Originally featured in JerusalemU‘s Beneath the Helmet, a film revealing the stories of a handful of soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Mekonen, an Ethiopian Israeli, had just drafted into the Paratroopers Unit. The film Mekonen was recently released, and focuses on the rest of his incredible journey after basic training.
At the age of twelve, Mekonen immigrated to Israel with his family from Ethiopia. Just before moving to Israel—in fact only twelve hours before—Mekonen’s father, Abebe, suddenly passed away.
Just like Moses who passed away right before he could enter Israel with the Jewish people, Mekonen’s father could never actualize his dream and return home to the land of his people with his family. Mekonen’s story begins with such Biblical irony, such tragic circumstance. Similar to the Jewish people who had to venture into the Promised Land without their leader, Mekonen’s family immigrated to Israel without Abebe.
Between adjusting to the culture, making a living, and supporting a family single-handedly, Mekonen’s mother had to overcome countless challenges, as did all of her children when they arrived in Israel. As the film Mekonen shows, it was very difficult for Mekonen to grow up in Israel—he had trouble in school, would instigate fights sometimes, and in general, did not have any particular direction for his future.
When 18 and 19 year olds draft into the IDF, there a shift occurs in their mindsets. Thrown into a system that requires individual discipline, comradeship, and dedication for the cause of defending their homeland, Israeli soldiers are given an opportunity to make something new of themselves when they hit this new life stage and begin their obligatory military service.
Despite all of his struggles—loss of a father, immigration, difficulties in school, and financial strife in his family—Mekonen did not waste his opportunity to start anew during his IDF service. He chose to draft into the Paratroopers Unit and become a combat soldier. With the help of his dedicated officer, First Lt. Eden Adler, Mekonen was able to complete the rigorous eight-month training and then decided he would push himself even further.
Throughout the film, First Lt. Eden Adler speaks highly of Mekonen and testifies to how hard Mekonen had to work to get to where he is today. Eden Adler has completed his military service and is now an active voice for Israel as a CAMERA Fellow and a member of CAMERA-supported group CAMERA at Hebrew University.
Mekonen went on to Commanders Course and then Officers Course, which requires approximately another year of training and a commitment to about four and a half years of military service, a year and a half over the obligatory three years.
His family, his former teachers, and his community could not be more proud and we can only imagine how proud Abebe would have been of his son.
However, Mekonen’s incredible story does not stop there. The fact that this officer in the IDF was once just a shepherd boy who only dreamed of immigrating to Israel, the land of his people, is already inspiring beyond words.
The film, Mekonen, takes viewers on another part of his journey, which is perhaps even more inspiring as well as absolutely heart wrenching.
On a week break from the army, Mekonen decided to return to his hometown in Ethiopia. For the first time, Mekonen returned to his birthplace, his childhood home, and the place of his father’s death. At times, he enjoyed himself, at other moments, quite numb to the pain, he said he did not feel anything at all and at a few moments he burst out in tears.
During the trip, Mekonen visited his father’s grave. Dressed in full uniform as an IDF officer, with tears in his eyes, Mekonen stood at Abebe’s grave and saluted his father. Watching such a powerful scene, the viewer can only imagine Mekonen’s heartache during this cathartic moment.
Following his trip to the fields of his childhood, the basic straw-mud house he grew up in, and his father’s grave, Mekonen returned to Israel and his role as an officer. Training a new batch of soldiers, he could now stand as a great leader and role model for his soldiers, strong enough to train them and sensitive enough to help each one in his own process in the IDF.
Mekonen is a film that explores the path of an Ethiopian Jew and tells Mekonen’s personal story of victory and discovery. Inspiring to say the least, Mekonen shows the true face of the IDF—the individual struggles of citizens becoming soldiers, the dedication and accomplishment of these soldiers, and the sacrifices they make along the way.
For anyone who wants to learn more about the story of Ethiopian-Israelis or see the true face of the IDF, Mekonen is a film worth seeing. For more information, click on this link.
Contributed by CAMERA Intern Penina Simkovitz