Who Am I? – From Judie Oron

small b-w, simonJudie Oron is a Canadian/Israeli journalist and the author of Cry of the Giraffe (Annick Press), a novel based on the true story of her daughter Wuditu’s experience as a child slave in Ethiopia. Her articles have appeared in The Jerusalem Post, Lifestyles Magazine, Canadian Jewish News, Christian Woman [Australia], Weekly Press Pakistan and The Jerusalem Report.

Judie studied anthropology at McGill University and African studies at the Hebrew University. She wrote for The Jerusalem Post, including a four-year stint as a weekly columnist.  Later, as Director of the Jerusalem Post Funds, she opened a separate fund for destitute Ethiopian Jewish refugees arriving in Israel via a clandestine airlift from Sudan (Operation Moses). She then left the newspaper to direct an organization that assisted Ethiopian refugees to find their way to Israel.

Judie took into her family two sisters, one of whom she encountered in Ethiopia in 1989. Upon learning that another sister was missing, she returned to Ethiopia in 1992 to find and release the child from slavery.  Since the publication of Cry of the Giraffe, she lectures on Wuditu’s story and on child slavery in the Horn of Africa.

Who am I?

Judie Oron

My name is Judie and I am a citizen of two countries, Canada and Israel. I’ve passed the age of retirement but, although I didn’t plan for this to happen, I’m finding myself moving from a career as a writer to that of an activist.  An event that happened long ago has returned to take over my life, and I find myself researching obsessively, speaking out compulsively – and I don’t seem to be able to stop! Fair warning – if you approach me, I’ll probably harangue you, too!

Twenty-two years ago, I bought and paid for a human being – an Ethiopian Jewish girl named Wuditu, who subsequently became my daughter. Two decades later, I’m still obsessing about so many ‘what ifs’ and  ‘would haves’ that led to Wuditu being where she was and my being where I was at just that right moment. What if I hadn’t woken up to hear her sister crying on that particular night? What if I hadn’t had the patience at 3 a.m. to listen as Lewteh explained that she didn’t believe her sister was really dead?  What if she hadn’t insisted, ‘I can still feel my sister breathing!’

Before all of that happened, I was born and grew up in Montreal, moved to Israel, married and gave birth to two sons. My pride in those two boys, my joy in watching them evolve, was enormous.  But I also wanted to be the mother of girls. I dreamed of adopting but financial constraints made pursuing that dream highly unrealistic. And then, a wave of destitute refugees from war-torn Ethiopia came to Israel and my work brought me into contact with those refugees and later on, with Lewteh and Wuditu.

I should explain that after the fall of Jerusalem’s First Temple in 586 BCE, dark-skinned Jews fled the Holy Land for Egypt and, years later, to Ethiopia. They longed to come to Israel, but the then-Marxist Ethiopian government refused to allow them to leave. So thousands of Jews fled to Sudan and waited in refugee camps until the Israelis could secretly land planes in the desert and airlift them to Israel.

In 1989, Lewteh and Wuditu, then aged 10 and 13, were torn from their family in a violent incident in a refugee camp and forced to walk back to Ethiopia. Ironically, that same night, their family members were rescued and airlifted to Israel.  In the context of my work, I encountered Lewteh in Ethiopia and came back with her to Israel.  Her father was desperately ill and asked me to take the child into my family.  He had paid a man to go to Ethiopia to look for Wuditu but the man returned, reporting that Wuditu was dead. The family mourned and, for two long years, I never asked Lewteh about her deceased sister.

When I learned that Lewteh believed her sister was still alive, I had no choice but to go back to Ethiopia to look for Wuditu. I found her in a small market town in the north of Ethiopia. She was emaciated, ill, terrified and trapped in domestic slavery. I paid for her and took her back with me to Israel. She quickly became a much-loved member of our family and, for nearly two decades, we kept the story of her enslavement a secret.  Every year, on the 21st of February, we celebrated what Wuditu calls her ‘second birthday,’ that is, the day that she was set free. Every year, she began the day by asking, ‘Why are we still alive,’ because that day we were very nearly killed as we tried to escape the town where she was being held against her will.

Four years ago, Wuditu decided that her story must be told and she asked me to write it. I was appalled. Why would she want people to know such an ugly story? But Wuditu was adamant – nothing had changed, she said, children were still being trafficked and enslaved, yet the story was still not ‘out there.’

Reluctantly, I agreed to do as she asked. I wept as I listened to the tapes I’d made of our interviews and I wept as I wrote her story. But when I began researching child slavery in Ethiopia, I came to see that Wuditu was right. This was a story that was written about in the reports of international organizations, but it rarely appeared in newspapers or in the media. People had to be made aware. And the first step to affecting change was to inform them.

Wuditu took a risk in exposing her terrible experience and I would like to make that sacrifice count. I have a wish list of things I hope will result from the publication of her story in Cry of the Giraffe. When people ask me what they can do, I tell them – learn! Read about child slavery and forced labour in Ethiopia. Read the reports and read about a government that tries to assist these poor children but, at the same time, enacts laws that prevent foreign NGOs from working on issues such as those that affect child labourers.

Also on my wish list is the hope that one day Wuditu’s story can be made into a film, for that is the quickest way to expose the plight of all those children still working for no wages and under inhuman conditions, until they either escape or succumb to their desperate circumstances.

I’m so proud of Wuditu. Her courage, strength and wisdom, her sudden brilliant bursts of humour, her unending desire to help people, despite having been treated so cruelly during her formative years – all these have uplifted and enlightened our family. Please, help us to carry her story forward. Let’s make it count!

For more information, please refer to the author’s website: www.judieoron.com.