Breaking down stereotypes / by Sarah Gidanian

So I’ve been running around the house stressing out and procrastinating writing this blog, probably annoying all of my roommates when one of them, Justin, suggested we go get ice cream. Since we’ve all been living together for about two months now, my roommates know me pretty well. They know I’ll do anything for ice cream, especially from this phenomenal little family owned ice cream shop a block away from us. We tend to frequent it because the owners are truly sweet. With their broken English they ask about how we are doing, and give us free samples when they can’t explain the ingredients of a certain flavor, along with chocolate syrup on the house; just a day in the life volunteering in the quaint town of Gedera. As we leisurely stroll back to our house enjoying the cool evening we encounter some of the many residents of Shapira, most of which are young adult Ethiopian males. Justin, Max and I greet the people we meet and in our extensive vocabulary ask how people are doing, usually not knowing what they say in response. This generally promotes good natured laughter on all sides, particularly from three young males. We stop to chat, they ask us where we are from in broken English, and we answer in the basic Hebrew we learned in Ulpan. They are shocked and thrilled to find out Justin and Max are from New York while I’m from Los Angeles, and that we ventured from such “cool cities” to volunteer in Shapira of all places. The conversation progresses to what music we like, we answer knowing most of the boys love Tupac, based off of a mural a street over and the random graffiti found in the neighborhood of his name. The boys ask us if we enjoy living in Shapira, if we’ve partied, and how long we are staying. They ask if we’re Jewish, if Max and Justin had a bar mitzvah, and what the Jews are like in America. They also extensively question us what it’s like in America for the “black” people, especially now that Obama is president. Using a combination of Hebrew, English and hand gestures, we tell them of everyday life in the states, and they tell us about growing up in Shapira. All of them speak Amharic, Hebrew and of course broken English. They seem to genuinely express an interest and curiosity in learning everything, and are fascinated by us, as much as we are fascinated by them. We stood on the corner of the street across from the community garden cracking jokes, sharing stories, and differences in culture. The fact that we can’t really speak Hebrew and they can’t really speak English was not a deterrent at all.

Our chat ended on a good note, with the boys inviting us to hang out further, which we had to decline, because I of course had to come home to write my blog and pack for the tiyul (trip) we are taking to the north tomorrow. We said our goodbyes, laughing that the boys would not wake up at 7 am tomorrow to see us off, even though they wouldn’t mind coming with us to check out the beach. As the three of us walked back to the house, we commented on how fun the guys were, and how much we had in common. The conversation then turned to how comfortable we all felt in what some people refer to as the “slums” of Gedera, and how respectful and intelligent the boys seemed. Over the past two months it has been inherently obvious that Israel holds a certain bias towards Shapira and the Ethiopians who live here. They are seen as somehow lower class, and their neighborhood has been deemed “unsafe”. However it is interactions such as the ones I just had that make me realize how ridiculous stereotypes and prejudices truly are. People are people regardless of how different they may seem, where they live, their socioeconomic status, or the traditions they bring with them. A common ground can always be reached, even if there is a language barrier. I hope that in time, the general population, Ethiopians included, will come to see what I see: Great, intelligent people with a rich and beautiful heritage.


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