Training Israel’s Ethiopians for a hi-tech future

Asher Elias
Asher Elias. Photo by: Limor Edrey
Asher Elias
Asher Elias. Photo by: Limor Edrey

Asher Elias believes the key to integrating Ethiopians into Israeli society lies in good jobs.

By Ronit Harel
In 2003 Israel’s high-tech industry had only four workers of Ethiopian origin. Even now, it has no more than 200. Asher Elias is determined to change that.

How? The Tech-Career College he established at Kibbutz Nachshon is training young Ethiopian Israelis for a future in high tech. Many of its graduates are already working.

If you were to ask Elias, 40, a decade ago, what he wanted to do in life, “community work” wouldn’t have been his first answer.

He was born and raised in Ashkelon. His parents came from Ethiopia in the early 1960s. He remembers a happy childhood with much time at the beach. In ninth grade he discovered computers but after his military service, he studied management and marketing at the College of Management in Jerusalem. He moved to Tel Aviv and worked in marketing at a computer company. Then he saw something that shook up his world.

On a chance visit to the central bus station in Tel Aviv, Elias noticed a group of youngsters congregating near the information center for Ethiopian youth. Established and run by the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, the center is now operated by the FIDEL Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Curious, he went to see what was going on. He learned that the center “catered” to drop-outs from school, usually boarding schools. Many were living in the streets and had been drawn to crime in order to survive.

“I was shocked,” he relates. “I’m Israeli in every respect and the integration of the Ethiopians was not a question I’d dealt with. Suddenly I saw what was happening in a community of which I was a part, but I had not known it at all.”

He also felt personal outrage at what became known as “the blood affair”: the destruction of blood donations from Ethiopians on the grounds that they had a high chance of carrying HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“I was furious,” he says. The story and the mass protests in its wake happened just as he was asking himself questions about what to do with his life.

“I realized the work at the marketing company wasn’t meaningful, and I had to create something meaningful for myself and for others,” he says.

Elias found the answer to his aspirations in a North American organization for Ethiopian Jews. He returned to Jerusalem and became part of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. For the next eight years he worked with children, youth at risk and alienated youth and developed community and national projects.

At the end of that period, he had an epiphany. “I realized the real potential for change lay not only in education,” he explains. “Higher education is potential, a diploma on the wall. But the real key to becoming part of society is employment, which gives personal security and familiarity with the Israeli mentality, and also reduces the tension in a home with unemployment.”

Creating opportunity

Armed with this insight, Elias left the association in 2002. He planned to stay at home with his baby daughter, his first child, and use the time to think about his career. The addition to the family compelled him to rethink community work, which didn’t exactly contribute to the family finances.

When a friend suggested integrating members of the community into the high-tech industry, he was very enthusiastic.

“It was clear to me this was the direction,” he says. “At that time there were vocational training courses in the community but they focused mainly on areas like carpentry and mechanics. The most prestigious training was a course for ambulance drivers. People literally fought for places in that course.”

Elias wanted to offer an alternative. He found that the reason so few Ethiopians work in technology is their lack of knowledge and experience – and economic barriers. Many members of the community have difficulty getting though the psychometric exams and don’t make it into a university, while colleges are too expensive. “We thought that if there is no opportunity, then we’d create it,” he says.

The Tech-Career College Elias established at Kibbutz Nachshon is this opportunity. It offers a 14-month course of demanding studies.

The first course began in 2004, with the help of a donation from the Abraham and Sonia Rochlin Foundation. Since then about 160 students have been through the institution, and Elias says the demand is greater than the supply: “It’s a kind of springboard. People who worked as gas station attendants or in clothing shops come here and it changes them. It’s a serious career change, not to mention the leap in pay level and standard of living.”

The real measure of the college’s activity is not the number of students but the percentage of graduates who find work in the industry. The numbers are even more impressive: 95% of the graduates of the first four classes found work in high-tech.

Though this figure has decreased to 70% in the wake of the economic crisis, Elias believes things will change.

“We are already seeing a recovery,” he says. “We already have graduates in the industry who are helping to open doors and we have the help of a strategic partner, the Bank Discount Group, which is helping place workers in various companies.”

What about the future? Elias is optimistic but cautious. This is a critical time for the community’s integration, he says: “More than half the members of the community are aged 25 or under, and in the next several years it will become clear whether the current situation of poverty and unemployment will be perpetuated or whether the community will go through normal integration.

“There will be some very successful people, some very unsuccessful people and the majority will be average, just like in Israeli society as a whole. Our vision is to establish a professional leadership stratum in the community.”