Workers at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel have seen it all—dignitaries, family reunions, immigrants arriving from all over the globe. But what happened a few months ago at the Tel Aviv airport is something that no one who was there will ever forget. More than ten members of an Ethiopian family from Ashdod waited excitedly and nervously in the terminal. They had arrived very early in anticipation of a flight that was expected that day. They had no idea of the delays and international drama they were about to experience. But they had waited for this plane for over 35 years and a few more hours would not make any difference. Nothing was going to discourage them or dampen their spirit. You see, the airplane they were waiting for had a very special passenger on board: a daughter whom everyone had thought was long dead, having disappeared when the family escaped their Ethiopian village and began their trek to Israel.
This is the unbelievable story of Sinka Aragayi. Melekmo Yakov is a supervisor at the Israeli Ministry of Education who deals with the resettlement and education of the Ethiopian community. He immigrated to Israel in 1983 and has worked to improve the education and welfare of the many Ethiopian Jews who have since followed him there. Due to his high-profile position, he receives many emails at work with all kinds of requests from all kinds of people all over the world. Many requests are dubious in nature, and he ignores them. But this one was different. “A few months ago,” he starts to explain, “I got an email from a woman who wrote to me, ‘I am a lost Jewish girl, and I am looking for my relatives in Israel.’ It was written in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia.” That was not common. He made some enquiries among members of the Israeli Ethiopian community and discovered that others, too, had received similar emails. “I was about the fiftieth person she wrote to.
No one had responded. Over the past four years, members of the Knesset, journalists and others had received similar emails. Somehow she got my name as well.” Melekmo didn’t think much of it either. But a week later he received another email from the same woman. This one was more intriguing: “I was a Jewish girl lost in Sudan at the age of 14 in 1983, and I expect an answer.” This time Melekmo had reason to consider it. “Every year on Jerusalem Day there is a memorial on Har Herzl for all those who perished in their attempt to immigrate to Israel. I have been going there for 20 years, and I translate the speeches from Hebrew to Amharic. Likewise, on Sigd [an Ethiopian Jewish holiday celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur], I lead the state commemoration. “Every year at that ceremony, many Ethiopians who immigrated to Israel come up to me at the end of the even about the children they lost through kidnapping, confusion and illness during their journey. The stories really hurt me. You see the tears and pain. But what can I do? It got me thinking that maybe this woman’s request was true and that she was one of those lost children.”
Then he got a third email. The woman explained that she was alone in a foreign country, with no idea where her family might be or even if any family members were alive. She felt depressed and helpless. She had done everything possible to find her family, and Melekmo was her last hope. After three emails, Melekmo felt the need to respond. He wrote to her, telling her honestly that although he was skeptical about her story, he was willing to hear from her. She replied immediately. She said her name was Sinka Aragayi. She had been in Canada for four years after spending the previous 30 years in Sudan, where she kept her Judaism a secret. She had no means of contacting anyone while she was in Sudan. Upon being granted asylum in Canada, she immediately set about trying to find out what had become of her family.
She was from the Beta Israel community in Ethiopia. On the day that her family received approval to begin their trek to Sudan, 14-year-old Sinka was attending a class with the Israeli government representative in her village. When she got home, she found a note stating that her family had already left and would meet her at a certain staging point on the trail to Sudan. But in the darkness and confusion, the young girl got lost and never found her family. After reading this account, Melekmo’s wife urged him to ask Sinka for a phone number so that he could speak to her and clear up or confirm any doubts he had. Sinka sent a number and Melekmo called. He grilled her for more details: What village was she from? Who were her parents? When he asked her to confirm if she was truly Beta Israel, she replied with the special word for “Jew” that only the local Jews knew. And that is when he believed he was dealing with a true daughter of Israel. A non-Jewish Ethiopian would not have known this secret code word, which they used only among themselves. “One week later, I called her again and went over all the questions I had asked her before. I wanted to make sure all her answers matched, sort of a test to make sure she was telling the truth.” Her second story was identical to the first. “I said to myself, she is one of ours, from the community,” Melekmo said.
At that point Sinka gave Melekmo the name of her brother David, and some information only she and her family would know. Melekmo began his search for Sinka’s family. Melekmo kept his word and began to look for Sinka’s family in Israel. “I started searching, asking well-known members of the community. Many tried to dissuade me. They said they had heard of the family I was searching for but did not know where they were. They advised me to leave them alone. The family had already mourned for their daughter and had even sent envoys to Sudan, who repeatedly told them she was dead.” It was easy to believe Sinka was dead. Everyone was leaving Ethiopia in that busy period. With unstable borders, shaky diplomatic negotiations and an airlift that needed to keep to its schedule, the rest of the family had little choice but to depart to Sudan, and then to move on to Israel, without Sinka.
Though they prayed for her safety, there was little chance she could have survived in that hostile environment on her own. Melekmo was not deterred. He spoke with a journalist from a radio station in Ethiopia. Over the years many Ethiopian Jews had submitted names to the station for broadcasting in the hope that a missing relative might hear it and respond. He perused the list and found Sinka’s uncle’s name; the uncle had called in many years ago searching for her. Though the list was outdated, the journalist was able to contact Sinka’s uncle, now 90 years old, in Israel and inform him of the news. The uncle, it turned out, remembered Melekmo’s family from their years in Ethiopia and called him that same day. “Your father was a reliable man. I trust you are as well,” the uncle began cautiously. “Is it true what the reporter in Ethiopia is saying? Is my sister’s daughter really alive in Canada?”
Melekmo answered that she was indeed alive, and the line went dead. A few minutes later the phone rang again. The old man’s son was on the line; he told Melekmo that his father had fainted. When the uncle got back on the phone, he told Melekmo through tears of joy that Sinka’s mother had never given up hope. She had gone to the Kotel every Monday and Thursday, praying for her daughter to come back. Melekmo called Sinka right away. “She was at work. I told her that I had found her mother and uncle living in Israel. The line went silent. A co-worker got on and told me that Sinka had collapsed.” They soon set up a video telephone call to reunite the mother in Israel and the daughter in Canada. The emotional impact of that virtual reunion is indescribable. It was time to bring Sinka to Israel. The government made its investigation, establishing that Sinka was Jewish and eligible to make aliyah.
But then bureaucracy stepped in. Though she had been granted asylum in Canada, Sinka had no official papers, no passport, and no citizenship. Government ministers Gideon Saar and Avigdor Liberman worked out the necessary temporary paperwork so that she could come to Israel. Sinka was on her way. Or so she thought. Her flight from Canada had a stop in Turkey. In Istanbul, she was arrested and taken away in handcuffs. Her Israeli-issued documents were not in order, they said; there were “inconsistencies.” Meanwhile, Sinka’s relatives and Melekmo were already at Ben Gurion, awaiting her arrival. When they were informed that Sinka had been arrested in Turkey, they felt true despair. Their wait into the night began. While Israeli officials were trying to sort things out with the Turkish authorities, an Israeli man who was passing through the Istanbul airport saw
Sinka and recognized her from the report and picture in the newspaper he was carrying; Sinka’s story had become quite newsworthy in Israel. In an amazing instance of divine providence, this man was able to approach the Turkish officer who was guarding Sinka, explain who she was, and emphasize why she must continue on her long-delayed journey to Israel. The Turks corroborated the story with the Israelis, and Sinka was released and put on the next plane to Tel Aviv. Her brother, nephews and other family members waited patiently for the plane to arrive and pull up to the gate. Their powerful emotions when she stepped off the jet way cannot be put into words. After over 30 years of grief, privation and misery, Sinka Aragayi had rejoined her family in Israel. Her 96-year-old mother was waiting in Ashdod. The family pulled up there at five a.m. Needless to say, her mother had not slept at all. She said, “How can I sleep? Hashem heard my prayer and brought me back my daughter.” Melekmo stood in the back, unobtrusively watching the reunion. “How will I ever forget watching this lost girl see her mother again after more than 30 years, watching a mother’s heartfelt prayers answered?” Pesach soon followed.
The entire family gathered for the Seder, and the themes of exile, exodus and return were not lost on them. During the holiday the family went to Jerusalem together. At the Kotel, where Sinka’s mother had cried and prayed for decades for the return of her lost daughter, her daughter now cried tears of joy. At long last, she had returned to her family and to her people