An Ethiopian Jewish clergymen shields himself from the sun in Jerusalem. Officials in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, aren't sure how many people there who claim to be Jews will be allowed to move to Israel, but thousands are living in poverty as they await notification. ENRIC MARTI: AP
ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA - In shantytowns scattered around the imposing Israeli Embassy here, thousands of self-described Ethiopian Jews wait idly, hoping one day to make it to the Promised Land.
They started flooding to Addis Ababa nearly a decade ago, expecting to join a massive migration to Israel. Now many are caught in limbo.
They abandoned jobs, homes and in some cases religious beliefs but are uncertain whether they will ever join a resettlement program bogged down by budget constraints, political whims and a debate over who is a Jew.
Like many, Haymanot Hailu, 34, moved eight years ago to a one-room metal shack in the shadow of the heavily guarded hillside embassy. She and her husband gave up a comfortable life as sorghum farmers in the green hills of the north to bring their six children to Ethiopia's congested capital. Neither has been able to find steady work, and they barely earn enough as day laborers to feed the family.
They are sustained by one dream: to go to Israel, where, Hailu says, her sister is waiting.
"I miss our old life very much, but now I try to forget it," she said. "I'm only looking forward. There's no going back. I don't know what we will do if we don't go. We are Jews, and we want to go to the Promised Land."
It's unclear whether Hailu, and thousands like her, will be judged by Israeli authorities as eligible for relocation. Many are suspected of feigning Jewish roots to trade an often impoverished existence for a more comfortable, subsidized life in Israel. Others simply won't qualify under eligibility rules, which require that they have relatives in Israel.
"We can't estimate how many are waiting for nothing," said Konforti Ori, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Addis Ababa, appointed by the Israeli government to sort out who is a Jew and which Jews qualify for immigration. A final list of those eligible for resettlement is expected in June.
"It's a tragedy," he said. "We're going to give many people - maybe hundreds, maybe thousands - a negative answer."
Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered that 15,000 Ethiopians be resettled by 2007, characterizing it as the final wave of the immigration program.
"We are trying to put this topic to an end," said Ori.
But the new program is off to a slow start.
To meet the 2007 deadline, 600 immigrants should depart each month.
Only about half that number have been leaving, hindered in part by lack of funds, Ori said.
This week, a delegation of U.S. Jewish leaders that recently pledged $100 million to the immigration effort is visiting the region.
Copyright 2006 HoustonChronicle.com