Balinach Ayech went from being a bank official in Addis Ababa to washing floors in Kiryat Malachi, a working-class Israeli town near Ashdod. That was 14 years ago.
Today, she’s one of the town’s deputy mayors — the first Ethiopian ever voted deputy mayor of an Israeli city — but she’s involved in a clash with the town’s mayor, Moti Malka, that has prevented her from assuming her duties.
Ayech came to Israel with a firm belief in God, a determination to help herself and her people and gratitude to the Jewish Agency for Israel for bringing her to the Promised Land.
Ayech’s life in Ethiopia was unusual for a Jew: She was born in a village in the Gondar region but lived and studied in Addis Ababa and has an urban background. Her personal and professional success in Israel has been spectacular.
For the past five years, she has been the point person for her community in the town’s two health clinics.
“They come to me for everything,” she said. “Even after years in the country, many of the older people still cannot function in the system without help.”
The Jewish Agency provided Hebrew ulpan instruction for the immigrants, “but many people simply could not learn, and so they cannot work,” she said. “And many people did not go to ulpan because they never went to school in Ethiopia either.”
“The generation born in Israel writes and speaks Hebrew, of course, but many young people have other problems,” Ayech added. “Their families fell apart and they began with drugs and prostitution. So I have always had my hands full and worked very hard.”
Kiryat Malachi is home to about 3,700 Ethiopians out of a total population of 22,000. The city council chose Ayech as deputy mayor over another member of the community — but from there the picture gets cloudy.
“It should be beautiful, this story of the first Ethiopian deputy mayor, but it’s not,” said Yossi Perez, spokesman for the Kiryat Malachi’s mayor’s office. “This has become a case of dirty politics in Israel, and it’s too bad.”