Sunday, April 6, 2008
Ethiopian diplomat gives Israel a new look.
by Laura Wiessen
Ethiopian diplomat gives Israel a new look.
As a baby, diplomat Beylanesh Zevadia's first word was neither "mama" nor "papa." It was "Jerusalem."
"That's how our parents directed us," the Ethiopian-born Zevadia explains. "[As children] our play was to go to Jerusalem. It was the center of our lives, that someday we could go there."
And, at the age of 16 Zevadia did go there, becoming, just nine years later, the first Israeli-Ethiopian member of Israel's diplomatic corps.
Geographically, at least, Beylanesh grew up far from the stones of Jerusalem. She was born in the Gondar region of Ethiopia, where her late father was the Chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian Jewish community. Beylanesh, the youngest of eight siblings, grew up in a rural village without modern conveniences such as running water or electricity. The Zevadia's village, Ambover, was, however, the center of Jewish life in the region and home to a Jewish elementary school where the young girl learned Torah and Jewish studies from teachers such as her father and brother.
"I was very lucky that I was born to a family that knows what an education means," she says.
Education, Jewish observance and Israel were the pillars of her family life, so it was little surprise when, in 1984, after finishing high school, it was time for Beylanesh to go to Israel.
She left home with mixed feelings. "On the one hand I wanted to go because it was Israel," Zevadia remembers, "but on the other hand, to leave my family...I missed them so much."
She wasn't the first in her family to leave Ethiopia for Israel -- her oldest brother Joseph had gone to Israel in 1957 and returned to teach Jewish studies in Gondar, an occupation that landed him in jail for a time. Another brother, David, made aliyah in 1973. It was David who helped Beylanesh obtain a visa from the Swedish Embassy to allow her immigration.
"Culture shock, of course," is how Zevadia describes her first weeks and months in her new home. "To find my way wasn't easy. It was new. Especially when you talk about Ethiopian immigrants, we're from... a mostly rural, mostly undeveloped area. And to come to Israel which is a mostly developed country, and the language, the culture shock. It's not easy to assimilate in a short time."
Like so many other young new immigrants Zevadia, a native Amharic speaker took a crash course in Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion. And then, with Operation Moses, the Israeli government's airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in late 1984 and 1985, Zevadia went to work for the Jewish Agency, helping smooth the way for the new immigrants whose difficult journeys had left them disoriented and exhausted.
From the Jewish Agency to Hebrew University for a BA in International Relations, then a Master's Degree in Anthropology and African Studies. And then, in 1993, Zevadia joined Israel's Foreign Ministry, becoming, at age 25, the first Ethiopian in the Israeli Diplomatic Service.
"When I finished [university], diplomacy seemed very interesting to me," explains Zevadia. "Because I would be representing the country I love, I could go around and speak on behalf of Israel, representing Israel wherever I go."
Zevadia brings more than just her intelligence, humor and passion to her work in the diplomatic service. She also brings a new image of what it means to be Israeli to many of the people she meets. Today, the Israeli Deputy Consul General in Houston, Texas, Zevadia travels the Southwest region speaking on behalf of Israel.
"Most people, when they invite an Israeli diplomat, expect to see an Ashkenazi Jew or a Sephardi Jew and here I am, an Ethiopian representing Israel. It's something unique we can contribute to the country."
"When I talk to people I say here I am. You may think something different of Israeli diplomats, but here I am. Or if they ask me negative things about Israel -- I have an answer. I am the answer. I can tell you my story. I am educated in Israel, I represent Israel and I was born in Ethiopia. That's what I say."
Today, there is a second Ethiopian-Israeli diplomat in the Foreign Ministry, a junior diplomat who joined the diplomatic service 13 years after Zevadia, and is now stationed in South Africa.
While she acknowledges that there may be some prejudice against Ethiopians in Israel, Zevadia says she's never experienced it at the state or municipal level. And she strongly believes that Ethiopian-Israelis must take advantage of government programs, especially educational programs, intended to help career advancement. "Education is the key," she says from experience. "There are opportunities and we have to use them and we have to push ourselves."
Zevadia's diplomatic career brought her to the United States for the first time as a cadet in 1995, when she spent four months at the Israeli Mission to the UN. She describes it as a very good experience despite the fact that, in her words: "it was not easy to be an Israeli diplomat in that environment."
She returned to the US in 1996 as the Israeli Consul to the Midwest, based in Chicago, where she served until 2002.
Today, living in Texas, Zevadia is often mistaken for African-American or Caribbean. And she's happy to explain her background to whoever is interested.
She, her husband and six-year-old daughter Lee, are enjoying living in Houston. "It's a very nice community, it's very pro-Israel, even among non-Jews. There are things here and there criticizing Israel, but most of the time it's pro-Israel. So I feel very lucky to be here," says Zevadia.
Even after nearly three years in Texas, Zevadia is still struck by its scale. "The highways are very big, the houses are very big. But there are no cowboys!" she jokes.
One thing Zevadia says she doesn't like is the hot, humid weather. But otherwise, she enjoys the city she will call home until 2009 or 2010. And she continues to love her work.
"I most enjoy speaking about Israel, because most of the time people don't understand what Israel is. In most people's eyes, Israel is only the conflict. It's not true. It's a very diverse culture, very diverse society, and a very developed economy.
"I always say, wherever I go, and wherever I speak, I'm black and Jewish and a woman. Three minority identities. That's who I am, I represent Israel very proudly, and that's the message."