainstorming, the cooperation, being exposed to other people's thinking, to things I hadn't thought of. I get to see who this [FSU] population is exactly, beyond the stereotypes."
Gorelik, who immigrated from Belarus at the age of seven and studies art history and Hebrew language at BGU, adds that while contact with Ethiopian Israelis is not new for her, Melese's story of her family's months-long trek to reach Israel was.
"My family immigrated not so much out of a deep longing for Zion, but because it wasn't so pleasant for Jews – or for anyone -- in the USSR. But when someone walks for a month, it's a real effort. It's the realization of a life-long dream." Gorelik adds that while the mentalities of Ethiopian and Russian immigrants are dissimilar, the fact that they are both immigrants mean they share the experience of being different.
Anna Gorelik on left, Mari Melese on right
Both Melese and Gorelik experienced prejudice growing up as immigrant children in Israel, and at least in Gorelik's case, it affected her identity.
"For many years, I didn't speak Russian, because I was ashamed," she said. "I was sure no one liked Russians; at least that was my experience growing up in Be'er Sheva. But in last few years, people started to be interested in where I come from and it got me interested, so it retuned me to my roots even more."
For her part, while she always felt like she was born in Israel and had a variety of friends, Melese encountered racism as a child. "Of course we were called smelly black Ethiopians," she says as if it's understood that this happens.
In addition to improving relations and initiating social change, the course also aims to foster the personal development of the participants.
"It's not all altruism," says Kariti, the facilitator. "We help the students discover their interests and strengths."
"I'm learning how to think about projects in the course," says Gorelik, "but I'm also learning personal things: how to be in a group, how to talk, to express my opinions."
The course is divided into two subprojects. Melese's group is helping immigrants from the FSU deal with the government-sponsored loans they committed to years ago and which they are now having trouble repaying. Some of them didn't even know they were signing for loans, she says. The students have been in touch with the media, with members of Knesset, with officials and the immigrants themselves in an attempt to ease their burden.
Gorelik's subgroup focuses on increasing the small number of immigrant youth who are involved in after school activities such as youth movements.
In addition to the social entrepreneurs course, this fall SHATIL offered dozens of trainings for activists ranging from the ever important issue of evaluation to courses on how to cope with the financial crisis including: Emergency Funding Sources for Non Profits, In the Eye of the Storm: Organizing during a Crisis and Fundraising for Southern Organizations, in cooperation with Sapir Academic College in Sderot.