No Direction Home

By MICHAEL S. ARNOLD

(February 25) - After risking his life to help Ethiopian Jews reach Israel, Dejjan Gavrai is now fighting his own lonely battle to stay in the country he thought would accept him as a hero.The nights were cold, long and dangerous. That's when they would walk, a group of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of Jews, with Dejjan Gavrai and his brother, Aslaka Assafa, at their head. By day, the Jews would hide on farms or in forests, relying on the kindness of strangers and the diligence of Gavrai and Assafa to get them food and water.

But night was when the action was. They would set out at dusk, the young and old together, the men, women and children, heading for the Sudanese border and from there, they hoped, Jerusalem, the holy city. They did not know whether they would make it, but they had risked all, leaving behind their villages, their farms, their lives. More than 3,000 years after the Hebrews left Egypt, the Jews of Ethiopia, in groups small and large, were taking part in another exodus from Africa.

It took as long as a month to cover the 300 kilometers from Gondar province, where Gavrai lived, to the border. In part, that was because of the bandits along the road. Gavrai and Assafa carried Kalashnikovs and they had to be ready to use them. Their cousin was killed on one of the night marches helping Jews escape.

Today, 34-year-old Gavrai's life is much more sedate. Since immigrating in June 1992, he has served in the IDF and does his reserve duty annually. He studied at the College of the Negev in Sderot and has worked as an electrician's assistant. He and his new bride, Asmarash Davit, want to buy an apartment in Ashkelon. For the time being, they live apart, and Gavrai and a roommate share a small apartment decorated with tourism posters of Ethiopia and an Ethiopian flag.

Despite that apparent longing for his birthplace, Gavrai really has no desire to return. But he may have no choice. Last month, the Interior Ministry stripped Gavrai of his citizenship and ordered him to leave the country. His lawyer, Nadav Haber, is fighting the order and, if he cannot convince the ministry to change its ruling, he will turn to the High Court of Justice to keep his client in the country. If that fails, Haber says, the deportation is likely to be immediate.

Gavrai's crime: Entering Israel under false pretenses, pretending to be the son of a Jewish family. Though he estimates that he helped 10,000 to 15,000 Jews escape from Ethiopia over 11 years, Gavrai himself is a Christian. He did not help the Jews because he was one of them, or because he had to. He did it because they were his neighbors, because his grandfather and their grandfathers had worked together, because he had grown up playing with Jewish children in his village, because he was inspired by their determination to reach the Holy Land, and because they were desperate people who simply needed his help.

In other times, he might have been recognized as a Righteous Gentile. In today's Israel, he is branded a criminal.

"I feel Israeli. I gave my all for this country," Gavrai says, the smile never leaving his face. "I'm really mad at the system, but I love this country. I still want to stay."

He won't, if the Interior Ministry has anything to say about it. Rafael Cohen, manager of the ministry's population registry, says there is no room for maneuver in Gavrai's case.

"In every aliya, there are those who take advantage of it," Cohen says. "We're talking about someone who's completely Christian, who got here by trickery. Once we know that, he has to leave."

Asked about the mitigating circumstances of Gavrai's past, Cohen says even that is open to question. Since Channel 1 reported Gavrai's plight on February 3, he says, members of the community have contacted the ministry to say that Gavrai robbed them or forced them to pay bribes in order to take them out of Ethiopia.

Gavrai fiercely disputes that allegation, saying he never took money from those he helped. On the contrary, he says, he often used his own money - and in one particularly desperate situation even sold his machine gun - to buy food for groups he was taking to the border.

Attorney Haber says that since Gavrai was put in the Russian Compound jail last month, the Ethiopian community has been outraged.

Demonstrations on his behalf were held in Haifa and Ramle. Eight individuals have submitted sworn affidavits attesting to Gavrai's heroism and urging that he be allowed to stay in the country. He was released this month pending his appeal to the Interior Ministry after posting NIS 5,000 bail. The money was raised through donations from members of the Ethiopian community - many of whom earn the minimum wage - in a single day.

All the offers of help have come from Jews, Haber notes, not from the several thousand Christians in the Ethiopian-Israeli community.

"They in the Interior Ministry are simply lying," says Robi Sandekeh, a Jew who, along with Assafa, first organized the group that took Jews to the Sudanese border. Sandekeh, whose efforts to save Ethiopian Jews were reportedly known to local operatives of the Jewish Agency and the Mossad, immigrated in 1985 and now works as a machine operator in Haifa.

"If someone comes forward and says Dejjan Gavrai took money from him to help him, I want to hear this," Sandekeh says. "They're trying to bury him alive."

Gavrai was just 16, and Assafa and Sandekeh a decade older, when the secret Operation Moses began in 1984. Though the Ethiopian government would not allow the country's Jews to leave for Israel, the road to Sudan in the north recently had opened, and Jews began setting out, clandestinely and illegally.

Decades before, Assafa's and Sandekeh's grandfathers had joined together to protect their village of Tereh, near the regional capital of Gondar, from marauders. Now, when the Jews needed help to leave the area, the two young men resumed that cooperation, forming a small band of armed men to take the Jews past terrorists and highway robbers to the border.

Assafa became a legend on those trips. An imposing and charismatic man, he was not too proud to bring food to the weary and hungry Jews or wash their feet when they rested. But the trips were not easy. On one of the first excursions, the group was set upon by bandits. To pay what they demanded could be disastrous; not only did the group have little money or valuables, being robbed would mean a tremendous loss of face and prestige for Assafa. A gunfight broke out and Assafa's cousin was killed. He was buried on the spot and the group continued to the border.

But Assafa and Sandekeh realized that to ensure their safety they would have to expand their group in the future. Several of Assafa's brothers, including Gavrai, were added. Assafa clearly was the leader, but Gavrai also made the trip to the Sudanese border and back dozens of times before and during Operation Moses, which ended in 1985.

Many times, in the chaos of Ethiopia's hinterlands, they were set upon by bandits and had to shoot their way out.

"It was very difficult," Gavrai says today in his shy way. "We were putting our lives in danger for these people."

And that was not just on the road. Returning to Tereh after one trip, Assafa and Gavrai found their house burned to the ground and an angry mob of Christian villagers awaiting them. The reason: One of the Jews they had spirited out on this journey was a village elder instrumental in resolving local disputes peacefully through traditional mediation. Assafa and Gavrai were stealing "their" Jews, the villagers claimed. Assafa was shot in the leg. The brothers moved to the village of Ambar Giorgis, an arduous four-hour walk away from Tereh, and some 40 kilometers from the provincial capital of Gondar.

After Operation Moses, Gavrai opened a coffee shop in Ambar Giorgis while his brother tended livestock. Operation Solomon followed in 1991, in which the bulk of Ethiopian Jewry was airlifted to Israel. Then, a family called Rada asked Gavrai to take its daughter to Gondar, from which she would continue onto Israel in another airlift. He agreed. Later, family members told him that, as an expression of gratitude, they had listed Gavrai as a member of the family in their Jewish Agency file in Addis Ababa. That opened the door for Gavrai to emigrate as well.

Though he had little interest in being Jewish, the Jews' determination to reach the land of their forefathers had left a deep impression on him, Gavrai says.

"It was amazing to see how they dreamed of Jerusalem," Gavrai says. He sold his cafŽ and left for Israel.

On arrival, he joined the army and served four months with other immigrants his age, mostly doing guard duty. Afterward, he went to school, learned a trade, got a job and settled down.

Friends who knew that he was not really a member of the Rada family warned him that his status in Israel could be problematic. But Gavrai wasn't worried. By serving in the army, doing reserve duty, paying taxes, throwing in his lot with the Jewish people - not to mention his efforts in saving Ethiopian Jews - he reckoned he had earned the right to stay in Israel.

He also had met Davit, an Ethiopian Jew living in Beersheba, and wanted to marry her. They postponed the wedding while Gavrai weighed whether to convert for her.

Another relationship, however, could prove to be his undoing. His young niece, Tarfi Gavrai, arrived in Israel in much the same way he had, by pretending to be a member of an immigrant family. Dejjan Gavrai was quite friendly with this family, the Saymus, and often spent Shabbat with them. One young man in the family, Rahamim Saymu, thought Gavrai's 17-year-old niece owed them more than gratitude for bringing her to Israel. Though he was married, he made the girl his mistress.

Two years later, Tarfi tried to put an end to their relationship. Saymu objected and, in one particularly violent confrontation in Arad, slashed her repeatedly with a knife. Neighbors who heard the ruckus alerted police, who caught Saymu in the act.

Criminal proceedings were brought against Saymu. Meanwhile, the traumatized girl was sent to a mental hospital in Beersheba.

Saymu's family appealed to Gavrai and asked him to have the charges dropped. Criminal charges, however, are brought by the state, not by individuals. In any case, Gavrai believed Saymu deserved to be punished and refused to intercede on his behalf.

According to Gavrai and others, the Saymus then sought revenge. They asked for help from their cousin, Lior Solomon, an Interior Ministry clerk and, by chance, one of the people Gavrai had helped lead to Sudan. Solomon summoned Gavrai to the ministry office, but would not say why. When he arrived, Solomon said he knew that Gavrai was not a member of the Rada family and that his identity card would have to be "fixed."

Solomon asked him to write a statement that he was not the Radas' child and to include the names of his real parents. When he'd finished, guards were called. They handcuffed Gavrai and dragged him to prison. Within an hour, Cohen had issued an order stripping Gavrai of his citizenship and ordering him to leave the country.

For the next 20 days, Gavrai sat in jail in the Russian Compound among tourists and illegal foreign workers also being held for deportation. He was never charged with a crime, never given a court hearing and rarely allowed to speak to a lawyer.

Gavrai might have remained there until his deportation, but for another prisoner who, after his own release, sought to help Gavrai.

The man asked the first Ethiopian he saw on the street for advice, and the matter eventually arrived on the desk of attorney Haber. An amateur musician, Haber began volunteering at an absorption center while still in law school, hoping he might gain some insight into traditional Ethiopian music. He picked up much more: He formed an Ethiopian wedding band and developed a lasting interest in the community. Eventually, he married an Ethiopian woman. Today, a quarter of his clients are Ethiopians.

When he heard of Gavrai's plight, Haber was outraged. He organized the community to bail Gavrai out of jail and petitioned the High Court of Justice, arguing that Cohen was not empowered to strip Gavrai of his citizenship; only Interior Minister Eli Suissa could do that. The court told Haber to appeal the decision first within the Interior Ministry, and if that failed, to return to the High Court. Haber filed his appeal in mid-February.

Haber also urged Gavrai and Davit to move their marriage up from the summer. They were married early this month via proxy in Paraguay for $1,200. Cohen of the Interior Ministry said the ministry is checking to see whether the Gavrai marriage was real or simply a ploy to avoid deportation.

"I have no word for the Interior Ministry's behavior in this case except 'crazy,'" Haber says. "The Interior Ministry today wants to kick all Christians out of the country. They don't want any non-Jews here."

Haber also claims that the ministry is motivated in part by racism. Ministry officials feel free to act more aggressively against Ethiopians than against non-Jews from the former Soviet Union, who generally are better educated, are more sophisticated and have powerful politicians who can act as their advocates, Haber says.

"The blackness plays a part, because the only difference between [Gavrai] and a non-Jewish Russian is that [ministry officials] think all the Ethiopians are weak," he claims. "I'm sure they're surprised he fought back."

Cohen denies the charges of racism and says the ministry acted according to protocol. "We invite the person in, we give him a hearing and we check him out," Cohen says. "If we find that what he said to enter the country was not true, we take away his citizenship."

The brief session at which Gavrai came before Solomon, who has refused to be interviewed, constituted his hearing, Cohen says. In addition, Cohen claims, many in the community have come forward to say that Gavrai and Assafa forced them to pay large sums of protection money before taking them out of Ethiopia, and even robbed them.

Gavrai insists the case against him is born of the Saymus' desire for revenge. He denies demanding money for his services in leading Jews to Sudan, a claim that his former partner Sandekeh supports.

"For years he and his brother fought for the Jews of Ethiopia," Sandekeh says. "If this were a different place, his whole family would be offered citizenship. Now [Gavrai's adversaries] think if they get him kicked out of the country the court case against their relative will be dropped."

Gavrai's claim also is bolstered indirectly by journalist Tom Segev, who visited Ethiopia in 1996 with a boy who had left for Israel years before and was searching out his roots. In Ethiopia, they met Assafa, who had helped the boy's family to escape years before. When Assafa mentioned that his brother now lives in Israel, Segev assumed that Gavrai had been allowed to enter as a reward for the family's heroism.

"I don't know whether or not he did it for money, but there was absolutely no question that [Assafa] had helped the Jews to escape," Segev says today. "He was a very, very warm person who cared deeply about the people he had saved and always wondered what happened to them. He was a kind of Righteous Gentile, just like the people during the Holocaust."

In a community based on strong clan and family ties, however, Gavrai's case is proving highly divisive. In addition, for many Ethiopians, still fighting hard for full acceptance in Israeli society, the circumstances of Gavrai's immigration are troubling.

Adisu Massala, the sole Ethiopian Knesset member, called Cohen when Gavrai first was arrested and was told not to meddle in the case.

"It's a very delicate situation for me," Massala says. "The state helps every Jew who wants to come to Israel. But this guy came here in a different manner, and the Interior Ministry says he tricked us, he lied in order to get here. It's very difficult for me to be the champion of someone who's not Jewish.

"But beyond Judaism, we have to be a humane country," he continues. "This guy immigrated, and after you complain about how he arrived, the fact is that he already made it and he has served in the army. It doesn't do any honor to the State of Israel to kick him out. In fact, it's shameful. Where are our Jewish values in this case?"

Though Massala had not previously known of Gavrai's efforts to save Jews, he believes the accounts of his heroism are genuine.

"All the Jews in the community know him and acknowledge that his family helped them leave their villages for Sudan. It obviously was a very special family," says Massala, who reached Sudan at age 18 through the help of other Ethiopian Christians. "Without people like this, we would not have been able to realize our dream. Those who came to Israel safely on their airplanes or those born here don't know what it was like for us to get here. Clerks in the Interior Ministry who didn't experience it and don't understand the issue are the ones who are deporting him."

Massala plans to propose a law conferring citizenship on non-Jews who serve in the IDF, but he is is not prepared to advocate for Gavrai forcefully or openly. Neither are the leaders of two groups that would seem to be natural allies for Gavrai, the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews and the United Ethiopian Jewish Organization.

"His story is very confusing. He entered the country illegally, so according to the law he's a criminal," says Uri Tamiet, general manager of the association. Because of Gavrai's record since reaching Israel - army, college, work, marriage - he believes Gavrai should be allowed to stay. Yet the IAEJ's main focus is on absorption efforts, he says, and "it doesn't seem like it's our place to help him."

Neither, it appears, will the United Ethiopian Jewish Organization go to bat for him. "Our mandate is to defend Ethiopian Jews, not non-Jews," manager Moshe Batah says. "If I defend [Gavrai], tomorrow millions of non-Jews will come and ask me to defend them too."

That leaves only Haber.

Gavrai no longer has anything to go back to in Ethiopia, his lawyer says. "It's not like he's just going back home," Haber says. "He left everything to come here. He would have to start all over again in a country he doesn't want to be in. He's not prepared for it at all."

Gavrai is making no preparations for that eventuality. He has returned to work in Ashkelon and is proceeding with his life on the assumption that all will turn out well. He and Davit are not even planning for the possibility that he will be deported.

"I don't believe that they'll do it to me," he says. "I gave my soul to this country, I wore its uniform. Instead of getting a prize for what I did, I get a deportation order.

"If they deport me now, they've thrown me into the trash," Gavrai says. "They've ended my life."

© Jeruslaem Post 1998
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