From Ethiopia to Israel: Completing a Circle 25 Years in the Making

Published: November 26th 2010
in News » Israel

Batya Chokol
Pic: Daniel Horowitz

It’s been said that truth is stranger than fiction. In the case of Batya Chokol, her incredible life story could have sprung from the pages of your favourite fiction novel with one exception. It’s all true.


Growing up in Ethiopia with her mother and father and eight siblings, her parents had always prayed that one day, they would all live together in Jerusalem, free to enjoy a fulfilling Jewish life.


“There was a separate village for Jews in Ethiopia,” says the articulate and warm 28-year-old during an interview in the Lipa Green Centre for Jewish Community Services, on the Sherman Campus at Bathurst just north of Sheppard Avenue. “It was forbidden to practice our religion there; it was a struggle to keep Shabbat. Everything had to be done very quietly and in private.”


Then came the day – actually the night – 25 years ago, in 1984, that Batya’s life – and that of her family’s, would change forever.


“Suddenly, in the middle of the night, my father announced that it was time to collect whatever essentials we could carry; that we were going to begin the journey to the holy land,” she says. “So, that night, although we didn’t really know where Jerusalem was - we had no maps and no internet - we headed out, my mother and father; my two sisters, one brother and myself, all who were under the age of five at the time, and never looked back.”


The family, fearing they would be caught, used the cover of darkness to make their sojourn, hiding during the daylight hours.


For six long months, the family walked the Sudan desert, overcoming incredible adversity including a lack of drinking water and food.


Eventually, Batya’s baby brother succumbed.


“He was not strong enough to make the journey,” she says, eyes looking down.


Other challenges included kidnappers and robbers who would try to steal children and any valuables they could.


“They took our mules so my father had to carry my grandmother on his back,” she says. “Even my sister, who was five at the time, had to carry me much of the way across the Sudan. Trust me, she never lets me forget that fact today,” she says with a smile.


Six months after their unlikely journey began, Batya and her family made it to a refugee camp in the desert where they connected with Israeli Defense Force soldiers who were there to airlift thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel as part of a plan dubbed Operation Moses.


“It wasn’t like going to an airport and going on to a plane,” explains Batya. “It was a secret mission where trucks met us in the night in the desert and hid as many of us as possible. From there they took us to another place in the desert where we were met by helicopters. Many of my people were terrified by the sound and wind of these strange machines. Then, we were taken to the planes and brought to Israel.”


The airlift and subsequent integration efforts were supported by the Jewish Federation system, including UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.


“Once we got to the Holy Land, everyone was so thankful; cheering, crying and, when they got out of the plane, they all kissed the ground. But we were also confused. Everyone at the airport was white so we all wondered where the Jewish people were. We had never known any white Jews before. But, then again, that’s one of the beautiful things about being Jewish. Judaism is not about colour or where we come from; because wherever we come from or whatever we look like, we always stick together and care about each other.”


Related articles: (Operation Moses, Ethiopian Jews)
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