In Kiryat Malachi, saving Ethiopian families and lives

The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona fund a variety of programs in our TIPS (Tucson, Israel, Phoenix, Seattle) partnership city of Kiryat Malachi, Israel, including counseling for Ethiopian immigrants.

Therapist Zahava Baruch (right) counsels Ethiopian immigrants Fanta (left) and Weinishe at the welfare department in Kiryat Malachi, Israel.
Therapist Zahava Baruch (right) counsels Ethiopian immigrants Fanta (left) and Weinishe at the welfare department in Kiryat Malachi, Israel.

Every Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., there is an unusual commotion outside one of the offices in the Kiryat Malachi welfare department. This is the day that Zahava Baruch comes to town and deals with dozens of Ethiopian families and individuals who struggle with adjusting to life in Israel. The number of Ethiopian families going through some kind of crisis due to a lack of basic communications skills, or understanding of modern society, or financial pressure, or the generation and gender gap has not declined over time. In fact the incidence of abuse, violence and neglect within families along with alcoholism, drug use, divorce and suicide has been rising.

Baruch is uniquely qualified for handling such diverse cases; her reputation is known by almost every Ethiopian family in Kiryat Malachi and other cities and towns throughout Israel with high concentrations of Ethiopians. Having made aliyah from Ethiopia in 1981 at the age of 18, she understands traditional Ethiopian society and modern Israel. Her understanding was deepened by her formal education — a bachelor’s degree in education and 14 certificates in various types of therapy, such as family and couples’ therapy and mediation in the family and at school. The Adler, Shinui and Yoseftal institutes currently place all of their students who work with the Ethiopian community under Ba­ruch’s supervision. The municipal authority sends any Ethiopian with drug and alcoholism issues to her for therapy. The religious courts send Ethiopians seeking a divorce to meet with Baruch first.

The work in Kiryat Malachi is arguably the most challenging of her jobs. Kiryat Malachi has the highest percentage of Ethiopians of any city in Israel, a little more than 25 percent. The problems of Ethiopians are similar throughout Israel — unemployment, low levels of formal education and professional qualifications, low income, high levels of welfare assistance, high school dropout rates and family dysfunction. Kiryat Malachi, one of the poorest towns in Israel, lacks the means to meet all the needs of this population. The city’s welfare department is seriously understaffed with only three Ethiopian social workers. Due to the generosity of the JFSA and JCF, Baruch is able to work one day a week in Kiryat Malachi assisting Ethiopian families.

Some Ethiopians do not trust individuals who work in the “establishment,” including educators, medical personnel, government workers and social workers, even Ethiopian social workers. However everyone trusts Baruch and the social workers send the most difficult cases to her.

“Many of these families are really desperate,” Baruch reports. “Everyone has my phone number and I answer everyone and try to help them to the best of my ability. I would not be lying to say that I have saved many individuals here. A few months ago, a 16-year-old boy tried to commit suicide. His father had hung himself two years ago and the boy had not recovered from the trauma. He was barely going to school, drinking late at night, getting into trouble. One day, he announced to his 12-year-old sister that he could not take it anymore and that he was going to his father’s grave to kill himself. She immediately called her mother and other relatives to stop him. He was intercepted by family members and ran onto the roof of a four-story apartment building. The residents called the police and the welfare department. The sister called me and I rushed to the building. The police and social workers were not making any progress with the boy who was perched at the edge of the roof. I began to talk to him and told him that there was another way. I eventually got him to move from the edge and go down. He has been in intensive therapy over the last two months and the doctors are very optimistic. Other members of the family have now been treated to overcome the successive traumas.”

Another example of Baruch’s intervention is the case of Fanta and Weinisha. Weinisha works cleaning houses; her husband was laid off over a year ago. The atmosphere in the house became increasingly bitter with Fanta demanding that Weinisha find work and taking out his frustration on her and their four children, sometimes verbally and sometimes physically. In the end, he left the house and wanted nothing to do with her or the children. The strain on Weinisha became too much. Her children were neglected and did not want to go to school. She lost her job. She turned to a social worker for help but Fanta refused to sit with her in the same room. Finally Baruch was called in. She first met with each of them individually to define a reasonable set of expectations. Fanta did not show up at the first joint meeting and Baruch went out to physically bring him to the meeting. The initial unease changed to enthusiasm. They began to look forward to the joint meetings and Fanta began to be a much more active father, often taking care of the kids when Weinisha was at work. They still live apart but are working to repair their relationship. Baruch also met separately with the children and then together with them and their parents.

Weinisha agrees, “I had heard about Zahava but only after our first meeting did I believe that my situation could improve. Fanta and I can for the first time talk about what we feel and how we think. We have learned how to solve problems together and not just blame each other. I feel completely different now than I did 10 months ago. I now have hope and really believe that things will be better.”

Fanta adds, “With Zahava’s help I have changed my life. Before her I didn’t know how to be a father or how to be a husband. Now I know that I can be a good one and I think that we will be back together.”

Baruch deals officially with 10 families in Kiryat Malachi every Tuesday. She sees a few more unofficially and is on the phone with dozens more during the week.

“Zahava has made a tremendous difference with what we can do for the Ethiopians here,” says Yaffa Cohen, director of Kiryat Malachi’s welfare department. “She has taught my staff so much. I cannot image what we would do without her interventions. She has saved untold marriages and lives. She has helped those get a divorce who needed to do that as well but so many parents can talk with each other and talk with their children because of her. So many families can now function as real families because of what she has done. If I could have a wish fulfilled, it would be that Tucson help us to have Zahava come to Kiryat Malachi two days a week and not just one. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. Tucson has done so much to help this population and we are tremendously thankful for its partnership with Kiryat Malachi, but there are so many other Ethiopians who need the help that only Zahava can provide.”

Ira Kerem is the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s TIPS representative in Israel.