Thursday, September 12, 2013

An Ethiopian refugee living in Hartford struggles to live a Jewish life

Fitsum and his father in Ethiopia in 2002.
By Alex Putterman

With a limited English vocabulary, Fitsum Anafu Tsema Molla has few ways of describing events of the first 38 years of his life. Oftentimes, “not good” serves as the perfect catchall.

Today, Fitsum sits in the quiet lobby of a West Hartford synagogue – where he is now a “regular ” – thousands of miles from anything resembling home, and communicates his harrowing life story, one “not good” at a time.

Fitsum was born in Ethiopia in 1975, the year before a coup overthrew the nation’s acting government and initiated a Marxist military dictatorship. Immediately, the coup resulted in the death of 2,500 Ethiopian Jews and the homelessness of another 7,000. Eventually, it also resulted in changing attitudes toward religion, Judaism in particular, in the East African nation. The relationship between Israel and Ethiopia grew increasingly contentious and lurking anti-Israel sentiments flourished.



“If you are Jewish, not good,” Fitsum said of life in his native country. “They don’t have good feelings for Jews and for Judaism. Not good.”
When Fitsum was three years old, his father Anafu, who was born in Israel, was shot and paralyzed, an attack that Fitsum says was committed by the new government in part because Anafu was Jewish. Anafu would live the rest of his life in the hospital, cared for and operated on by famed Ethiopian surgeon and activist Asrat Woldeyes, who eventually started his own political party and was jailed for plotting against the government.  Fitsum says government officials interfered with Anafu’s care, removing his bed from the hospital when he left it and sometimes denying him food and medication when he needed it.

An engineer by trade, Anafu had been the family’s provider, and his debilitation meant the disintegration of the family. Fitsum was dispensed to boarding school. “Not good,” he says of that experience. “Every place, antisemitic behavior. Every place.”

At this time conditions for Jews living in Ethiopia were worse than ever. In the early 1980s, the government forbade the practice of Judaism and the learning of Hebrew, concerned that Ethiopian Jews were spies for Israel. Fitsum says kids would avoid him on orders from their mothers, who considered Jews to be devils. During this time, thousands of Ethiopian Jews were covertly evacuated to Israel via Sudan as part of Operation Moses. But Fitsum wouldn’t leave. He couldn’t abandon his father.

Fitsum’s mother was born in Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia and now a country to its north. In 1991, when Ethiopia began killing and deporting Eritreans during a conflict that resulted in Eritrea’s independence, she went into hiding, falling out of touch with Fitsum. Shortly after, Fitsum would see his only sister for the final time, before she too disappeared from his life.

Then, in 1993 came the crushing blow for Fitsum: the death of his father.

“After my father died, my heart was broken,” he says now as his eyes turn red and he reaches for a tissue. “My family was my father. My brother was my father. Everything was my father.”

Surrounded by war, famine, antisemitism and no family, Fitsum snuck across the border into Kenya in 1997, in pursuit of “a better life.”

Jews have lived in Kenya for barely a century, and their population has never risen above several hundred families. Although the governments of Kenya and Israel currently have a strong relationship, many Kenyans, including the roughly 10% of the nation that is Muslim, harbor hostility toward Jews.

Fitsum says being Jewish continued to cause him trouble in his new country. He lived by himself in Kenya, without anyone to share his experience, more alone than ever. Neighbors mistreated him and employers fired him after several days. Then there were the beatings, the precise circumstances of which Fitsum struggles to articulate in English. Verbal details notwithstanding, the lingering visual images are striking.

Fitsum rolls up one sleeve to reveal a scar. Then the other sleeve and more scars. He pulls down his shirt, yanks up his pant leg, points to his forehead. Dark smudges and indented stripes on his brown skin, marking healed knife wounds. Remnants of brutalities he suffered in Kenya. He speaks of blood lost and produces a document from the Kenyan police chronicling each of the half-dozen or so incidents he reported to authorities. Then he waves his hand through the air, dismissing the evidence. The police, he says, did nothing.

Finally, Fitsum’s cries were heard and an alphabet soup of acronyms, representing a multi-course meal of refugee organizations, entered his life. The Refugee Consortium of Kenya learned of Fitsum’s plight and on Oct. 9, 2010, referred him to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a Jewish organization dedicated to rescuing and resettling imperiled refugees. At some point – when exactly is unclear – the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) officially designated Fitsum a refugee according to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and labeled him an assault victim in need of medical service. Although the UNHCR would not comment on Fitsum’s individual case, an officer at the organization’s branch office in Nairobi suggested the refugee classification is not easy to come by.

“Because of the limited available slots offered by resettlement countries,” Elias Ngugi explained via email, “only the most vulnerable refugees with compelling protection needs are considered for resettlement processing by UNHCR.”

With the UN’s blessing in hand, HIAS passed the case on to the U.S. Refugees Admission Program, which interviewed Fitsum in October 2010. Several months later, he was interviewed again, this time by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, and approved as an immigrant. The State Department placed him with the Hartford branch of Catholic Charities, ­­an organization that provides resettlement services for refugees from around the world. Catholic Charities has three branches in Connecticut, including its largest in Hartford, where they resettle about 300 refugees a year.

On June 6, 2013, Fitsum finally arrived in the United States. It was a happy ending in theory. Not in reality.

Life in America

Fitsum has found life in America almost as troublesome as it was in Africa. He was located to an apartment on Sigourney St. in Hartford, where his neighbors include other refugees, some of whom, including his Muslim roommate, object to his Judaism. The problems they raise are compounded by Fitsum’s reciprocal hostile attitudes. Years of mistreatment have cultivated in him an unconditional animosity toward Muslims. “I hate Muslims, by the way,” he says. “In my life, I hate Muslims.”

Catholic Charities quickly set Fitsum up with a mechanical engineering job, but the supervisor complained that Fitsum couldn’t handle the work. They then found the refugee a painting job, but having never painted before, Fitsum has again found the work beyond his capabilities. “Even this work is not good,” he says. “It’s over my capacity. I don’t know about painting… This is not a job for me, this is punishment.”

Because life at home is bad, Fitsum kills time before returning at night – riding the bus around Hartford if he has to – so as to avoid all interaction with his neighbors. He gets back late and sleeps little, resulting in a perpetual tiredness that leaves his eyes red and hinders him at work.

Fitsum underwent a medical examination upon landing in the U.S. but is suspicious he’s suffering from physical issues that further limit his ability to work effectively. He says his memory has become clouded, a possible result of beatings he took in Kenya. Several weeks ago, he accidentally abandoned an envelope containing two weeks’ salary at Wal-Mart when he put it down next to the cash register and walked away without it.
Fitsum finds respite from strife at Congregation Beth Israel, in West Hartford. When he asked Catholic Charities about access to a synagogue, they contacted Rabbi Michael Pincus, who spread open arms to a new congregant.

“I think he feels safe here. I think he is happy to be connected with other Jews,” Pincus says. “Any time we can welcome someone to our community, our community is enriched. And Fitsum is passionate about his Judaism and has a history that is very different than that of most of our congregation. Being able to see him express his Judaism and be part of our community is a gift.”

The gift is mutual, as Beth Israel has been an almost-literal savior for Fitsum. He attends minyan there Monday through Thursday and visits for weekly Friday night services as well. As he tells it, Beth Israel is the only good thing he has going.

“This is my home,” he says. “I feel it’s good now [at Beth Israel]. If I didn’t find this, I feel it’s…”

He pauses, uncomfortable with the next word.

“Suicide.”

But, “Now is better.”

Still, comfort and acceptance at Beth Israel doesn’t fully negate the discomfort and discrimination Fitsum has felt, past and present, almost wherever he has gone.

Just recounting his experiences seems to wear him down. Tall and thin, with a goatee beard as full as his heart is empty, Fitsum blankly stares forward, documents chronicling his journey spread in front of him. The papers, like his scars, like his sadness at the briefest mention of his father, are reminders of a bad life in Ethiopia, a worse life in Kenya, and now a disappointing life in America.

“I’m tired, you know,” he says. “I can’t suffer everything. About my life, I don’t care. If I die, if I live.”

Some of Fitsum’s troubles in America could possibly have been lessened with a more Judaism-conscious resettlement.

Alas, the primary avenue of Jewish refugee resettlement in the Hartford area has been shuttered for more than two decades. Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford provided resettlement services for much of the 20th century, primarily for Russian Jews, but stopped accepting new refugees around the time the Soviet Union collapsed and Russian Jewish immigration was halted. In the ensuing years, few Jewish refugees have required resettlement to the United States. When Fitsum arrived in Hartford, Catholic Charities was faced with its first Jewish refugee in at least a year, according to Judy Gough, director of the agency’s migration, refugee and immigration services.

Additionally, Gough says, the organization is non-denominational and, if unprompted, does not ask its clients about their religious affiliations or focus on religion. (Although Gough points out, Catholic Charities did respond to Fitsum’s religious needs by referring him to Rabbi Pincus.) Currently, two of the program’s most common refugee origins are the heavily Muslim nations of Somalia and Iraq. Although Gough would not comment on the specific housing accommodations of the refugees, she did say Catholic Charities works with certain go-to landlords. It was only natural then, that Fitsum would end up living in close quarters with Muslims.

In essence, Catholic Charities, not intimately familiar with the mindset of African Jews and not overly attendant to religion in its resettlement, unintentionally situated Fitsum in a living space that causes him to feel afraid and unwanted.



The Jewish community steps in

But word of Fitsum’s plight has spread, and the Jewish community is rallying to action. Soon after meeting Fitsum, Pincus spoke to Bob Fishman, executive director of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT). Fishman spoke with Gough at Catholic Charities, whom he says was very receptive to his concerns about Fitsum’s circumstances and happy to work with JFACT on solving Fitsum’s issues.

According to Fishman, Catholic Charities, which cannot comment publicly on the specifics of Fitsum’s case, will organize mediation between Fitsum and his roommates. They will also explore options for moving him from his current home and finding him a more suitable job, Fishman says.

In addition, Fishman spread the word to all Connecticut refugee agencies that they should contact JFACT for help settling any Jewish clients, in hopes of avoiding future situations similar to Fitsum’s.

“What I want them to know is to contact me immediately when they have somebody who’s Jewish,” Fishman says. “So we can work directly with whichever refugee agency is assigned this person.”

As Pincus, JFACT and Catholic Charities scurry to make his life more pleasant – or at least more bearable – Fitsum remains motivated by the most ingrained allegiance his father passed down: love for Israel.

“My father’s country is my country,” he says. “If I sacrifice, I sacrifice for Israel. I’m working for Israel.”

Three days before Anafu’s death, he passed on to his son an Israeli flag, and Fitsum has clung to it throughout the ensuing 20 years. Fitsum says Anafu spoke every day about Israel and dreamed every night about Jerusalem. He says, if possible, he would happily relocate one more time. The holy land would be a presumptive ultimate destination in his constant search for a place where his Judaism is accepted and celebrated. Fishman says he and Pincus are already working to make aliyah possible.

Someday, here or in Israel, when Fitsum tells his story of misery and despair, perhaps it will end happily. Perhaps he’ll reach the tale’s yet-undetermined conclusion and finish the telling with a departure from his usual refrain; with a simple quotation from the Torah’s very beginning, “And it was good.”
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