Negado Legese: Leader and Educator in the Ethiopian Jewish Community

Negado, whose name means "merchandise" in Kambitagna,* was so named because he was born upon his mother's return from the market, 49 years ago, in a town called Hosanna. He and his family are Beta Israel, from the Jewish community of Ethiopia.

The Beta Israel, merchants and artisans from various regional countries, arrived in Ethiopia between the first and sixth centuries. They were sometimes treated well by the Ethiopian monarchy, but they were mostly persecuted because of their religion. In 1624, the ruling king's army captured many Ethiopian Jews, forcibly baptized them and denied them the right to own land.

Today in Ethiopia, the Beta Israel are still typically persecuted, and Negado's community has been marginalized by their neighbors for centuries. Because of this it is nearly impossible for them to find gainful employment or educational opportunities.

A wise man and a natural leader, Negado formed a board of seven community leaders 13 years ago, to discuss how they might educate their children and create a legacy for them that is free from discrimination. The board, called "the Seven Leaders," focused on efforts to educate the children and mobilized their community to build a school.

Typically in Hosanna, Beta Israel children do not attend school. The public school registration fee of $2 a year is difficult to meet for a family who cannot find work, and the children who could attend were bullied and taunted at school for having little clothing and no school supplies. Because the Beta Israel are alienated outside their own community they prefer to insulate themselves from outside influences. By building their own school they could educate their children and carry on their customs and traditions in a safe environment. All the families contributed to building the school: they brought wood, nails, sheet metal, ropes, donkeys, and even their small savings. Those who had nothing to give came to work.

Harotesa Primary School has been operating since 2003 and serves 72 Beta Israel children. As the most educated man in the community, Negado Legese was appointed the director of the school. He and 4 other members of the community became certified teachers.

Two weeks ago, we opened the doors of Lelt Foundation's Community Center in Hosanna, Ethiopia, to provide nutrition, advanced education, and job creation programs to the Beta Israel. When Lelt's directors met with Negado Legese, he expressed great optimism for Lelt's Business Creation program, which is designed to create small business owners among the Beta Israel community.

Lelt's Director of Programs, Girma Amdie, further explained our vision to add children of other religions, tribes and beliefs to our program, to encourage acceptance and discourage segregation. When Negado expressed concern that the other children would continue to ostracize the Jewish community, Girma held a community-wide meeting at our Center, which included 34 families of varying religions. Girma explained Ethiopian laws that protect equality and human rights and stressed Lelt's mission to bring the community together through mutual respect and fair exchange through commerce and cooperation. All families agreed to practice tolerance and sensitivity for others enrolled in Lelt's assistance programs, and the project is now moving forward.

We are now in great need of sponsors for these children in Hosanna. Please go to Lelt's Child Sponsorship page to help a family of the Beta Israel community.

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