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Survey finds severe disease among Falash Mura

From the Jerusalem Post Newspaper:
By Jerusalem Post Staff
Nov 10, 2000

NEW YORK (November 10) – A survey conducted by members of the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry, an advocacy group based in New York, is reporting widespread disease and malnutrition among the Falash Mura, the Ethiopian Jews who want to immigrate to Israel.

The SSEJ survey found that the Falash Mura are experiencing much greater hunger and disease than the general Ethiopian population. It found that 55% of children under five are stunted, 16% are abnormally underweight, and nearly 60% of children reported being sick in a two-week period. Six times more severely underweight children were found among the Falash Mura than
among the general population.

Among mothers, 50% have goiter, indicating iodine deficiency, a condition that can cause miscarriage, stillbirth and retarded fetal growth. More than 24% of children were found to have goiter, the study said.

The survey was conducted over a three-month period, and examined 4,000 of Addis Ababa’s 8,000 Falash Mura.

The survey was conducted by two doctors, Tezera Fisseha Chernet and Hana Neka-Tibeb, and a nutritionist, Sampson Taffesse Asfaw. All three have worked for non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations Children’s Fund, USAID, and the World Health Organization, as well as for the Ethiopian

The report’s findings cast doubt on statements and statistics put out by organizations that are responsible for the needs of world Jewry overseas – the United Jewish Communities and the UJC-funded American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Yesterday, the Joint reported that the mortality rate among the Falash Mura in Addis Ababa and Gondar, where the Joint provides medical and nutritional programs, is eight per thousand, which is the same as in the US. But the SSEJ says the mortality rate is higher that that, although its study did not focus on mortality.

Lorraine Blass, interim director of the UJC’s Israel and overseas division – who has been on two fact-finding missions to Ethiopia in the past six months – said, “Our findings are not consistent with what it described in the press release.” Blass said the UJC plans to release its own report on Monday. She also said that she had not read the SSEJ‘s report.

While the Joint did not directly criticize the medical report, a Joint release stated that the SSEJ “did not liaise with our own medical staff and that we had to learn of their findings through the media.” E-mails from the SSEJ, however, show that officials at the UJC and Joint received copies of the press release and medical report on Tuesday. “We requested a meeting and they have not responded to us,” said Eric Gomberg, SSEJ president.

This coming Tuesday, the UJC plans to host a panel discussion on Ethiopian immigration and absorption in Israel during its General Assembly in Chicago.

The SSEJ and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, which provides daily lunches to 5,000 children in Ethiopia, were left off the panel, and the UJC does not plan to distribute copies of the SSEJ‘s medical report, Blass said.

The General Assembly Web site, however, features an SSEJ essay entitled “Dying to Make Aliyah” and the organization’s medical report. “It is disheartening that American Jewry has failed in its historic obligation to help a fellow Diaspora Jewish community that desperately needs assistance,” the essay states. “While the limited health care provided by the Joint is a start, the UJC must do more to provide food and shelter to the Jews in Ethiopia so that more children do not die needlessly while awaiting passage to their homeland.”

Yosef Abramowitz, an expert on Ethiopian Jewry and the publisher of Sh’ma, said, “This report, conducted by respected Ethiopian doctors, should serve as a wakeup call, on the eve of the GA, that the American Jewish community is failing terribly in meeting our overseas responsibilities.”

Other Ethiopian advocacy groups have come out in support of SSEJ‘s claim that American Jewry has not done enough to help the Falash Mura.

Barbara Ribikove Gordon, executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, – who had not yet read the SSEJ report – said, “We have always felt there was a tremendous amount of malnutrition in the community.”

Avraham Neguise, director of South Wing to Zion, who has advocated for increased funding for the Falash Mura, said, “This report confirms what we have been saying every time, that the community is in a very desperate situation, and that the Jewish humanitarian organizations have to help this community.”

A spokesman for the Jewish Agency, which is responsible for absorbing immigrants in Israel, said that since the holidays the Agency has brought over a planeload of Falash Mura to Israel every Tuesday.