From Seattle to Saudi Arabia, dangerous myths lure Ethiopian migrants – Seattle Globalist

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.