As the World Grapples With Racism, Israel Seeks to Empower Ethiopian Youth

By SHARON GELBACH

The growing protests against racism in the United States have aroused strong feelings worldwide, and Israel is no exception. Ethiopian Israelis have long complained of prejudice and being treated as second-class citizens.

Sheba Medical Center, Israel’s national hospital, enjoys a global reputation for medical innovation, but many are unaware that it is also at the forefront of helping to integrate members of various minority groups in Israel.

In the past several years, Sheba has integrated hundreds of new Ethiopian olim (immigrants) into the hospital workforce, going as far to provide them with free classes to help them navigate Israeli bureaucracy and improve their language skills.

Most recently, Prof. Eldad Katorza, senior physician at Sheba, decided to give youth from the Ethiopian community a head start by folding them into a pilot program within “Project Arrow,” which he directs.

“Project Arrow” (chetz in Hebrew, the initials of chokrim tze’irim, meaning “young researchers”) is an apprenticeship program for medical students designed to pave their way into the world of medical research.

Established in 2006, the initiative matches select medical students with experienced researchers to serve as mentors. During once- or twice-weekly meetings, the student-mentor team works through every stage of medical research, from formulating the initial question, to collecting and analyzing data, to presenting the results at medical conferences.

This year, for the first time, each research duo included a third tier: high school students from the Ethiopian community.

Katorza believes in the importance of encouraging students to pursue research, noting that in medical school, they do not receive sufficient exposure to research thinking or methodology.

“I believe that research makes a doctor more knowledgeable, more curious, more creative,” he said. “A doctor who engages in research is a much better doctor.”

Employing this premise, Katorza now plans to open several slots for nursing school students in the coming year’s program.

“Nursing is also a field that stands to benefit greatly from adding researching to its ranks; it will raise the bar of nursing in Israel,” he said.

Even in the early stages of planning the pilot program for the Ethiopian high school students, it quickly became evident to Katorza just how crucial, timely, and challenging his initiative was.

“I asked my son, then in 11th grade, to look around his own school in Givatayim for students from the Ethiopian community who might be suitable for the program,” said Katorza. “As it turned out, there wasn’t a single Ethiopian student in his school, nor in any of the good schools in the area.”

The reason can be traced to the socioeconomic realities in Israel today. By and large, members of the Ethiopian community tend to dwell in poorer neighborhoods where community services and schools are on a lower level.

These conditions put Ethiopian teens at a disadvantage from the outset, and due to economic necessity, youth are pushed to join the workforce at an early age, perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

“Almost four decades have passed since the first wave of Ethiopian aliyah,” observed Katorza, “yet judging from their rate of participation in academia, their level of affluence and other markers of social mobility, it appears that the government has failed to take the necessary steps to help them bridge the gaps and facilitate their successful absorption into mainstream Israeli society.”

Anxious to change that trend, Katorza decided to include outstanding students from the Ethiopian community in “Project Arrow.”

But it wasn’t simple to locate high school students from the Ethiopian sector who met the criteria for participation in the program: High marks in the sciences, high motivation and interest, and living near enough to the Sheba campus to attend weekly meetings.

Ultimately, Katorza was aided by an organization called Fidel (“alphabet” in Amharic), which promotes the education and social integration of Ethiopian-Israeli youth.

The Fidel staff welcomed the opportunity to incorporate Ethiopian students into the program, and provided 10 candidates, from which the top five were chosen.

Katorza said the pilot was a resounding success and will be repeated in the coming year.

“We found that once they are freed from the limitations of their environment, the students manifested amazing capabilities,” he said. “We endeavored to help build their self-confidence, empower them, and teach them that they can do anything they put their mind to.”

Throughout the year, in addition to their full participation in research, the Ethiopian high-schoolers were also exposed to clinical activity at the hospital.

“At the beginning of the year, the students didn’t have any specific plans for the future,” Katorza said. “Now, they are now seriously considering a medical career.”

One of those is Yair Jalmar, 17, from Beer Yaakov, who participated in a research project with pediatric cardiologist Dr. Shai Tejman.

“This project helped me develop my interest in medicine and learn more about the advanced technologies and devices as well as the various departments in the medical field,” Jalmar said.

Former participants in the Arrow Project have gone on to publish their findings in prestigious medical journals, and several have joined the team at Sheba.


Sharon Gelback
Sharon Gelbach

Sharon Gelbach grew up in Toronto and moved to Israel in 1982. She is a writer, editor and translator and lives with her husband and family in Jerusalem.