When NIF activist Yuvi Tashome was chosen to light one of the 12 torches at the Independence Day ceremony on Jerusalem's Mount Herzl, and called to the stage by her African birth-name, she was not only thrilled to be receiving one of the nation's highest honours, but at the fact that her Ethiopian-Israeli identity was being fully recognised.
On arrival in Israel with Operation Moses in 1984, she had been renamed Rachel by immigration officials. The rationale for the name change, subsuming her Ethiopian identity, reflected a well-intentioned effort to promote social integration.
NIF activist Yuvi Tashome
Tashome, now 34, is founder and co-director of NIF grantee Friends by Nature – Community Empowerment – an urban kibbutz in Gedera south of Tel Aviv. Tashome and a dedicated group of several dozen social activists, most of them Ethiopian-born, work with disadvantaged Ethiopian immigrant youth, attempting to keep them in school and out of trouble.
She said, "I hope that lighting the torch will shed light on all the small social change organisations like ours, and that we will all gain recognition for the major influence that we have on the community.”
Friends by Nature, which began working with three families in 2005 when Tashome and six other volunteers set up the organisation, today works with 300 children, mainly from Gedera's community of 1,600 Ethiopian immigrants. "Many of the youth we helped in our first few years are volunteers with us today."
Tashome has come a long way – quite literally. In the early 1980's her widowed mother decided to realise the centuries-old Ethiopian Jewish dream of returning to Jerusalem and began the trek across Sudan.
She recalled, "I don't remember a lot about Sudan, just the deaths and that everybody was hungry. I was hungry all the time. My most vivid memory was the flight. We were up in the sky, and the [Israelis] were all wearing white. I thought they were angels."
Some of the children in Gedera that Friends by Nature – Community Empowerment assists.
Life in Israel was never easy. After graduating from the IDF Education Corps, it was difficult to find work. "The people who were interviewing me just saw an Ethiopian."
Tashome also battles the longstanding policy of sending Ethiopian immigrant children away to residential schools rather than being kept at home in the family. She said, "Instead of wasting huge sums of money on educating the children away from the family, the funds should be invested in building communities. That's the only way that communities can integrate into Israel while also retaining their traditions and values."
She added, "In Gedera, we give the families that we help the tools to work with, and more than that we give them a platform to build tools for our entire community – families and children."
Tashome, who has a degree in education, explained that the Gedera program was not put together in a university. "Our program was written by local people who understand the community and its needs and what is feasible and what is not feasible. The program is also custom-made for each individual child and his or her unique circumstances. Experience has shown us that this is the most effective way."
NIF praised Tashoma’s many accomplishments in an advert in Haaretz, “With the assistance of NIF, Yuvi and her friends work to empower hundreds of children and families in community groups among Ethiopian immigrants. Over the years, many of those children have themselves become volunteers with the organisation, and are continual proof of the power and importance of civil society.”
Registered Charity Number 1060081. New Israel Fund is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales, No: 3296825, Registered Office: 25/26 Enford Street, London W1H 1DW