Washington boasts the largest population of Ethiopians in the United States, with some local experts estimating there are as many as 250,000 Ethiopian Americans here, including both immigrants and US-born descendants. Now, as fighting in Ethiopia intensifies, protesters both for and against the country’s government are taking to the streets of Washington.
By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
Washington (CNN)A radio host says she wakes up every morning wondering if her mom is alive.
A man who came to the US to escape political persecution says the country he now calls home is empowering the very people he fled.
A health care worker says she fears her family may be starving whenever she sits down to eat.
War in Ethiopia is more than 7,000 miles away from the US capital. But for these Ethiopian Americans who spoke with CNN at recent demonstrations in Washington, the conflict is of urgent importance — and they say it should be to the world, too.
The DC area boasts the largest population of Ethiopians in the United States, with some local experts estimating there are as many as 250,000 Ethiopian Americans here, including both immigrants and US-born descendants. Now, as fighting in Ethiopia intensifies, protesters both for and against the country’s government are taking to the streets of Washington.
Communities, and even some families, are divided over the conflict.
“People who have lived in harmony for years, now they are forced to take sides. … Children are forced to side either with their mother or with their father,” says Tsehaye Teferra, founder and president of the Ethiopian Community Development Council, based just outside Washington in Arlington, Virginia. “That’s a very difficult situation to be in.”
Even with the deep divisions between them, there was some common ground among the Ethiopian Americans who spoke with CNN. Many said they were frustrated by the US government’s response and afraid for the safety of friends and family in Ethiopia.
She scans videos for signs her mom is alive
Su Solo says she hasn’t heard from her mom in months. The wait for word, she says, is agonizing.
Solo lives in Atlanta and traveled to Washington for protests last week. Her mom lives in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, where communication has been cut off during the fighting.
With no way to get in touch, Solo says she and many others with roots in Tigray find themselves scanning the few emerging videos of the violence and its aftermath to see if they can spot their loved ones.
“I don’t know if my mom is hungry. I don’t know if she’s in control of her body. I don’t know if she’s at home, or if she’s running. I don’t know where she is. And that goes for all of us,” Solo says, pointing to a large group of demonstrators gathered beside the Washington Monument.
Solo says she wants US officials to label attacks in Tigray as genocide and do more to crack down on the Ethiopian government. Sanctions are a good start, she says, but not enough.
The 35-year-old radio host says the conflict has left her rethinking her identity. She was born in the United States and always took pride in her Ethiopian heritage. But now she’s changed her on-air tagline from “your favorite Ethiopian” to “your best friend.” And she’s stopped going to some of her favorite Ethiopian restaurants.
“You can’t coexist with someone who doesn’t want you to exist,” she says.
“You start to wonder, where are your friends you grew up with? How do we all of a sudden just hate each other?”
He’s fed up with the Biden administration’s response
Besu Feleke says he just did something for the first time since he came to the US to escape political persecution decades ago.
He voted for a Republican.
Standing in front of the White House Monday, where a large crowd of protesters waved Ethiopian flags and chanted their support for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Besu, 42, says he feels President Biden and other Democrats who’ve criticized the Ethiopian government are undercutting democracy.
Ethiopian Americans like him have long supported Democrats, he says, but now they’re organizing and starting to throw their support behind Republican tickets.
Besu, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, says he voted for Republican Glenn Youngkin in last week’s Virginia governor race. And that first Republican vote won’t be the last for him and many other Ethiopian Americans, he says, if Democratic officials don’t change course and voice support for Ethiopia’s government.
“We mobilized our Ethiopian community,” he says. “We are literally switching parties.”
For Besu, the reason is simple. He says he came to the US to escape political persecution when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was in power. He sees the former ruling party as terrorists, just as Ethiopia’s prime minister declared when he recently urged citizens to take up arms against Tigrayan forces.
Besu says by criticizing the Ethiopian government, which has been engaged in a year-long battle with Tigrayan rebels, the US is enabling the very persecution he fled and undercutting Ethiopia’s elected leaders.
“It’s sad,” he says. “Ethiopian Americans are very disappointed.”
Her stomach sinks when she sits at the dinner table
Whenever she sits down to eat, Tenagnework Abreha says what she’s heard about famine in Ethiopia haunts her.
She thinks of her family members who live in Tigray, and of reports alleging that people there have been forced to eat leaves because the government is blocking humanitarian aid from reaching them. The Ethiopian government has rejected allegations that it is blocking aid.
Tenagnework says she can’t shake the reports from her mind.
“Every time you sit to eat, it’s so difficult. I keep thinking about them. You just pray they are safe,” says Tenagnework, 53, a radiologic technologist who lives in Maryland.
The last time she spoke with her parents months ago, she says, they told her they were running out of their medicine. Worrying about them consumes her.
“Sometimes,” she says, “you can’t even bear the pain.”
He feels media portrayals haven’t been fair
Berhanu Tadesse Taye points out that pro-Ethiopian government protesters outside the White House aren’t only criticizing the Biden administration with their signs and chants. They’re taking aim at the media as well.
Some demonstrators held signs criticizing CNN and shouted “fake news” at a CNN reporter covering the event. CNN investigations into the conflict have revealed details about massacres in Tigray, rape as a weapon of war and Ethiopian Airlines being used to shuttle weapons.
Berhanu and other protesters say reporting on the conflict has been inaccurate and unfairly biased against the Ethiopian government. He says the US is giving credence to false reports by threatening sanctions against Ethiopia. That, he says, is why emotions are running high.
“The pain people are feeling is that of betrayal,” says the 64-year-old. “The US administration is supporting lies, fake news and terrorism. … People have difficulty understanding what is going on.”
Prime Minister Abiy, he says, is a popular leader who he admires.
“He is human like anyone. He can make mistakes. But he has kept the country together, and we support him.”
His fears keep him awake at night
While protesters march in the United States and fighting rages in Ethiopia, Tsehaye Teferra of the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) in Arlington says reports of the conflict weigh heavily on his mind.
“I can hardly sleep — maybe one hours, two hours,” he says. “I am sure that is happening in every family.”
Tsehaye came to the United States in 1972 for graduate school, then ended up staying and seeking asylum after Ethiopia’s emperor was deposed. He founded ECDC in the 1980s to help Ethiopian refugees who were forced to flee in times of war and famine.
Now, Tsehaye says it’s heartbreaking to see history repeating itself.
“It’s very painful, and you keep on wondering, why is this happening? Why are people so mad at each other? What could have been done to prevent this?”