In her small native village, young Wuditu – and the rest of her family – are called falasha, a derogatory term reserved for Jewish people. Their own name for themselves is Beta Israel, meaning ‘the house of Israel.’ In spite of a centuries-long history grounded in Ethiopia, Ethiopian Jews, who are often the potters and iron workers in their villages, are treated as outcasts in their own homeland.
Every new generation of Beta Israel is told of their great history in a place called Yerusalem, a promised homeland to which someday the Beta Israel will return: “‘When the time comes for you to go to Yerusalem, you must be ready to leave this land in the blink of an eye. And when you get there, your lives will be changed forever!’” the village leader reminds Wuditu once again.
That time is suddenly now. With growing violence compounded by unrelenting religious persecution during junta dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam’s brutal reign, Wuditu and her family secretly abandon their village and begin an arduous trek to a refugee camp in the Sudan, following promises that they will eventually be rescued and evacuated to Yerusalem.
One dark night in 1989 in the refugee camp, Wuditu, now 13, and her younger sister Lewteh, 10, are violently expelled from the camp and forced to walk back to Ethiopia, where they thankfully find temporary shelter with an elderly couple. Wuditu makes the difficult decision to seek help alone in order to save her sister and herself, and somehow reunite them both with their family. Her three-year solo odyssey of deprivation, violence, prostitution, and slavery is wrenching, and yet somehow, she never gives up her dream of safety, family, and salvation in a homeland she has only imagined.
For Canadian journalist and author Judie Oron, who just won a 2011 Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award for Giraffe (adding to growing list of international kudos), this story is also her own personal journey as well: for the last two decades, Lewteh and Wuditu have been part of Oron’s family. ”Cry of the Giraffe was written out of love and admiration for a daughter who bravely endured a lengthy and brutal captivity yet emerged a generous and caring human being,” Oron begins her acknowledgments on the book’s final page. That such harrowing events happened to an innocent young girl, that such suffering continues for far too many others, is undoubtedly wrenching truth. And yet that out of that horror emerged love, laughter, and family is a truly a miracle to believe.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult