This is the story of a miracle. It is about a group of people who survived trials and tribulations to live in Israel. This is the story of the Elias family, who lost two children on their journey and who bore Zehava Elias on the road.
Zehava’s sister, who passed away from cancer, had advised her to do something important in the army. Zehava, who comes from a family of rabbis, chose to follow her sister’s advice.
Today, she is Lt. Zehava, a decorated IDF soldier. Here is her family’s story.
WALKING TO ISRAEL, TORAH IN HAND
Zehava’s journey has been a long one, from her childhood in Ethiopia to her service in the IDF.
“My father was born into the Ethiopian rabbinic community. My parents lived in a village and lived comfortably. When they first heard of the possibility of living in Israel in 1984, they immediately wanted to do it,” Zehava recalled. “It was a dream for them.” That year, Zehava’s uncles were part of a group that emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel.
Her family followed five years later. “My parents already had eight children and my mother was pregnant with me. They decided to leave everything they had behind: their possessions, their house, their animals, in order to return to Jerusalem,” Zehava said.
“They took with them only a little bit of food, money and my father’s Torah. They were joined by a guide who had already arrived in Israel during the first group’s immigration to Israel in 1984. He returned to help lead this group to Israel. They walked during the night so that they wouldn’t be identified, and they slept during the day,” Zehava explained.
Many died on the road, and the Elias family was not immune to such tragedies. “One of my brothers was very sick. My father took him to a small town in Sudan for treatment. My older brother later told us that he was already dead in my father’s arms, but my father insisted on getting the child treatment. He was only three years old. Some time later, my other brother, who was five years old, died of dehydration. They had no choice but to continue on their journey,” Zehava explained.
Lt. Zehava’s mother
“My mother was already late in her pregnancy during the journey. On one of the last days of the journey, my brothers carried my mother in a stretcher because she could not walk anymore,” Zehava recalled. “Her water broke while they were crossing a river and I was born, right there in Sudan.”
And their adventure continued. During their journey, Zehava’s father and older brothers were stopped and imprisoned in Sudan. Their mother and the rest of the children had no choice but to continue on.
More than a year after their departure from their home village, they arrived safely at their designated meeting place. From there, they took a plane to Israel.
Building a new home
The arrival in Israel was not as joyful as expected, because the family was still separated. The first year was not easy: language difficulties, problems with integration and, above all, the difficulty of building a new life without the men of the family.
It was only after more than a year that the last members of the family were released from Sudanese prison in order to join their family in the Jewish state. There was immense joy when the Elias family was finally reunited in Israel.
Lt. Zahava’s parents
The family adapted well to Israeli life. In 1992, Zehava’s mother gave birth to twins, the first members of the family to be born in Israel. A few years later, Zehava began elementary school, where she already had plenty of brothers and sisters. Edna, the oldest sister, was the leader. She would prepare all the lunches and walk everyone to school. Her Hebrew was better than her parents’, so she was the one to attend parent-teacher conferences for her brothers and sisters. As soon as they were old enough, every member of the family worked outside of school hours in order to support the family.
“My father worked as a janitor or repairman. It was hard work but he did it with pleasure because he was able to be in Israel. We also worked hard at school and were accepted into a very good school,” Zehava said.
Protecting Israel in Uniform
In 2007, during Zehava’s last year of high school, Tata, one of her older sisters and mother of seven, told the family that she had cancer. She was hospitalized for 12 months.
“The day I found out, it was raining. I was on my way with friends to a Psychometric Exam class. My family called me and I cried and cried. She died so quickly. It was very hard for my father. It was one of the only times I saw him cry,” Zehava said. “At the hospital, she instructed me to do something good in the army, whatever is most important to me. She believed in me.”
Zehava finished her studies with excellence. Then, in February 2008, she enlisted in the IDF. She became a commander at Havat HaShomer, a military base for troubled youth, before enrolling in officers’ training.
“I did not tell my family that I was doing the officers’ course. I needed to succeed because I took to heart all that Tata had asked of me. When my father came to the ceremony – he was obviously very proud at the officer’s ceremony. My mother was in tears,” Zehava said.
Lt. Zehava Elias
In 2010, Zehava became an instruction commander in the Southern Command. After a break from the army, she returned to her post in 2011.
The IDF offers some soldiers training to help ease them back into civilian life at the conclusion of their service. This is where Zehava can be found today. “It is not always easy to go back to being a civilian after three years in the army,” she explained. “We try to help soldiers make the best choices as they continue on their journeys.”
Earlier this year, she received the Award of Excellence from the Manpower Directorate for her contributions to her position and to the army.
“My source of motivation is my sister. I tell the story of my family and my sister Tata in the army. I do it all to show my pride in being an Israeli citizen. I try to show what we have overcome. Despite all we have gone through, I became someone in the army, and I was able to do something meaningful. If I can do it, anyone can.”