April 8, 2005
Falash Mura aid group resumes some services as conflict nears end

By URIEL HEILMAN
ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA

The fight that broke out here several months ago over the activities of a US Jewish aid group working with the Falash Mura in Ethiopia appears to be near a resolution-though unanswered questions still dog the group and some of the charges against it appear to be true, the Jerusalem Post has found.

Late last December, a collection of disgruntled former employees charged the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (Nacoej) with withholding food for months at its compound in Addis Ababa, running an embroidery operation there in slave-labor-like conditions, employing a representative who beat people up and operating in the country illegally without paying local taxes.

The charges resulted in the arrest and temporary imprisonment of several community leaders and prompted Nacoej's chief representative in Ethiopia, Andrew Goldman, to stay out of the country. The trouble also led to the closure of the group's compound in Addis Ababa, which provides food, schooling and adult Jewish education to some 4,000 Falash Mura awaiting aliya in Ethiopia's capital city.

In recent days some services have resumed at the compound, and last month Ethiopia's Justice Ministry gave Nacoej permission to apply for official status in Ethiopia as a non- profit organization.

But many questions remain unanswered.

"Actually, I have many doubts. There are many fishy things," said Getachew Gonfa, head of the NGO registration office at the Ethiopian Justice Ministry. "Why did they not want to be transparent?"

Nacoej, which spends about $1.5 million per year at its compounds in the Ethiopian cities of Addis and Gondar, denies all the charges and says the accusations against it stem from a labor dispute between the organization and some disgruntled schoolteachers fired by Nacoej and deemed ineligible for aliya by Israeli immigration officials.

The Justice Ministry also has said that at a meeting earlier this year with several hundred Falash Mura community members, the community told ministry officials that those making the complaints about Nacoej were Christians and that they did not endorse them. They said they wanted Nacoej to reopen its compound, which the group had shut down due to the ruckus.

Yet even as it has helped feed and educate thousands of Ethiopians, Nacoej has made many enemies during its 23-year history.

Aside from the former employees who say Nacoej fired them when they stood up for their rights, the assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Amir Shaviv, said Nacoej does not share information in the field with the JDC and that JDC officials are not welcome at Nacoej's compounds. Ethiopia's Justice Ministry says Nacoej has not disclosed any of its finances to them. And many Israeli officials say Nacoej has encouraged Ethiopians of dubious Jewish background to apply for aliya, costing the State of Israel millions of dollars in immigration and absorption costs.

Nacoej concedes that it operated in Ethiopia without legal registration as a non-governmental organization, but that that technically was not a problem.

"We did not at any time operate illegally. We were operating as a donor organization," said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, Nacoej's executive director.

But Gonfa said that simply does not reflect reality.

"They were illegal before," he said. "They said in their letter, 'We were not implementing any projects in Ethiopia. We were just donors.' How did these people work in Ethiopia for so many years without being an NGO? None of us in the Ministry of Justice knew anything about this compound."

Even though Nacoej files annual tax documents with the IRS as a US non-profit organization, its lack of financial accountability and transparency in Ethiopia has enabled the disgruntled schoolteachers to raise doubts in Ethiopia's Justice Ministry about Nacoej's financial dealings.

"The school was not paying tax to the government," said Tilahun Abebe, the former director of Nacoej's school. "They collected tax money from me, but Nacoej was not passing it on to the government."

Gonfa, at the Justice Ministry, said, "Have they been accountable in America? What type of receipts do they show the IRS-in Amharic?"

In response to such doubts, Nacoej said it transferred 14 years' worth of receipts to the Ethiopian authorities about three weeks ago to demonstrate its financial integrity.

The Justice Ministry would not comment on its investigation of Nacoej, though ministry officials said they hoped Nacoej soon would resume full operations at its compound in Addis so the group could continue to help the Falash Mura that had migrated there from their rural villages.

While it seems unlikely that any large amount of Nacoej money was spent in Ethiopia inappropriately-given the scope of its operations serving a population of some 15,000 people in Addis and Gondar at a budget of $1.5 million-other charges against the group carry more currency.

The Jerusalem Post found many schoolchildren who said they witnessed violent outbursts by Goldman in which he either hit or strangled teachers-though he did not lay a hand on any students.

"We have seen Andy hit teachers, and he broke the arm of one of the teachers," said the children of Setesh Deribew, 35, who are students at the Nacoej school in Addis Ababa. "When the teachers don't teach, he grabs them by the neck."

The students did not seem particularly troubled by Goldman's outbursts, however. In Ethiopia, teachers are expected to dole out corporal punishment and surveys show 85 percent of women believe a husband may beat his wife for one reason or another.

Goldman denies the charges.

"It's all fiction. There have been accusations against me and virtually everyone who has ever worked with this community that we have beat them," Goldman said. "Among the NGO community, the number of false allegations that you hear of are just something that comes with the job."

"I can only tell you flat out that I don't beat anybody."

But the accusations have Nacoej officials fearful about allowing Goldman to return to Ethiopia. They say Goldman originally came to the United States to receive medical treatment, and that he has not returned to Ethiopia because of his medical condition.

Bekele Worku, who says he taught Jewish and Israeli culture at the Nacoej school until he was fired, said he and others tried to inform Nacoej's administrators in New York about the problems, but they covered them up rather than dealing with them.

Indeed, though some services at the compound in Addis were halted as early as late summer due to these problems, it wasn't until the Post reported on the brouhaha last December that news of Nacoej's problems became known outside of Ethiopia. All told, the Nacoej compound in Addis has not been functioning normally for more than six months, which explains why the food program has not been operating.

Other charges against Nacoej, such as that it provides deplorable conditions for its embroiderers-who make Ethiopia-themed tallit bags and challah covers that are sold in the US to raise funds for Nacoej-are not true. Though crude, the embroiderers' workspace is not unsatisfactory by Ethiopian standards.