Atlanta Welcomes Acclaimed Actor, Director Shai Fredo
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Atlanta Welcomes Acclaimed Actor, Director Shai Fredo

Fredo recently appeared in “Exodus ‘91” at Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.

Shai Ferdo is the first artist-in-residence at Clark Atlanta University. Ferdo is also the artistic director and cofounder of Natella Theatre, the first Ethiopian theatre in Israel // Photo Courtesy of Feathered Light Studios, Shaun Martin
Shai Ferdo is the first artist-in-residence at Clark Atlanta University. Ferdo is also the artistic director and cofounder of Natella Theatre, the first Ethiopian theatre in Israel // Photo Courtesy of Feathered Light Studios, Shaun Martin

Shai Fredo, who played the role of Kassa Kabede in the critically acclaimed Israeli movie, “Exodus ‘91,” will be the artist-in-residence this semester at Clark Atlanta University. Those who attended the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival earlier this month will likely remember Fredo’s riveting performance as the Ethiopian government’s special envoy during emigration talks with Israel.

Fredo is here as part of the Visiting Israeli Artists Program of BAMAH, a nonprofit organization that helps communities throughout North America design meaningful experiences that harness the power of Israeli arts and culture to inspire and connect people of all ages, genders, racial identities, and backgrounds. Through semester-long, full-credit academic arts courses, the program enables students and members of the larger community to engage in complex, meaningful, in-depth discussions on Israeli society and culture.

“We are so happy about Shai’s residency at Clark Atlanta University,” said Flo Low, the founding executive director at BAMAH. These creative partnerships enable us to harness Israeli arts and culture to inspire communities and students throughout the country, as well as build relationships between the Israeli artists and the people they meet.” To date, BAMAH has had artists-in-residence throughout the United States, and in dance and film at Emory University and Kennesaw State University.

Shai Ferdo starred as the Ethiopian special envoy, Kassa Kabede, in the Israeli movie, “Exodus ‘91,” that played to stellar reviews at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.

At Clark Atlanta, Fredo will lecture and teach classes in the Department of Theatre and Communication Studies, including Ethiopian dance and movement, as well as theatre. University administrators were so impressed with his background and credentials that he has been asked to lecture in other departments such as history, art, and political science, sharing his wealth of knowledge and background as a Jewish Ethiopian Israeli. And he will organize and lead an Ethiopian cultural festival on behalf of the school, to be held sometime in April.

“We consider this a unique and groundbreaking experience for Clark Atlanta University,” said Eve Graves, Ph.D., chairperson of the Department of Theatre and Communication Studies. “He will broaden our students’ experience of the world as he lectures about Israel, Ethiopia, the exodus of Ethiopian Jews and their cultural contributions to the world. Because of his varied experiences, we thought it would be advantageous to work with him to create a variety of lectures and programs that extend beyond the theatre department and benefit both our students and the larger community. Seen through an artistic lens, our students’ focus will be broadened exponentially. Our students are incredibly excited about having him here,” she added.

Fredo was born in the village of Matcha, in the mountains of northern Ethiopia and began his journey to Israel in 1983 at the age of seven as part of the Operation Moses airlift. His family had long dreamed of making Aliyah and frequently spoke of Jerusalem as the destination they yearned for after thousands of years in the diaspora. Fredo was told only two hours in advance that his family and the other 400 Jewish people in his village would be leaving.

The decision was made quickly when his parents learned the border with Sudan was open as a result of the Ethiopian border patrol being away to fight Eritrean rebels.

The trek was dangerous, and Fredo left behind his home, cornfields where he played with his friends, a farm, and his beloved dog. His group traveled by foot the long distance from Ethiopia to Sudan. Along the way, they were robbed at least three times as they encountered Ethiopian rebels, most of whom were ex-soldiers. They were robbed of money, food, jewelry, donkeys, and horses. At last, they arrived at the Sudanese refugee camp.

What Fredo thought would be a few days at the camp turned into close to a year of hardship. Food was scarce and the housing primitive. His group had to hide that they were Jewish and pretended to be Muslim to enter the camp and avoid problems. Officials at the camp would regularly open the bags of flour intended for the 1.5 million refugees, steal half of it, and mix what was left with sand. As a result, the bread and other products made with the flour caused many people to become deathly ill. Fredo lost his grandfather and several friends before they made it to Israel.

Yet, the group never lost hope that they would one day reach Jerusalem and fulfill their dream. He remembers the time period leading up to their journey and the night they loaded buses to reach the plane that would take them to Israel, their final destination.

“We had a feeling that Mossad agents who were originally from Ethiopia had entered the camp because they began speaking words that only other Jewish Ethiopians would know. They eventually told us, ‘Tonight will be the night.’ We loaded up buses and headed for the desert. We were stopped at one point by soldiers, but we pressed on. Then, we saw the plane landing in the desert, and we knew we would be on our way soon. When the plane landed in Israel, I stepped out on the soil and just felt different,” Ferdo said.

He continued, “My real-life experience as part of Operation Moses helped prepare me for my role in ‘Exodus ‘91,’ even though the movie focuses specifically on Operation Solomon, the third major effort to airlift Jewish Ethiopians to Israel. What some people may not realize is that there are still 6,000 to 8,000 Jewish people left in Ethiopia.”

Fredo has played dozens of roles in theater, film and on television in Israel. He was the co-founder of Natella, the first Ethiopian theatre in Israel. He is also the producer and artistic director of Sigdiyada, the largest Jewish, Black and Ethiopian cultural festival in Israel. Ferdo studied at The Visual Theatre School in Jerusalem and the prestigious Nissan Nativ Actors Studio in Tel Aviv, graduating with honors. He hopes to make a film about his own journey to Israel and is currently working on the script.

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