Traveling around Ethiopia in late 1991, at the end of the African country’s civil war, was unsafe for anyone.
It presented special risks for a woman traveling alone, a foreigner, a white person in the northern hilly region on a mission of mercy.
Judie Oron, a Canadian-born resident of Israel who had worked for the Jerusalem Post and had taken up the cause of Ethiopian Jews having problems getting to Israel, was in Ethiopia in 1991 to find one particular person – Wuditu, a 17-year-old Ethiopian Jew. Wuditu’s family had already managed to make aliyah and had not heard from her since leaving their homeland; they weren’t sure if she was still alive. Oron, who had taken Wuditu’s younger sister into her Jerusalem home, had done research and had reason to believe Wuditu was living as a slave in a northern village.
“If she’s alive … she couldn’t be living a very good life,” Oron thought.
So she went to Ethiopia by herself, as an Amharic-speaking visitor on a Canadian visa, located Wuditu through bribes and street-smarts, paying 500 birr ($111 then) to free the teen. With the help of the Jewish Agency, Oron managed to have Wuditu (she doesn’t give out the last name of the now-38-year-old Israeli) flown to Israel to join her siblings and desperately ill father.
Oron tells the story in “Cry of the Giraffe” (Annick Press, 2010), an account related through the eyes of Wuditu, who had become separated from her family as they tried to reach Israel via a refugee camp in neighboring Sudan. Forced to return to Ethiopia, Wuditu, homeless and penniless, eventually spent two years as a mistreated slave.
When Wuditu settled in Israel, Oron took her in, too.
“I’ve raised a slave,” Oron told The Jewish Week in an interview from Toronto, where she now lives.
After bringing Wuditu out of slavery, Oron helped rescue a few other Ethiopian Jews from their homeland. Now she serves as an anti-slavery advocate, speaking to Jewish groups and non-governmental organizations, warning about the ongoing, too-little-known problem of slavery in Ethiopia.
Wuditu, Oron says, is healthy (considering what she went through two decades ago) and working in “a helping profession.”
Oron has spent much of her own funds – her parents’ inheritance, and some of her savings – on her efforts on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry. Money well-spent, she says. “I don’t regret any of it.”