Seattle has become one of the preferred destinations for Ethiopian immigrants. Some estimates say there are as many as ten thousand Ethiopians living in the Seattle area.
Talking to Ethiopian Americans here in Seattle you might never realize how big the worldwide Ethiopian diaspora is or what people go through to find a new home.
“I see and hear stories of people coming here as refugees, through the [Diversity Visa Lottery],” Said Haile Kiros, an Ethiopian immigrant who’s lived in Seattle for about a year. “They find what they expected is different from the reality here… they decide to take their own lives.”
He says he’s heard many such sad stories.
“Some have sold their houses [to come to the U.S.], some are living with a lot of stress here, others have big problems with the language.”
The stress induced by culture shock is not to be underestimated. Even something as simple as maintaining eye contact while speaking — which is normal here but comes off as confrontational for many culturally inhibited Ethiopians — can complicate simple communication.
So with all these troubles, you might wonder why those with the resources to leave Ethiopia don’t invest in their home country instead.
According to one account told to an Al Jazeera reporter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopians look outside of their country for opportunities because “our families can’t give us money while we’re here. They only help when there’s a plan to leave, because they’re more certain that eventually [we’ll be able to] send the money back.”
Hirut Dube, a caseworker for the Ethiopian Community in Seattle recalls a family of seven who arrived in Seattle in May expecting a better life, only to suddenly find themselves homeless — a concept that is almost nonexistent back in Ethiopia.
Dube herself came to Seattle from Ethiopia five years ago and has since been working with immigrants from the Horn of Africa as a volunteer and professional caseworker. While in Ethiopia, she’d worked as executive secretary in the sole Ethiopian telecom company for ten years.
Dube says the family “expected a big house was on the road… they sold their house [in Ethiopia] and other belongings.”
She said the difference between what those who come to the U.S. expect, and the reality they find when they get here is “hundred percent.”
She advises immigrants, especially newcomers, seek the help of professional case workers, instead of random people, so they can get connected to appropriate communities and resources. She couldn’t stress enough that prospective immigrants should study “everything” especially rules and regulations of the destination country before leaving their own.
Fortunately, the family she described is okay now because they came to a city we Seattleites know is the “best city in the world.” Dube was able to connect them with family housing resources and get their children enrolled in school the next day.
But every Ethiopian immigrant story doesn’t have such happy ending — especially in other parts of the world.
Ethiopians, known for their hospitality, were baffled by deadly xenophobic attacks in South Africa in April against immigrants from elsewhere in Africa — including Ethiopians. The feeling of betrayal amongst Ethiopians was obvious: not only did the freedom fighter Nelson Mandela receive military training from Ethiopia during the Apartheid era, he was also given an Ethiopian passport so he could freely travel abroad when the apartheid government wouldn’t grant him a passport.
Before Ethiopians could recover from the news of these attacks, another story broke about dozens of Ethiopians and Eritreans killed by ISIS in Libya. The unusual and unprovoked attack shocked the East African nation that’s home to a mix of Muslims and Christians that typically live together peacefully. Ethiopians were heartbroken and deeply grieved due to the graphic nature of the attacks and went through process of one of their most complex social affair in Ethiopia, mourning.
Although it is impossible to get used to such stories, this is not the first season Ethiopians had to deal with horrific abuse of their beloved in foreign lands. The common mistreatment of domestic workers in the Middle East escalated during Saudi Arabia’s violent crackdown on Ethiopian immigrants, leading the biggest human airlift in history when Ethiopia repatriated about 150, 000 of its citizens over the course of a few weeks in 2013.
Even in the so-called civilized nations, Ethiopians are not catching a break either. The callous immigration practices of E.U. and Israel has lead to the death of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. EU members had defunded sea patrol to discourage migrants from traveling, leaving them to die instead. We are left to believe this is a non-violent response to the African migration problem.
Anti-African asylum-seeker rhetoric and policies in Israel is disturbingly high. It’s not a mere coincidence that three of those killed by ISIS along Ethiopians were Eritreans who sought asylum but were turned away by the Jewish state.
A documentary film about ‘new’ racism in Israel, shows the frightened faces of Ethiopian and Eritrean men and women at anti-African asylum-seekers protests and rallies.
If Ethiopian immigrants are not having much luck around the world why do they keep leaving their home country, considered by some to be a poster child of development?
It is probably the myth of exaggerated prospects for success, which has the effect of downplaying the risks of migration. That myth is mostly propagated by the Ethiopian diaspora themselves, sometimes inadvertently or as a result of social pressure.
“Ethiopians at home only see what people who return from here or… especially from Arab countries display: their success,” Dube explains “[Members of the diaspora] don’t tell how they earned it, how many obstacles they had to overcome to get the success and how long it took them to succeed. People back home only see the target… the end.”
Kiros is a little more cynical when he called the display of success by the diaspora in the U.S. as “simply a decor” and misleading for the people back home.
”It’s wrong to post pictures [that purportedly show success]…. on Facebook or Youtube when one doesn’t have a good job or is living on food stamps.”
However, Ethiopians at home still appear to be at least partly in the know about the reality of their prospects abroad, complicating the cognitive aspect of problem.
“I know it’s dangerous, but I might be one of the few to make it safely so yes, I’d take the risk,” migrants told Al Jazeera when asked why they would want to take a deadly journey across the land and sea.
That journey is obviously too risky, but it’s hard to fault someone for dreaming of a better life for themselves and their families. Here’s hoping the world can take it easy on these “brave” Ethiopian migrants.
None of us can predict when we might end up migrating ourselves and be on the receiving end of hostility toward immigrants. If you have a hard time imagining yourself being on that end, remember the times you or your beloved traveled and wished people were a little nicer or more understanding.