Follow Us:

Immigrant Stories: Ethiopia

Gedlu Metaferia, Ethiopian Refugee

Gedlu is one of many Ethiopians to seek refuge in the United States. For nearly twenty years, Ethiopia faced its worst famine in a century due to never-ending drought and human rights abuses. Refugees were persecuted for a plethora of reasons: religion, ethnicity, political view, etc.

Basic rights taken for granted in the United States were reason to fear death in regions of Africa. Freedom of speech did not exist and government opposition led to the shooting of young students, including Gedlu himself.

Living conditions were minimal. Bathrooms were pits in the ground, homework was done by streetlight, and journalists wrote only what was dictated down the barrel of a machine gun. Survival was a daily fight and in Gedlu’s case, lack of food was the least of his country’s worries.

At the age of 27 Gedlu came through the refugee admission program from the Sudan, one among the 1s t 200 batch of Africans from Ethiopia during the height of the Cold war.

The year was 1980, and in America it was the time of new wave and pop. Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” was on repeat, but for Gedlu it was a year of loneliness, constant struggle and cultural misunderstandings. These seemed to be common themes in his early years on the streets of New York. He learned that “hotdog” was not a literal translation and that thirty-two dollars doesn’t get you far in New York City.

After a short bout in Washington, he finally set roots down in St. Louis, Missouri. It was here in St. Louis that he found his purpose. In April of 1983, he opened the doors to the African Mutual Aid Association, an agency to aid new refugees in adjusting to life in the United States.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Gedlu believes this to be his mission. He strives to serve as his community’s extended family and truly hopes that he can raise tomorrow’s leaders in a place where political strife is a distant memory.

These days, Gedlu splits his time between his wife, raising two children and dedicating himself to the International Institute where he works in the immigration counseling sector. He showcases his collection of religious texts with ease. On a table he proudly displays the Bible, Koran, and Torah; freedoms he was once denied in his home country of Ethiopia.

Gedlu is a man whose mere existence and story is an example of true heroism and what dedication and persistence can accomplish when faced with unlimited obstacles. He is an inspiration to those escaping similar injustices and a model of selflessness.

Zerabrook Gebru, Ethiopian Refugee

Zerabrook Gebru grew up in Ethiopia, a land of large families of farmers. Ethiopia was ruled by an emperor until 1974, when the emperor fell amid civil unrest following a famine and oil crisis. A Marxist government came to power and nationalized property and land. The ruling party also instituted the Red Terror which sought out and killed up to 500,000 people who were thought to be in opposition. Brook himself remained neutral, but was eventually arrested and held in the basement of a church for 42 days. When he was released, he fled the country with only a few dollars in his pocket. Brook crossed the border into Sudan with 3 other Ethiopians. They traveled by night to avoid being seen by aircrafts. In Sudan, getting water and food was difficult, especially since Brook didn’t speak Arabic. Eventually he found a job on a farm and began to tutor children from a small village. He saved money and moved to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where he worked at a Catholic school. He applied to immigrate to the United States and was finally approved after two years of waiting.

Brook had learned English in school in Ethiopia, which helped his transition to the US, but what he wasn’t prepared for was the change in climate. He had never seen snow or ice before. Not even ice cubes. When he arrived in December of 1982, he was shocked at the freezing temperatures. Brook was lonely in the United States and was constantly worried about getting sick and being unable to work and provide for his family.

Brook is very grateful for all the help he has received since coming to America. He feels like he is now a part of American culture, though there are still a few things that he doesn’t understand. Prom, for instance. (“What’s the big deal?” he asks.) Brook worries that the current generation of American kids lacks the motivation of their parents. When raising his own kids, Brook made a point to read to them from an early age to promote good language learning skills. He is now one of the owners of Metropolitan Cab Company. While his journey to the United States has not been easy, he is grateful for all the help he received along the way.

Facts about Ethiopia

Unique among African countries, the ancient Ethiopian monarchy maintained its freedom from colonial rule with the exception of a short-lived Italian occupation from 1936-41. In 1974, a military junta, the Derg, deposed Emperor Haile SELASSIE (who had ruled since 1930) and established a socialist state. Torn by bloody coups, uprisings, wide-scale drought, and massive refugee problems, the regime was finally toppled in 1991 by a coalition of rebel forces, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. A constitution was adopted in 1994, and Ethiopia’s first multiparty elections were held in 1995.

A border war with Eritrea in the late 1990s ended with a peace treaty in December 2000. In November 2007, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC) issued specific coordinates as virtually demarcating the border and pronounced its work finished. Alleging that the EEBC acted beyond its mandate in issuing the coordinates, Ethiopia has not accepted them and has not withdrawn troops from previously contested areas pronounced by the EEBC as belonging to Eritrea. In August 2012, longtime leader Prime Minister MELES Zenawi died in office and was replaced by his Deputy Prime Minister HAILEMARIAM Desalegn, marking the first peaceful transition of power in decades.

Population: 102,374,044 (July 2016 est.)

Location: Eastern Africa, west of Somalia

Languages: Oromo (official working language in the State of Oromiya) 33.8%, Amharic (official national language) 29.3%, Somali (official working language of the State of Sumale) 6.2%, Tigrigna (Tigrinya) (official working language of the State of Tigray) 5.9%, Sidamo 4%, Wolaytta 2.2%, Gurage 2%, Afar (official working language of the State of Afar) 1.7%, Hadiyya 1.7%, Gamo 1.5%, Gedeo 1.3%, Opuuo 1.2%, Kafa 1.1%, other 8.1%

Religions: Ethiopian Orthodox 43.5%, Muslim 33.9%, Protestant 18.5%, traditional 2.7%, Catholic 0.7%, other 0.6% (2007 est.)e

Ethnic Groups: Oromo 34.5%, Amhara (Amara) 26.9%, Somali (Somalie) 6.2%, Tigray (Tigrigna) 6.1%, Sidama 4%, Gurage 2.5%, Welaita 2.3%, Hadiya 1.7%, Afar (Affar) 1.7%, Gamo 1.5%, Gedeo 1.3%, other 11.3% (2007 Census)

Refugees and internally displaced persons residing in Ethiopia: refugees (country of origin): 243,824 (Somalia); 92,442 (South Sudan); 84,271 (Eritrea); 40,781 (Sudan) (2014); IDPs: 200,000-300,000 (border war with Eritrea from 1998-2000, ethnic clashes in Gambela, and ongoing Ethiopian military counterinsurgency in Somali region; most IDPs are in Tigray and Gambela Provinces) (2008)

Information from the CIA World Factbook

The International Institute has resettled more than 450 refugees from Ethiopia since 1990.