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A Lost Tribe From Somalia Looks To Israel For Salvation

By Rick Lyman, Inquirer Staff Writer, May 31, 1991

TEFERI BER, Ethiopia — The tiny man with the brown, saucer eyes peeks from behind a food relief truck. His hands dart from the folds of his robe, gesture furtively - come here! - and then vanish again.

Through the labyrinth of the vast Somali refugee camp he leads, through the cacophony of daily life and the dust-thick air. Every few steps he pauses, beckons again, then turns and scurries deeper into the din.

Finally, in a concrete-block shed that had once been part of a school, he plops down on a straw mattress. Other woeful faces peer through the gloom.

"We cannot talk in front of those others outside," says Mohammed Abdi Ibrahim, speaking for the group because he knows English. "They cannot be trusted. We must be very careful. We are among our enemies."

He nods to the others. They nod back. An old man in a frazzled turban rests his hand gently on Ibrahim's shoulder, urging him to proceed. And then the story pours forth in a rush:

These people are Jews. Well, not Jews exactly. In fact, they're Muslims. But they used to be Jews, many generations ago.

So says Ibrahim, anyway. The others nod.

He says they are part of a tribe in Somalia known as the Yebrews, whose Canaanite ancestors once set foot on the wild Red Sea coast and set up a private kingdom among the pagan hordes. You have heard of the Ethiopian Jews? You have heard that 14,000 were whisked away to Israel last week in a massive international airlift?

"They are our close brothers," Ibrahim says.

For generations, he says, the Yebrews lived among the Somalis. They simply converted to Islam. No big deal. It was just the local religion. Why not? It doesn't change the central fact that they are hereditary Hebrews. Descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. The other Somalis have never accepted them, never trusted them.

"They put an oppression on us," Ibrahim says. "They always deprive our rights."

Now, he says, their situation has become desperate. Civil war and famine in Somalia forced hundreds of Yebrews to flee across the border into Ethiopia, where they were plopped down in massive refugee camps. The problem is, the other refugees are Somalis, who hate them, persecute them, accuse them of heinous crimes of which they are totally innocent.

"They put us in the same camp with everyone," another man in the dark room says. "Put us in amongst our enemies. All the day we are sleeping. We do not sleep at night because we are fearing for our lives."

Ibrahim nods vigorously. They have only one hope:

They want Israel to save them, too.

"Well, it's a new one," said Gad Ben-Ari in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. Ben-Ari is a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, which coordinates the immigration of foreign Jews into Israel. "They're Muslim, you say? Hmmm. I must tell you that we have never heard of this group before. But that doesn't mean it's not true."

Others were more openly skeptical.

Avi Granot, counselor for political affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa, said he fully expected to see a large number of "sudden conversions" and "invented histories" now that the Israelis had provided a hope for escape from the Ethiopian hellhole.

"I wouldn't be surprised if suddenly everyone becomes Jewish," Granot said.

If the Yebrews did invent their story, though, they apparently did so a long time before last week's Ethiopian airlift. Their story is well-known among the other Somali refugees in the camp at Teferi Ber, and comes complete with tales of conflict between the Yebrews and other Somali tribes over decades.

"Oh yes, them," said Minassie Bekele, a Somali who fled to Ethiopia last month with the clothes on his back. "The Lost Tribe of Israel. They are always claiming that they are being persecuted, but it is not true. They are treated the same as everyone else."

"They're just a little crazy," said Mohammed Farah Ali, a refugee farmer, his native Somali translated by a friend who could speak English. "They stick together, never talk to anyone else. They are always afraid that people are getting them. What is the word?" The two men conferred in Somali. "They are paranoid."

But what are they? Hebrew or Muslim?

The friend, Ahmed Mohammed Daheye, laughed. "They claim to be Hebrew, and they claim to be Muslim," he said. "Then they complain that no one wants them."

Descendants of the ancient Israelites have lived on the Horn of Africa for more than 2,500 years. The Ethiopian Jews are the most famous because they held fast to their faith through all those centuries - and because they became pawns in an international game of chicken as former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam clustered them in Addis Ababa, then released them in trickles to Israel in exchange for concessions from the West.

Last week, after Mengistu fled his battered country, Israel and the United States mounted the airlift that got virtually all the remaining Ethiopian Jews to safety in Jerusalem.

But those descendants of Israelites had kept the faith. The Yebrews of Somalia claim only the bloodline. And that is a difficult claim to prove.

"Jews have lived in that part of Africa for so long," Ben-Ari said in the interview. "I would not exclude the possibility that somewhere along the line there was a group that converted to Islam. What we are saying is that we have no knowledge of such a group."

Mohammed Ibdi Ibrahim rises from the straw mattress and walks back out into the blinding sun. He turns his back on the swarms of people, so they cannot hear what he is saying or watch his lips move.

"You see how we are," he says. "Surrounded by enemies, we are not accepted as Muslims, and we are neglected by the Israelis.

"At least take us out of this camp, put us in a place where we are only among ourselves. Ask the Israelis to help us. Ask them, please. They must. They must.

"We follow Allah, but we are Hebrews."


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