'I tied my 3 children to my body': Ethiopian woman who dreamed of Israel

Almash Tesma was just 22 when she began her arduous journey to the Holy Land, during which she had to face criminals, give birth alone, pass though the desert and fight off Sudanese gangs waiting on the other side of it

Ortal Mogos|
Almash Tesma's journey from Ethiopia to Israel was quite a turbulent one.
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  • The house where she lived as a child went up in flames, she was orphaned at a very young age and later also widowed. She then immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia via Sudan, on a ship as part of the Israeli government's operation to assist Ethiopian Jews, and she finally arrived in the Holy Land in November 1981.
    5 View gallery
    אלמש טסמה עם ילדיה, טזזו, אדנני ונגסיי פנטיי
    אלמש טסמה עם ילדיה, טזזו, אדנני ונגסיי פנטיי
    Almash Tesma and her children
    (Photo: Courtesy of the family)
    The Jews from the Beta Israel communities in Ethiopia marched through the desert in tough conditions, facing many hurdles along the way. Thousands of them, however, didn't survive the arduous journey.
    Nowadays, Tesma, 62, lives in an urban Israeli settlement on the outskirts of Hebron, works with the elderly, and owns a business for natural products. Temsa shared that even now, her adult children don't know the full story of her journey to Israel. "I didn't tell them," she says laughingly. "I didn't tell them their mother was stubborn, and that's why we live in Israel."
    In her early childhood, Tesma lived in her great-grandmother's house in a village near the city of Shira. "My mother's family was the richest family in the village. They had cows and goats, and grandpa's business was exporting honey," she says. "My great-grandmother was a midwife. She was rich, and we lived in her house. In one house, there were 15 rooms and five families lived there. The second house had eight beehives, and the third house had a bedroom and a kitchen - until one day when my great-grandfather died."
    When she was four, she woke up one day and smelled smoke. "The poor neighbors burned down the house when grandma was sleeping. I shouted at them to stop – and they silenced me. I woke her up and yelled that there was a fire in the house."
    That night, Tesma's' father died. "My mom went back into the flames with my little sister, who was nine months old and tried to save him. My other sister was two years old. I remember mom running with the baby on her back and going into the fire, looking for dad. Other family members pulled her out and grabbed her so she wouldn't go back in again. A month later, she died of grief," she adds.
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    אלמש טסמה בישראל
    אלמש טסמה בישראל
    Almash Tesma in Israel
    (Photo: Courtesy of the family)
    "My grandmother also died because she inhaled smoke during the fire." In light of the incident, her mother's grandmother took them in and raised Tesma and her sisters.
    "We moved to a different village in Ethiopia, where I later worked at a pepper field for our Christian neighbor, who paid me and gave me food. The woman used to boil milk which she would offer us. I was scared of drinking it because that woman had a swollen thyroid. She asked why I was afraid of her and made me drink the milk - and then my thyroid swelled. I couldn't breathe."
    According to Tesma, since then, she would only drink water from the hand of one of the family members - from the age of 6 to the age of 12 and a half - because they were afraid she would infect her sisters.
    Tesma couldn't live like other girls her age due to her medical condition. "I wanted to commit suicide. I was 13 and I didn't really feel alive. I couldn't run or play." After seven years of suffering, a Jewish neighbor came to her aid. "He promised to bring me a cure. I was 13 and he was 35. I told him if he cured me, I would marry him."
    But, when the doctor came and tried to help her, Tesma's condition only got worse. "Everything swelled up more and I screamed and cried in pain and I was all filled with blood. I locked myself in my room for a whole month."
    Tesma's older partner went to Gondar to get her medicine. "My skin was peeling off. I started screaming and calling my mother's grandmother. She came in, grabbed a rag, wiped the gland, and later it was completely gone," she says. "I promised the older Jewish man I would marry him because he saved me. And although the family resisted, I told them that only because of him I could breathe normally again, run and walk properly."
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     רחוב על שם פרדה אקלום, סוכן המוסד שהפך לפורץ הדרך לעלייה מאתיופיה
     רחוב על שם פרדה אקלום, סוכן המוסד שהפך לפורץ הדרך לעלייה מאתיופיה
    Frede Aklum
    (Photo: Avner Tagbo)
    When she was 15 and a half she gave birth to her first son. "I called him Tezzo, and when I was 18, I gave birth to my second son, Adnani. Sadly, during that time my great-grandmother passed away." During that time, Frede Aklum a Mossad agent and Zionist activist best known for helping 900 Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel, said an option to make Aliyah was on the table.
    "As we were preparing for the journey, my husband started feeling very sick, and I was with my third child. We began to walk toward Sudan, following Frede Aklum who sent a Muslim messenger to gather Ethiopian Jews there. Meanwhile, my husband suggested we should sell our cows and buy donkeys instead, but before we got the chance to do so, he died," Tesma said.
    Pregnant, Tesma began to walk with her two children toward the Welkait province near Sudan. She also continued the family tradition working as a midwife. "I started packing. At the time, I had already helped a few families to deliver, and I was in the ninth month of pregnancy, so I assumed I would have to deliver myself."
    During our trip to Welkait, my 10-year-old sister died from malaria, and my older sister, who had two daughters, went with me to the province, where her husband was. "When we arrived at Welkait I was bitten by a snake, but luckily the doctor who examined me gave me medicine and said the snake wasn't poisonous."
    At this point, Tesma heard that there was a house for sale in the area, and decided to stay there until she had her baby. "I didn't want to stay with the uncles. I wanted to have a place for myself where I could give birth alone," she says. "I stayed at the house, and a week later I gave birth on my own to my third son. The birth was tough. After I gave birth, I also delivered babies of my uncle's wife and my sister, and then we began our journey to Sudan."
    When the family got to El-Gadrif, they began searching for locals who could escort them into Sudan. "We were a group of 240 people in total, and we found four people who agreed to accompany us for payment. On Saturday evening, they walked all night in complete silence. "We were told that if the Derg - the military junta that ruled Ethiopia - would capture us they would kill us, so there we were 240 people walking in silence, with the moon shining over our heads."
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    פליטים אתיופים אשר חולצו מסודן
    פליטים אתיופים אשר חולצו מסודן
    Ethiopian refugess rescued from Sudan
    (Photo: David Ben Uziel)
    The next morning, after passing a river, the group rested and ate. "I tied one kid in the front, one on the shoulder, and one on the back." Unfortunately for the group, local criminals carrying guns ambushed them. "Suddenly shots were fired. They took our clothes and money and ran away. The escorts advised us to move quickly in the morning. We started walking, and on the second morning shots were fired again."
    The third time they were ambushed by gangs was at night. However, Tesma hid the money in her socks so they didn't take anything. On the fourth occasion they were attacked, the group realized the men that were escorting them were cooperating with the bandits. "To not get lost, they told us to mark a trail, and that's how the criminals found us each time. They took everything we had: money, gold, clothes, we tried to hide the money in the flour but it didn't work.
    "We were almost left naked in the desert, and we decided that this can't go on, so we searched for new escorts. Eventually, we found two men who agreed to walk us to the other side of the border. We walked all night and finally arrived at the Sudanese border, the men told us that from this point we must continue on our own. As we continued our journey, we were notified that the Derg are after us, so we started to run, it was every man for himself, I tied my children to my body and ran, we just wanted to survive," Tesma said.
    The group arrived at the Sudanese border near the sea and realized that it took them almost two and a half weeks to complete the trip because their escorts intentionally mislead them to steal their money.
    Tesma and the group of 240 people stayed in Sudan for two weeks. Then by Fredede Aklum's order, trucks arrived, took photos of them for the forged documents, and sent them to Israel. But the Sudanese found out about that, and Aklum had to escape and hide. The documents and photos never arrived in Israel, so they had to look for other ways to make Aliyah.
    According to Tesma, after Aklum was exposed, the covert immigration operation was delayed. "There was a one-year queue to make Aliyah. While we waited, we ran out of flour, and my kids were sick. We had bought wheat from Sudan, but it only made things worse, and 30 people died because of it."
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    סוכן מוסד וג'יפ מלא בפליטים אתיופים
    סוכן מוסד וג'יפ מלא בפליטים אתיופים
    A Mossad agent next to a truck full of Ethiopian refugees
    (Photo: Courtesy of Rafi Berg)
    After four months, people began to immigrate to Israel. "It was our turn. They took us in a truck and they dropped us in the woods, where we were served pita bread and uncooked rice, as we waited to board the ship to Israel," Tesma a.
    "We arrived at the beach in the middle of the night, as we saw the see from afar. The truck had to get close to the beach and it almost sank into the sea. When we arrived, they dumped us like bags on the rubber boats. When we finally boarded the boat, we spent almost two weeks on it, and then we arrived in Egypt. From there, Israeli buses took us to the airport, and our journey ended when we finally arrived in Tel Aviv, and I thanked God that he brought me to Israel."
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