Journeys: From Ethiopia to Israel, from Seeds to Forests

Monday, August 13, 2018 11:27 AM

Hiruy Amare, the director of KKL-JNF's Golani Nursery, talks about his fascinating journey from Ethiopia to Russia to Israel and his work in making helping saplings take root.

As a boy in Ethiopia working in the fields of the family farm, Hiruy Amare Tadesse heard stories of Yerusalem, the place for which Ethiopian Jews had yearned for thousands of years. Today, as director of KKL-JNF’s Golani plant nursery in Lavi Forest, he watches how the seeds that he plants and nurtures germinate, grow, send down deep roots and develop into a forest.

Growing up in Ethiopia

Fifty-eight-year-old Amare lives with his wife in Kiryat Bialik. Together they have raised four children, the youngest of whom is twenty and currently serving in the IDF. Amare was born in the township of Huruta, in the Addis Ababa region. His father was a farmer who grew cereals and vegetables, and especially teff, Ethiopia’s national grain. “As a boy I helped the family on the farm. I used to plough with an ox, turn over the soil, pick, reap and perform all the other agricultural tasks,” he recalls.
Back in Ethiopia, Hiruy Amare attended the local school until eighth grade, and when he reached high-school age, his parents, who well understood the value of education, sent him to study in the neighboring town of Asella.
“I lived in a rented apartment together with three other students my age. It wasn’t easy for us to look after ourselves, but I learned a lot from the experience. At a young age I already had to cope with living independently,” he said.
In high school, he studied agriculture, and, after successfully completing his final exams, he continued his studies at a college in the town of Ambo. After graduation, he found work teaching agriculture at a high school in Yirga Alem, and two years later, he travelled to Ukraine to study agriculture and agronomy in Kiev.
“Students came from all over the world to attend the international program at the agricultural academy in Kiev,” he recalls. “I met people from lots of different countries and I’ve actually kept in touch with some of my fellow students. We spent the first few months just learning Russian, and only later did we begin to study agriculture, too. A month after I arrived there I saw snow for the first time in my life.”
In 1989, after five years’ study in Ukraine, he returned to Ethiopia to work as an agronomist for the ministry of agriculture in the Bale province. “Throughout all my years in Ethiopia I lived in areas where there weren’t many Jews,” he said. “But I got on with everyone and never encountered any expressions of hatred or racism.”

A new beginning in Israel

In 1991, several months after Operation Solomon, which rescued and airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, Amare and his family also immigrated.
“Part of my family had immigrated to Israel via Sudan in the 1980s, but not everyone made it, and we lost a number of relatives along the way,” he explained. “We heard stories about Israel from the family, and as Jews we knew very well that this was where we wanted to be. We were well prepared ahead of time not to expect a bed of roses here, and knew that we would have to cope with some difficult situations.”
Was it hard to fit into a new, very different place?
“It wasn’t easy to arrive in a country where we didn’t know the language, and the culture was different. I didn’t know any Hebrew at all, but as I knew Russian from my period of study in Ukraine, I could talk to immigrants who had come from the former Soviet Union, and they often asked me to act as their interpreter.”
After he finished ulpan and began to be able to make himself understood in Hebrew, Amare was accepted to an immigrant academics’ course for retraining in forest management. The course was organized jointly by KKL-JNF, the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Labor, and when he graduated in 1993, KKL-JNF recruited him to work as a forest surveyor.
“My job was to make my way around all the forests in KKL-JNF’s Northern Region and report on their density and state of health. These data provided a basis on which decisions could be made as to which forests needed treatment,” he explained.
After six years in this job he moved on to KKL-JNF’s Golani Nursery, where he served assistant manager until the current manager retired and he replaced him on a trial basis.
Why was there a trial period?   
“Most people believed that I could do a good job, but some were prejudiced and doubted my ability to manage other workers. Years after I was appointed to the job permanently, I met one of people who had opposed me. ‘You’re doing an excellent job, I take my hat off to you,’ he told me, and that was the end of the matter.”
Do you often encounter prejudice?
“Hardly ever, but sometimes people come into the office and ask where the manager is, and then are surprised to learn that I’m the manager of the nursery. I work hard and try to succeed at my job, and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the best way to fight prejudice. I’ve invested a lot in my studies and my work in order to get where I am today. I should like to serve as an example to my community and prove to all citizens of Israel that skin color is irrelevant.”

Growing a forest

Every year KKL-JNF’s Golani Nursery produces about 300 thousand saplings from two hundred different varieties. Hiruy Amare taps a few figures into his desktop calculator and observes with a smile: “In my eighteen years at the nursery I’ve produced over five million saplings.” He continues: “I’ve been a worker since childhood. Of course, in a management job there’s office work, too, but I feel very connected to nature and I enjoy getting outdoors to work together with the rest of the staff.”
Establishing a forest in Israel is no simply task, he says. “Conditions here aren’t like those in Europe: we’ve got less water, more sun, the ground is not easy to work, there are a lot of fires and the country is densely populated.”
In Ethiopia, people had a strong connection to the land. Do you feel that’s lacking in Israel?
“It’s greatly lacking. Sometimes it seems that the young generation is interested only in computers and smartphones. Young people come to the nursery and don’t want to touch the soil and get their hands dirty. Apart from producing saplings, the nursery also has an important educational function in that it strengthens people’s connection to the land.”
“KKL-JNF operates three nurseries: Gilat in the south, Eshtaol in central Israel and Golani in the north. Here at the Golani Nursery we create saplings in accordance with a plan we get from the Northern Region’s Forestry Department. We grow native woodland trees such as oak, carob, pistacia, Judas trees, almond and jujube, and also conifers – cypress and different varieties of pine – and we’re the only nursery that also grows cedars. Cedars are planted in colder areas, as they can withstand snowstorms. We also grow eucalypts for bee-keepers and for use as firewood. We produce decorative plants for parks and public gardens. The nursery monitors through the whole process, from seed to forest tree.”
Where do the seeds come from?
“They are gathered from selected trees that are free of pests or disease, by people from the Seeds unit and foresters out in the field. Each tree is marked on GPS for future reference. The seeds are sent to KKL-JNF’s Seeds Unit at Beit Nehemia, where they are cleaned and sorted before being returned to the nursery. Here at the nursery they undergo pre-germination treatments designed to increase the percentage of successful sprouting.”
How are they treated?
“Each species requires a different type of treatment. Carob seeds, for example, are soaked in hot water or sulfuric acid. Pistacia seeds undergo a chilling process for a number of weeks, while the seeds of jujube trees need to have their protective shells broken by a special machine. Pine and cypress seeds are soaked in ordinary water for about fifteen hours.”
How are the seeds germinated?
“They’re placed in germination boxes filled with inorganic material instead of soil. This material absorbs water and, as it’s free of diseases and pests, it provides a fertile growth medium. A computerized irrigation system ensures that each seed receives the amount of water it requires. The process can be controlled by remote, even from a mobile phone. Growing plants in a nursery is also a form of hi-tech that is constantly progressing.
“The germination boxes are transferred to an incubator inside the germination container. They need to be in optimal conditions, at an average of about twenty-four degrees. As they begin to sprout, the seedlings are moved to a greenhouse for a number of weeks. After the leaves appear, the little sapling is transferred to its growing area.”
What sort of treatment do the saplings require?
“Saplings have three stages of growth. Firstly, consolidation, during which they establish themselves. During this period they require only a minimum of water and fertilizer. Then comes the fast growth stage, during which they receive larger quantities of water and fertilizer. This is followed by the strengthening stage, when we accustom them to harsher conditions in preparation for putting them out into nature. The saplings grow in containers until they’re ready for planting in forests and parks. Before planting, the nursery workers check the quality of each sapling – height in comparison to diameter, foliage-root ratio, etc. We want to see healthy, well-developed roots that will ensure the plant’s survival.”
What about pest control?
“We keep pesticide use to a minimum. Use of an isolated growth medium that includes no natural soil significantly reduces the number of pests. Nonetheless, pests and diseases do exist. Our greatest enemy is the red spider mite, which attacks pistacia trees, and there are also fungi that attack the leaves of oaks, eucalypts and Judas trees. Greek strawberry trees are susceptible to bacterial diseases. During the consolidation period a lot of plants suffer from diseases of the roots.”
How do you save water when irrigating?
“Controlled irrigation ensures that each plant receives precisely the quantity it needs, neither more nor less. We drain the irrigation water off into a pool where aquatic plants are grown, so not a single drop goes to waste.”
Where do all the saplings produced here go?
“All the saplings are handed over free of charge for KKL-JNF forest-renewal plantings, as donations to various institutions for Tu BiShvat, or for planting in parks and public gardens.”

From Israel to the world

Do many visitors come here to learn about the nursery?
As part of its vision to improve the environment in Israel and the rest of the world for the benefit of all humanity, KKL-JNF shares its expertise with many countries, including the knowledge it has developed in its nurseries and out in the field. As Hiruy Amare said, “A great many delegations come to learn about the seed-to-sapling process. Visitors include professionals, foreign guests and groups organized by KKL-JNF’s Education Division. Recently a group from Germany came to visit, and its members were very interested not only in the saplings, but also in my life here in Israel. When delegations come over from Russia, I enjoy surprising them by addressing them in Russian. There have also been deputations from Ethiopia and other African countries. This means that the nursery enables me not only to work with plants of different kinds, but also to meet people from all sorts of different places.”
Do you consider it important for KKL-JNF to contribute its expertise to the world?
“Very important, because many countries worldwide are crying out for the knowledge that we possess. For example, KKL-JNF is a partner in a project to grow vegetables in Ethiopia as part of a Seeds of Hope initiative. I visited there four years ago and talked about KKL-JNF’s work, and I felt proud of this opportunity to contribute some of my knowledge to the country where I was born and grew up. The international relations that KKL-JNF develops worldwide prove that when people from different places work together they can achieve success that benefits all parties concerned.”
In a subsequent tour through the adjacent Lavi Forest, it is clear that Amare is in his element amid the woodland greenery. When we reach a section planted with trees from the Golani Nursery, his emotion and pride are plain to see. “Working in the nursery greatly strengthens my connection to this country,” he says. “Wherever there’s a tree that grew in my nursery – I feel as if I’m there, too.”