How a trip to Ethiopia shattered stereotypes, spurred documentary

by Zelalem

Traveling to Ethiopia changed me forever. In the two months I worked there in 2008, I met a proud country that had fought off Italian colonialists, a diverse nation that communicates in more than 80 languages and a complex people who challenged my assumptions and helped shape how I see the world today.

But that wasn’t what I was expecting. I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, decades that saw famine and political unrest in Ethiopia, as well as growth to our region’s significant Ethiopian-American population. For me, Ethiopia was a country that evoked images of starving children, refugees and war.

And I’m not alone. Many Americans think in broad, and often grim, generalizations about Ethiopia specifically and Africa overall. One local Ethiopian-American filmmaker and a small group of college students are hoping to challenge those stereotypes.

“Some students … all they knew of Africa was famine, terrorism, a lion and a tree,” says 25-year-old Amen Gibreab over strong cups of Ethiopian coffee at Gojo — an incense-saturated restaurant tucked into a strip mall in North Seattle.

Two years ago, a group of 15 UW Bothell students met with Gibreab and the founder of the program, professor Panagiotis “Panos” Hatziandreas, in this very spot to discuss the first Seattle-area study-abroad program to Ethiopia. It was a trip that would focus on re-imagining Ethiopia for a new generation, and Gibreab, a media and communication major and aspiring filmmaker, knew he had to document it.

“If I’m going to be in media, I want to contribute something positive,” says Gibreab who spent the first half of his life in Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia, “… I know there is more, and I wanted to tell that story.”

The result is “Horeta: Journey Beyond Culture,” a 90-minute documentary premiering at 6 p.m. Friday at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in Seattle — just a few blocks from Washington Middle School where Gibreab first landed as a 12-year-old immigrant.

The film opens on an ethnically diverse group of students laboring over the beautifully squiggly Amharic alphabet and follows them from that fluorescent-lit classroom to the rain-slickened streets of Addis Ababa. The footage is clear and intimate and the revelations are personal (the role of religion in one student’s life) and political (traveling abroad as an American of color) as the students learn Ethiopia is much more than what they see in the news.

It’s a movie that feels very much of Seattle in this particular moment — young but growing, self-referential but with a global point of view. A film made by and for a generation whose diversity is unprecedented, a generation that is questioning old assumptions and refusing to be easily labeled.

The program that sparked “Horeta” no longer exists; the professor who led it, Hatziandreas, has since moved to Ethiopia, where he was born and raised. But Gibreab hopes to help find a way to resurrect it, especially since Ethiopian Americans approach him regularly asking for details on the next trip.

“Ethiopian elders they’re always asking me: ‘When are you and the professor going to do this again? We want to send our kids so they can learn. Please do it again,’ ” says Gibreab.

It’s not unusual for study-abroad programs to exist only once, says UW professor Raymond Jonas who was a consultant for the trip. He explained, via email, that programs such as these are labor-intensive but extraordinarily valuable — especially for young people.

“Study abroad is important because … (it) shows us just how varied human society can be,” wrote Jonas, “When we return, we see our existence with new eyes.”

That has certainly been true for the travelers in “Horeta” (which means “to journey” in Amharic). Few will be in attendance at Friday night’s premiere as many are currently scattered around the globe from Vietnam to India, Brazil to Rwanda.

“They wanted to find themselves, and they know there is more to life than the life they live currently,” says Gibreab describing the original 15, many of whom had never traveled abroad before Ethiopia, “They want to journey.”

If you’re interested in the journey, you can buy tickets for Friday night’s screening online at:

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