There’s no doubting the ability of Eritreans to make their mark abroad – even if the regime means they can’t make it at home. Without a working Parliament in Eritrea they could not become MPs. But in the rest of the world they have won public office.
Yesterday we featured the success of Ibrahim Omer in New Zealand.
Here the story of two more Eritreans – in the US Congress and the Swedish Parliament.
Congressman Joe Neguse – Colorado
Joe Neguse won his place in Congress two years ago – and he’s standing for a second term now.
This is his story: he was Colorado’s first black congressman.
The story of Joe Neguse’s family begins in war-torn Eritrea. On Tuesday night, it came of age in the US state of Colorado.
The 34-year-old Democrat made history in the Nov. 6 midterm elections by becoming the first black congressman to be elected in the western state of Colorado. As a first-generation American whose parents emigrated to the United States as refugees, Joe will also become the first lawmaker with Eritrean origins to serve in Congress come Jan. 2019.
In this distinction, he joins a growing cadre of elected officials whose families or themselves fled conflicts across the world. This includes Ilhan Omar, who on Tuesday became the first Somali, Muslim woman elected to Congress from Minnesota’s 5th congressional district. Mike Elliott, a Liberian-American activist, also became the first person of color to serve as the mayor of Brooklyn Center city in Minnesota.
In the 2018 polls, Joe ran on a progressive platform to combat climate change, opposing efforts to repeal Obamacare, increase the minimum wage to $15, and to fight against oil-and-gas development efforts on federal public lands. Joe also said that he would push back against the Trump administration by fighting for sensible gun-control measures, protecting women’s reproductive rights, and champion legislations like the Equality Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex.
In his acceptance speech, Joe said he was “honored” to serve the district, and pivoted to the historic moment to paint a hopeful future. “Together, we’ve made state history, and the rejection of the politics of division tonight across our country gives me so much hope for our future.”
Joe is now standing for Congress again.
These are his policies.
Occupation: Representative for Colorado’s 2nd Congressional district
Family: Wife, Andrea; 2-year-old daughter, Natalie
Education: Bachelor’s in political science and economics, University of Colorado Boulder, Juris Doctor from University of Colorado Law School
Prior elected office: Elected to U.S. House of Representatives in 2018. Served on CU Board of Regents from 2009 to 2015.
Relevant past experience: Founded New Era Colorado, a youth voter registration and mobilization nonprofit, led Colorado’s consumer protection agency, served as Boulder Housing Authority commissioner.
Website or informational page: joeneguseforcongress.com
What will be your top priorities if you’re elected, and how will you work to accomplish them if Congress continues to be politically divided?
In my first term, we’ve accomplished much for our community — having more legislation enacted into law than any other Colorado lawmaker, leading on climate change, securing passage of major statewide legislation to protect Colorado public lands, holding a record number of town halls, and being identified nationally as the most bipartisan member of our state’s House delegation.
We’ve worked hard to address the needs of the Fort Collins community by securing millions of dollars from FEMA for our community’s recovery efforts, leading a bipartisan effort to ensure priority COVID-19 testing for our firefighters, and introducing an amendment to make it easier for cities like Fort Collins to qualify for a quiet zone from train horn noise. And while I’m proud of the work we’ve done, there is still much more to do to ensure access to affordable health care for everyone, aid our communities as they recover from the pandemic and ensure our economic recovery includes all Coloradans, and protect our environment.
If given the opportunity again to serve our wonderful community, I will continue to build on these accomplishments, by leading locally, listening to all constituents, and working with whomever I can to tackle the critical issues facing our state. In Colorado, we know that when folks roll up their sleeves, work together, and lead with progress over gridlock, unity over division, and hope over fear, we can accomplish anything. And that’s exactly what we will continue doing to serve the communities we’re so fortunate to call home.
By the start of your prospective second term in 2021, it is likely that Colorado will still be struggling with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. What will you do to provide swift relief to Coloradans facing continued unemployment/under-employment, threat of eviction/foreclosure and loss of livelihood due to the pandemic?
As a member of U.S. House Leadership, I have introduced comprehensive legislative proposals to help families and small businesses across Larimer County, and will continue to push for the same. Several of these bills were included in the Heroes Act, legislation which passed the House in May, as well as the most recent relief package the House passed last week.
These include my bipartisan bill to provide emergency disaster loan forgiveness to small businesses, stabilization funds for smaller cities like Fort Collins, Estes Park, Wellington, Berthoud and Loveland, and expansion of SNAP food security to assist families and the Larimer County food banks serving our community. I firmly believe that we must meet the scale of this crisis by adopting the proposals above, in addition to expanding pandemic unemployment insurance, equipping our PSD schools and health care workers, providing rental assistance and direct cash assistance for Americans, and extending additional support for our small businesses.
And I’m proud to have worked closely with local government and civic leaders in Larimer County on these proposals. Put simply, additional economic relief is essential to relieve the economic pressure many families and businesses are under, which is why I will continue to fight for these priorities.
As of mid-August, about 75% of the American public disapproves of the way Congress does its job. What will you do to restore trust in government and show that Congress can work efficiently for Americans?
I full-heartedly believe we must work together to find solutions to our most pressing challenges and work to turn down the temperature in our politics, restore trust in government and create an environment where more people are motivated to participate and engage in our democracy. I’ve sought to do this at a community level by being accessible and transparent, holding more town halls than any other Colorado lawmaker and engaging constituents directly to ensure our legislation reflects the priorities of folks in Fort Collins.
We launched a nationally recognized and first-of-its-kind “Service Town Hall” initiative to bring community members of every political persuasion together to work on volunteer service projects — our first one was in Estes Park, where we worked together to help restore trails at Rocky Mountain National Park. In Congress, I’ve worked in a bipartisan manner with my Republican colleagues, inviting them to see first-hand the Colorado experience, including hosting colleagues from both sides of the aisle for the only official field hearing of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis right here in the 2nd District.
Earlier this year the Lugar Institute identified me as the most bipartisan member of Colorado’s House delegation, and I’ve worked collaboratively with others to craft legislation wherever we can agree, including on regenerative agriculture and funding for rural schools. My willingness to work with folks in good faith has helped our office secure victories for our communities, including having more bills signed into law by this president than any other Colorado lawmaker, with several others passing the House with bipartisan support.
Colorado faced another brutal fire season this year, with overgrown forests and extreme weather fueling historic wildfires throughout the state. The worsening impacts of climate change will continue to contribute to this problem. What will you do to address the effects of wildfires and climate change in our state?
As a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, I have made protecting our environment and the fight against climate change a top priority of mine in Congress. I believe we must treat climate change as the existential threat that it is, and I was honored to be appointed as the only member from the Rocky Mountain West to the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
Over one third of the bills I’ve introduced are focused on addressing the crisis, including proposals to invest in regenerative agriculture, expand clean energy, safeguard climate science and conserve our public lands — including the CORE Act, which became the first major Colorado wilderness legislation to pass the House in over a decade. Many of my proposals have since passed the House, including our plan to equip communities with resilient infrastructure.
I also have supported forest management efforts, such as introducing legislation to create a 21st-century civil conservation corps that would invest in our forests through fire science and wildfire mitigation programs. And finally, I’ve worked with local officials to secure the FEMA funding and resources they need to address the immediate damage the wildfires have caused and to work closely with our local government officials and Forest Service personnel on what future funding and support they will need as we approach mudslide and flood season. If elected again,
I would continue legislating aggressively on this front and work to build consensus on bold climate action proposals.
Arhe Hamednaca – Sweden’s first black Member of Parliament
When Eritrea formally declared its independence from Ethiopia on May 24, 1993, it marked the culmination of a more than 30-year-long struggle for freedom. Few understand the human toll of this conflict better than 62-year-old Arhe Hamednaca.
He was just 15 years old when, in 1968, he became a child soldier, joining the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). But he already understood well the enemy he was fighting.
A year earlier, he had been picked up by the Commandos, an anti-independence force comprised largely of Eritreans from the country’s highland region and Ethiopians. For a month, they tortured him.
Trained by the Israelis, and armed by Israel and the US, the Commandos were known for their brutality.
Rapes and massacres were routine, and the lowland and coastal regions, where support for independence was at its greatest, felt their full force.
Nine years later, Ethiopia began to violate the agreement. Political parties were banned, newspapers were censored, and schools were prohibited from teaching in Tigrinya and Arabic in favour of Ethiopian Amharic.
Then, in 1962, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I formally dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea.
Today, Hamednaca recalls a childhood defined by the conflict. “When I was 12, the [independence] fighters would come to our villages at night. They would sing freedom songs and tell us about Hamid Idris Awate, the founder of ELF and the man considered to be the father of the armed revolution.
“I was moved by it and I used to idolise them,” the softly spoken Hamednaca continues.
That was when he began helping the fighters. As part of a cell with other teenagers, he handed out leaflets, delivered messages and bought the fighters items they needed from the markets.
‘Hatred filled my heart’
For a couple of years he was able to get by undetected. Then the Commandos caught him.
“I was taken to an underground basement where I spent a month being tortured by the Commandos,” he remembers. “I didn’t think I would make it out alive. But I did.”
That he survived was largely thanks to his father, who managed to secure his release.
“For a week after they let me go blood was still coming out of my mouth. Until this day I remember the pain and the hatred that filled my body and heart.”
It was another year before Hamednaca officially joined the fighters. It was the day before Easter when word came that the Commandos were looking for him.
Hamednaca knew then what he had to do. “I decided I’d rather die fighting than being tortured to death by them,” he says. “So on Easter day 1968, I took off and joined the front line of the revolution. I was 15.”
The next day, the Commandos came for his father.
His voice breaks as he recalls what happened next; how his father was tortured and spent much of the following two years in prison.
I witnessed the Ethiopian and the Commando forces’ brutality; they would rape, burn down villages, kill people and bury them collectively.
“I felt that I treated my family, especially my father, unfairly,” Hamednaca reflects.
“I was told numerous times that I should go back or they would kill my father and harm my entire family,” he continues.
But the things he’d seen as a child soldier only strengthened his will to fight on.
“I witnessed the Ethiopian and the Commando forces’ brutality; they would rape, burn down villages, kill people and bury them collectively,” he says. “It was a horrible time.”
Still, his decision haunted him.
Then, in 1975, a rumour spread that Hamednaca had been killed in battle. Concerned that the false news would reach his family, he snuck back to his village to reassure them.
He spent just a few hours there, but it helped to ease his mind as much as theirs.
“It was important for me to see my father and to ask for his forgiveness,” he says. “He understood and told me that he was not upset with me, and that in fact he was proud.”
The Palestinian connection
It was a time when the tide seemed to be turning in favour of the liberation fighters.
During the 1960s, Ethiopia was able to capitalise on the disunity among Eritreans. Not everyone was in favour of independence, and Selassie sought to emphasise the sectarian and tribal tensions in the country.
Hamednaca, an Orthodox Christian from the lowland part of Eritrea, explains: “They used to say: The ELF are Arabs and they are trying to include Eritrea with other Arab and Islamic countries. Most of the Christians in the highland areas of Eritrea were against us.”
But ELF was able to secure support from outside of the country. “The Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO], Syria and Iraq supported us financially and provided us with military training,” he says. “The leadership of the ELF all received education and training by them; they stood by us and believed in our right to be free.”
In turn, the rebels felt a particular bond with the Palestinians. “Their cause was always in the heart and mind of the ELF fighter, we shared their pain of oppression and injustice.”
When Selassie was toppled by a communist military government in 1974, and Mengistu Haile Mariam, one of its most prominent members, came to power in 1977, the brutality inflicted upon the Eritreans exceeded even what they had endured before. That served to unite Eritreans, across religious, tribal and regional divides, behind the revolution.
Recognising the strength of the pro-independence fighters and fearing a potential backlash, even some former Commandos switched sides.
But infighting within its ranks meant the Eritrean Liberation Front wasn’t best-placed to take advantage of this. Cracks began to emerge within the movement and some members broke away to join the newly formed Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF). At times, the two groups even turned their guns on each other.
Between 1975 and 1977, both groups captured key cities. But the Soviet Union intervened militarily in support of Ethiopia’s communist government, overwhelming the independence fighters.
But as the Cold War drew to an end and opposition forces within Ethiopia became more powerful, the independence fighters gained the upper hand.
In 1991, EPLF liberated the capital, Asmara.
It took another two years until a UN-led independence referendum – in which 99.8 percent voted in favour – was held. Isaias Afowerki, the former secretary-general of EPLF, became the country’s president and, on May 28, Eritrea became the 182nd member of the UN.
‘I just put down the gun’
But Hamednaca wasn’t there to witness that historic moment. Following political disagreements with the ELF leadership, he’d left the front line and the country in 1977.
He headed first to Sudan.
“I carried on with the struggle, I never stopped,” he stresses. “I just put down the machine gun.”
Then, in 1985, he moved to Sweden.
“For the first time in my life, I felt like a human being, I felt valued and appreciated,” he says. “I got a taste of how it feels to have rights and to be truly free.”
“I am black, African and an ex-fighter, all of a sudden I am told I have rights,” he continues, the sense of wonder still evident in his voice all these years later.
But Hamednaca still had the spirit of a freedom fighter. In 1988, he joined the Swedish Socialist Party, attracted by its solidarity with oppressed groups around the world. He became active in civil societies and trade unions.
The organisation works with boys and girls whose lives are affected by honour-related social and familial structures to challenge perceptions of women.
Here I was, an African from Eritrea, and I joined the highest authority in Sweden, the parliament. How I wished Eritrea could also have this.
In 2004, Hamednaca became a special adviser to integration and equality minister Jens Orback.
“I was the first black person to join the Swedish government in 2004,” he says proudly.
When he was elected as an MP in 2010, it was a bittersweet moment for the former child soldier.
“My country Eritrea is always on my mind. Here I was, an African from Eritrea, and I joined the highest authority in Sweden, the parliament. How I wished Eritrea could also have this.”
As his home country marks 24 years of independence, the parliamentarian is experiencing mixed emotions.
“I am still in pain,” he says. “I remember all the martyrs and the sacrifices they made. I can still see their faces as they were dying and how they would say we are sacrificing our lives for freedom.”
“We finally have our country. But the Eritrean people are not truly liberated. I didn’t fight for the sake of a flag only; it was for true freedom.”
And today it is not only the unfulfilled potential of his country that pains him; it is also the loss of the man that conflict kept him from for so long. Hamednaca’s father died 10 years ago, and although he saw him when he returned to Eritrea following independence in 1993, he cannot shake the feeling that they simply did not have enough time together.
“I still feel that I needed more time with him. I needed to talk to him about what we went through and about life today. I needed that closure,” he says.
Hamednaca hasn’t returned to Eritrea since. But in many ways, that impassioned 15-year-old child soldier is still very much alive and fighting for social justice – only now, from a European parliament rather than an Eritrean trench.