In hindsight, Ayelee Yalou thinks that already on his first day of kindergarten, he was set apart from his Israeli peers and led to feel like there was something wrong with him.
It happened when the teacher decided that the name of the newly-arrived immigrant from Ethiopia was too difficult to pronounce.
“We’ll just call you Benny,” Yalou remembers her saying. He adds, “And that’s how it all started.”
Yalou still goes by that name because, he says, “it reminds me of many things that I don’t want to forget.”
It reminds him of being bullied in school, of being fired from a job because he didn’t “mix well” with other employees, of being left outside the doors of bars while his white friends were waved in, of being hated by his neighbors and beaten by the police.
The 28-year-old Yalou is a youth instructor in the lower-middle-class southern town of Kiryat Malachi, and his life story is a personification of the complaints of routine discrimination and injustice that are driving the recent protests by Israelis of Ethiopian origin.
Harrowing trip to Israel
Yalou was four when he came to Israel in 1991, after a harrowing trip that included walking from Ethiopia to Sudan alongside his younger sister and mother, who had fled her arranged marriage to his father, a man some 30 years older than her.
They settled in Kiryat Malachi, which hosts one of the largest Ethiopian communities in the country. Yalou left school at 14 because he had to work to support his family. When he was conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces, he joined the elite Nahal infantry brigade and fought in the Second Lebanon War.
“It was in the army that I discovered the real world: different people from different places,” he said. “And it was there that I learned how limited I was, and what I could have become if I had been given better opportunities.”
After leaving the army, he trained to become an educator and sports instructor, hoping to help Ethiopian youths integrate better into Israeli society, but along the way, that same society repeatedly let him down.
Meeting the police
His first run-in with the police was in 2012. While he was sitting in his building’s courtyard with his mother, two patrolmen dropped in and started asking him questions about who lived in the building and what was in the neighbors’ storage rooms. What happened next is still unclear to Yalou. As in the case of the Ethiopian soldier Damas Pakada, whose videotaped beating by police sparked enraged protests, it was perhaps a step in the wrong direction or an attitude considered disrespectful that triggered the attack.
“One of the policemen slapped me, slammed me against the wall and handcuffed me, telling me, ‘When I tell you not to move, you don’t move,’” Yalou recalled in an interview. “My mother tried to stop them and they pushed her to the ground.” The young Ethiopian says he was then held for assaulting a police officer.
“When they brought me to the police station, I missed what they did to me before,” he said. Cuffed hand and foot and dumped in a chair, he said he was subjected to hours of abuse. “Every time a cop came into the room for one reason or another he would hit me on the way in and then again on the way out.”
He says he was released later that night, without charges, but that was not the end of his troubles. Last year, plainclothes officers burst into his family’s apartment to conduct a search. Yalou refused to cooperate until the cops showed him a warrant, so he was quickly handcuffed and pinned down, while his sister tried to film the scene on her cell phone. On the blurry video, which was also featured as part of a Channel 10 documentary on police violence, the family can be heard demanding to see a warrant, while the officers struggle with Yalou’s sister and try to stop her filming.
The policemen did come up with the warrant in the end, only to realize they had the wrong family and the wrong address, Yalou said.
What happened next? Still handcuffed, he demanded to be released and that the police leave his apartment: instead, he was dragged away for allegedly threatening and assaulting the officers.
“While they conducted the search they had originally come for, they left me in the car, handcuffed, and everybody in the neighborhood saw me and pointed at me,” he recalled. “This can destroy you, especially if you work with children like I do.”
Then, at the police station, a now familiar routine: the same chair in the same interrogation room, repeated beatings, and a release late at night, without charges.
In both cases, Yalou’s complaints to the police’s internal affairs department were quashed without an investigation, he says, and letters written to authorities and politicians were ignored.
The police did not return calls seeking comment for this report.
Yalou is mostly calm as he tells his story, but his voice trembles with pent-up frustration when he talks about what he feels is a lack of justice for himself and other Ethiopians who have made similar allegations of abuse by the authorities.
“If you were dropped into my life, you would go crazy,” he told a Haaretz reporter last week. “In an instant, they can ruin your life.”
Yalou is considering suing the police and is being backed by lawyers from Tebeka, a group that provides free legal aid to the Ethiopian community and runs a hotline against police violence.
While national statistics are not kept, over the last two years Tebeka has seen a 15-percent increase in calls connected to police violence, said Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, the organization’s executive director.
“The police should be the body that makes me feel secure, I shouldn’t have to fear it,” Assefa-Dawit said in a telephone interview.
Founded in 2000, Tebeka (Amharic for “Advocate of Justice”) deals with a range of issues facing Israel’s approximately 140,000 Ethiopian citizens, from individual cases of racism – such as people not being let on a bus or into a public establishment – to institutionalized discrimination in education, housing and the job market Assefa-Dawit said.
“We feel that this is our home and we have to fight against any injustice,” he said.
Yalou shares those feelings. He now teaches a course that prepares youths for the army and coaches children in soccer, trying to bring together kids from all the communities of his town on the playing field.
“I could probably get a better salary working in a factory, but I prefer to earn less and do something to improve this society,” he said. He is also active in the demonstrations that have taken place in cities across Israel, and that in some cases have seen violent clashes between police and protesters.
“We’ve had it up to here with being treated like terrorists or criminals, with being invisible for this society,” Yalou said. The protests, he added, are about demanding that cases of police brutality like his own be investigated, but, more than that, “they are protests to demand a change of attitude from the country, and to request a brotherly embrace.”