From Seattle to Saudi Arabia, dangerous myths lure Ethiopian migrants

An overcrowded detention centre in Sana'a, Yemen holds Ethiopian migrants making their way to Saudi Arabia seeking work opportunities (Photo by Anna Surinyach/MSF)
An overcrowded detention centre in Sana’a, Yemen holds Ethiopian migrants making their way to Saudi Arabia seeking work opportunities (Photo by Anna Surinyach/MSF)

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.”

Haile Kiros, an Ethiopian migrant who arrived in Seattle about a year ago, says that the language barrier is the biggest challenge he's faces. He's frustrated that the test required to practice his craft as a barber in Washington isn't offered in his native language of Tigrinya. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)
Haile Kiros, an Ethiopian migrant who arrived in Seattle about a year ago, says that the language barrier is the biggest challenge he’s faces. He’s frustrated that the test required to practice his craft as a barber in Washington isn’t offered in his native language of Tigrinya. (Photo by Goorish Wibneh)

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.

Two weeks ago Ethiopian migrants were killed in the crossfire of Yemen’s civil war. This was after the Ethiopian Embassy there had been bombed in April.

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.

Piles of personal belongings of from among the thousands of Ethiopian migrants repatriated from Saudi Arabia in 2013. (Photo via U.S. Embassy)
Piles of personal belongings of from among the thousands of Ethiopian migrants repatriated from Saudi Arabia in 2013. (Photo via U.S. Embassy)

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.

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.


  1. I am not surprised to hear this crap from Ethiopian guy and this is not really investigative journalism and he did not mention the main reason why Ethiopians leaving their country, It is not only poverty and more than that, he just repeated everything what we know. He did not telling us anything new. Ethiopians are at war at home with ruthless dictator regime and also other part of the world as a refugees, but I lived in Seattle, I am not sure when he got this fuzzy information about Ethiopians, he is exaggerating, a lot of Ethiopians well educated and qualified people live in Seattle and easy for him to torn these people apart, but I live in Seattle, I am not sure how many immigrants are moving to Seattle? as if Seattle is their home they can come in and go out as they want and as a matter of fact very few Ethiopians living Seattle less than 20000 but a lot Ethiopians living a decent life with decent job. and I am not sure what the hell he is talking about.

  2. I do agree with Yilma. The writer of this article has missed the main push factor that has made Ethiopians to leave their country- the political situation, ruthless dictator. It is true that many Ethiopian are leaving their country in bulk. The pull factor would have been minor incident if there had been a better political situation in the country. In Ethiopia it is impossible to speak freely. Those who dare to speak have been thrown in the notorious prison. It is impossible for any Ethiopia to run business, study, or work in government offices unless he/she does not public display allegiance to the Ethnically based ideology which discriminate Ethiopia to freely work and run business in Ethiopia. The current government has been in power for almost two and half decades and it seems that it has no intention of leaving power to democratically elected government in the near future. I dont see any reason why people should stay in Ethiopia. It is also unfortunate that the United States and European Nations are indirectly playing significant role in displacing many Ethiopian to leave their country of origin. This trend is not happening only in Ethiopia and it is a phenomenon that happening across the world. I have never seen and heard a massive movement of people since the second world war. The rihanga people in south asia, the syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghan, Somali, Eritreans to name a few but not all are the examples of exodus of people.

    The writer is simply justifying the wrong police of Western Industrial Countries in Africa. US is providing massive support the ruthless regime in Ethiopia making Ethiopian young people to leave in bulk. Take my word, after the recent election millions of Ethiopian will be on the move. Some of them will reach the US, and you should welcome them because you are to blame for their plight.

  3. I think the writer knows hardly any thing About the current situation in Ethiopia. People leave their home because they have no freedom. Many are in jail for speaking their more and and a lot more are suffering in prison for their political views, ethnicity and their opposition of the dictator regime. Sadly, US and Europr support the cruel dictators in Ethiopia and as a result people suffer here. Ethiopians are decent people and they are welcoming and kind. It is not in their blood to migrate andcwander here and there had it not been for the injustice and dictatorship they suffer.

  4. The author is a loser and he is attention whore and wants to get attention and he did not have any substance on his writing. As Yilma said he just repeating already what we heard in the media and the Sealttle globalist should filter what they are posting on their web site. This guy personal opinion seems against Ethiopians and Ethiopia. and Ethiopians love their country but a person like this, do not understand the fabric of Ethiopia and Ethiopians.

  5. I really doubt if the subjects of the above comments got the gut to finish reading this article. Most of the nominal Ethiopian politicians in the diaspora are used to think and behave that any thing about Ethiopia and Ethiopians has to be politicized unless otherwise it’s wrong! That is freaking joke! Migration is common in all developing countries including Ethiopia and almost all of them are economic immigrants.
    The first comment testifies that almost all the points in the article had been reported by different news outlets and confirms nothing new is reported but attention seeking whore! When you don’t have the slightest rationale to counter defence in a civic manner, you just have to rush to insult and falsely accuse just like that!
    We are now in the 21st century where idea takes precedence over any other confrontation. Those of us who are living in the dream lands of the West knows well about the challenges and we clearly understand how the habesha people pretends living the life of their dream. We are now talking about the majority of the immigrants in the U.S. It doesn’t mean there are no highly educated and successful people around but the majority lives under a very stressful situation.
    I remember a friend of mine telling me how the diaspora Ethiopian immigrants end up being pessimist “politicians”. They made up a story and use it for processing asylum. They got to continuously practice their made up story over a length of period before they see their legal officer. They finally start to believe and live according to their own stories! This is hilarious!

  6. Ok hold all of ya writing shit politics . Don’t try to stire things to fit into your narrow political agenda. 99.999% of of us who migrate out of our country are not journalists and have nothing to do about your “ruthless gov’t” politics . It’s really stupid that everything has to be politics, may be this is why Ethiopians will continue to be misinformed …
    The majority of Ethiopians who come to the US comes through DV lottey, so are you trying to tell us they won a lottery due to the “ruthless” gov’t of Ethiopia? ??? What has the thousands of Ethiopian immigrants in Saudi Arabia has to do about your “ruthlessness” ? The fact is there is a big misinformation that many people are coming selling their property & houses to become homelesses in western countries. Don’t tell me you are professional in Seattle. It’s not about individuals but the general community. The average income of Ethiopian immigrants in USA is not more than 22k, in country with average 60k.
    Stop lying & trying to do politics in almost about any issue, in the process misinforming others…… Ethiopians are better of investing and working hard in their own country.

  7. ****K
    1. if you separate economics from politics in Africa that telling me that you are clueless in African politics, in Africa as a matter of fact any country if you control the politics you are controlling the economy if you do not control the politics you have no control the economy, the Ethiopian government controlled everything, including the academic freedom, if you are tell us these people are economics immigrates then you are mistaken, it is the results of the mismanagement and abuse of the current government and please do not blame our people for the mismanagement of the Ethiopian government, IT IS THE GOVERNMENT OF ETHIOPIA
    2. yes migration is common when there is war, famine, and etc but in Ethiopian case political and it is not only economic issues and it is political issues
    3. well that is true, we live in the west and we earn our living and it is not necessarily struggle and we work and we are achieved it and specially if you live in USA, God blessed America and we are free, to pursue our education to work and study and do not portrait living the USA, is kind of rough, I lived in America the last twenty something years I loved it and I raised my family here and I will give my life for this land, IT IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO LIVE

  8. Nameless!
    If you come with DV lottery or if you come via Sudan, that does not matter and you just want to go out from the country if you love to live in Ethiopia then why you did not decline your lottery? and settle in your country then? Economics no because you cannot handle the oppression and the economics is bad no job and etc and you want to improve yourself and etc but the government of Ethiopia did not give you the opportunity to live as you like so you have no option as soon as you got the chance and you left your beloved country, is that not true?
    Otherwise you stay their and suffered the rest of your life?? it does not matter how much you earn the average for new comer who works in the parking lot maybe 22 K but you have a lot of opportunity to improve yourself, which the Ethiopian government never provide you that chance, you start with 22K and you can enroll in community College improve yourself the next two years and I can guarantee you and you can double you pay , you can if you want to…

  9. Reality. Check. Dont. Mix. Personal. Politics.Yes. Ethiopia. Is. In. Transition. Goverment. Is. Facing. Econmic challenges. It. Is impossible. To. Overcome. Poverty. Within. A. Short. Time. But. As. Long. As. We continue. Our. Struggle. To. Fight. Poverty. 10_15 years. Later. We. Hope to. See. The. Eradication. Of. Poverty.Destablsing. ethiopia. For political. Gain. Overthrowing. Goverment. Is. A tragedy. More migration. And civil. War. Will. Occur. In. Our. Nation. So. We have. To. Unite. And challenge. Our obstacle.By all means. Possible. Africa. Unite.

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