A volunteer helps Ethiopian immigrant children evacuate their homes in Tirat HaCarmel.
From the moment news broke the story of the Carmel fire, Shlomo Berihun, Coordinator of SHATIL’s Assistance to Ethiopian Immigrants Project, took responsibility for the Ethiopian immigrant communities under threat.
He recalled, "We did a quick survey on Thursday evening and discovered that the 700 Ethiopian-Israelis living in Tirat Hacarmel just south of Haifa and several hundred immigrant students in the nearby Yemin Orde residential school were within range of the fire but not yet endangered. By dawn on Friday, the fire had taken a stranglehold on the region, and the police ordered that both Yemin Orde and Tirat Hacarmel be evacuated."
Berihun continued, "At Yemin Orde, the Ministry of Education began evacuating the students, so we focused on Tirat Hacarmel where it became immediately clear that nobody was organizing to assist the immigrants. I was there all morning and dozens of families were pleading with me to help them escape the fire. The air was thick with smoke and you could feel the heat from the fire getting hotter. It was very traumatic and you could see the fear in the eyes of the residents, especially the children."
Berihun alerted the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and welfare agencies to the problem, and as a result, the community was bussed throughout the morning to homes and facilities in the center of the country.
Shlomo Berihun coordinates SHATIL's Assistance to Ethiopian Immigrants Project.
Berihun, alongside his wife Ricki, worked around the clock Friday and Saturday. Ricki is the founder of Hayot (Being), an NGO promoting educational projects for the Ethiopian immigrant community, which receives assistance from SHATIL. Berihun said, "Some families refused to abandon their homes and left young adults behind. So for the rest of Friday and Saturday, we were monitoring the situation and keeping in touch with those young people still in Tirat HaCarmel to let them know the situation, and re-assuring the evacuees that their homes were still safe. By Saturday night the families got the green light to start coming home."
Berihun immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1984 when he was 12. Based in SHATIL's Haifa office, he has been in charge of SHATIL's Assistance to Ethiopian Immigrants Project since 2005. The national project works with leading NGOs within the Ethiopian-Israeli community and trains Israelis of Ethiopian descent to assume leadership positions in and to take responsibility for their communities. Because Berihun lives in Haifa, he was on hand to supervise operations in Tirat HaCarmel.
He is now taking stock of what Tirat HaCarmel's Ethiopian immigrants need. He said, "We feel there is an urgent need for counselors to talk to the children who were traumatized by the fire. But overall this is a community that struggles and needs more economic, educational and welfare resources even when there are not emergencies. The emergency simply exposes the need for more community organizers and volunteer lay leaders that our project has been working for."
Even before the Carmel fire was extinguished, NIF set up the Carmel Fire Response Fund and began distributing emergency grants for immediate needs. Drawing on its experience in helping northern residents following the second Lebanon War in 2006, NIF is also evaluating long term needs and the most effective way of repairing the social and environmental damage.
Please click here to help support NIF’s Carmel Fire Response Fund as we look to address both immediate and long-term concerns following the tragic disaster. Or, as the year nears an end, please make your annual gift to support our ongoing work for social justice, human rights, religious pluralism and a sustainable environment. As the fire response demonstrated, our on-the-ground presence in Israel’s cities and communities, during times of emergency and in ordinary times, makes the difference for a better Israel.