Abiy Ahmed Meets the Ethiopian Diaspora

After years of dire political dispatches from back home, Ethiopian immigrants greeted the nation’s new reformist prime minister with displays of hope and unity as he traveled across the U.S.

Ethiopians gather to hear Abiy Ahmed, the country's new prime minister, speak in Washington, D.C.
Ethiopians gather to hear Abiy Ahmed, the country's new prime minister, speak in Washington, D.C. (Hannah Giorgis / The Atlantic)

Last Saturday afternoon, the streets of Washington, D.C., were a sprawling symphony of green, yellow, and red. The flags of Ethiopia and Eritrea flew from car windows, tricolor banners hung from apartment railings, and peace ribbons adorned the facades of local businesses. Trucks and cars bearing messages of unity stationed themselves outside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, drawing crowds of eager amateur photographers looking to document an occasion most never expected to see in their lifetimes.

The Washington metro area has long boasted a large East African immigrant community, but Saturday saw a staggering influx of Ethiopians (and some Eritreans) from around the country. Hailing from states as far Ohio, California, and Georgia, they all gathered in D.C. for one purpose: to hear Abiy Ahmed, the new Ethiopian prime minister, address the diaspora. To medemer, as Ahmed’s office titled the invitation, an Amharic word meaning “to come together”—or, more literally, “to be added to one another.”

Appointed after the surprise resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Ahmed inherited a deeply fractured country when he was sworn in this April. In recent years, a wave of protests over urban expansion in Ethiopia’s southern regions had been met with disproportionate violence from the state. Journalists and political dissidents had been jailed or disappeared. Border tensions with neighboring Eritrea, which was annexed by Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1960s, had remained a constant source of anxiety for residents of both countries. But Ahmed began his tenure with a series of radical, nearly unimaginable reforms: ending the state of emergency that the prior regime had imposed in response to widespread protest, freeing political prisoners, and, most notably, extending an invitation of peace to the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, and establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries in the process. In doing so, the 41-year-old Ahmed, whom many have compared to former U.S. President Barack Obama, has inspired a rare, renewed sense of national hope in Ethiopians—and relief in Eritreans—around the world.

Hannah Giorgis / The Atlantic

For one father and daughter outside Ahmed’s rally, the journey to the prime minister’s D.C. summit was a nearly spiritual pilgrimage. Melekot Girma, an undergraduate student in Nashville, and her father, Girma Negussie, an engineer in Atlanta, knew they’d be in attendance the moment they heard news of Saturday’s gathering.

“I flew and met [my parents] here. It just felt like such a historic moment,” Girma told me when we spoke outside the convention center that morning. (Many Ethiopians opt to employ a traditional naming convention in which children take their father’s first name as their last.) “I’ve been thinking a lot about the diaspora and my relation to Ethiopia and my people,” she added. “So to have a gathering with this purpose of bringing a people scattered back together is so beautiful to me, and so I wanted to be a part of it.”

Hours later, Ahmed took to the stage to directly address the splintering of Ethiopia and its diaspora. Before he spoke, multiple faith leaders prayed over the crowd. Their diversity, in both ethnic background and religion, was itself a rare display. In poetic Amharic, Ahmed implored the diaspora—the more than 20,000 people gathered at the convention center (per his office’s count), as well as the many more tuning into various live-streams—to see Ethiopian national identity as both varied and unified. The son of a Muslim father and Christian mother from Ethiopia’s Oromia region, Ahmed has stressed this throughout his public addresses both at home and abroad. In naming many of the nation’s ethnic groups, some of which have historically been disenfranchised, he stuck to a central theme of his administration’s messaging: All Ethiopians should have access to the benefits of national identity, and they need not forsake their difference to gain it.

“Today, if you all decide, if you commit to healing, then we as Ethiopia will write a new story, like we did during Adwa,” he said, referencing the decisive 1896 battle that ended the first Italo-Ethiopian War and ensured that modern Ethiopia would remain free of formal colonial rule. “If you want to be the pride of your generation, then you must decide that Oromos, Amharas, Wolaytas, Gurages, and Siltes are all equally Ethiopian.”

“What Ethiopians need is community. We need Ethiopian football,” he added, a reference to the national soccer federation that connects Ethiopian Americans to one another through an annual tournament. “Don’t worry. When you come together, the world will extend its hands to you.”

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed waves as he concludes his remarks in Washington, D.C. (Mike Theiler / Reuters)

Much of Ahmed’s speech centered on similar calls to action. But he also returned often to a related note: affirming the unique beauty of the country he now leads—and the people who call it home. He tapped directly into attendees’ nostalgia, reminding them of the place they left and the ties they maintain—even as they have settled thousands of miles away from Ethiopia.

“This country has beautiful highways, it has beautiful malls. All of you with the means have cars. Lights don’t go out. Phones don’t cut out. Water doesn’t get shut off,” he said of the United States. “So why is it that via Viber, via Facebook, via YouTube, you all spend every night in Ethiopia?”

For Girma’s father, Negussie, and many like him, the speech and the gathering itself had seemed impossible just a few short months ago. The ringing chorus of national pride would have been impressive anywhere, but D.C. is not just any city to Ethiopians. The area’s already sizable Ethiopian population had been buoyed by the influx of travelers arriving in anticipation of Ahmed’s speech; added together—or in Ahmed’s words, sidemeru—the crowds were overwhelming.

“I was like in cloud nine, we couldn’t come down. Sometimes I feel like, Am I dreaming, am I alive?” Negussie said of his experience Saturday. “We were just seeing all so many people of my countrymen and women gathering in the same place. I never imagined that would happen in the U.S.”

Many of the attendees at the D.C. gathering bore signs thanking God for Ahmed’s message.

Like many Ethiopian immigrants who came to the United States during the East African country’s first massive wave of migration, Negussie left home at a young age under the threat of violence. When Haile Selassie was deposed in the early 1970s, and his post was overtaken by a military coup that controlled the nation for nearly two decades afterward, the country was rattled. Haile Selassie had himself been a complex leader whose much-mythologized reign brought violence to several groups within Ethiopia and, of course, Eritrea. But the military regime, known as the Derg, brought with it a terror that sank into many Ethiopians’ bones.

My own parents left seven years into the Derg’s takeover, at a time when my mom recalls hearing stories of soldiers coming to kill children and then demanding that their family members pay for the bullets. The Red Terror, or Qey Shibir, is not the only nightmare to have struck Ethiopia in the last century, nor is it the only violence that has shaped the nation. But for many Ethiopians living in America, the Red Terror was a primary push factor that led them to abandon home.

“There were, every day, about a hundred kids or young people dying in Addis Ababa, most of their bodies found in the street. So that was a horrifying period,” said Getachew Metaferia, a professor of political science at Morgan State University in Baltimore who co-wrote The Ethiopian Revolution of 1974 and the Exodus of Ethiopia’s Trained Human Resources with his late wife, Maigenet Shifferraw, who had served as the president of the Center for the Rights of Ethiopian Women.

“That’s when Ethiopians started to leave the country, mainly on their feet, to the forests and the deserts,” Metaferia continued later in our phone call. “Prior to this exodus in the 1970s that starts as a result of the Red Terror, the military regime, Ethiopians had been coming or were sent overseas for education—after World War II, mainly to the United States.”

Many of the Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans I spoke to at Ahmed’s rally had similar memories of the period. Negussie, who left home at 19, echoed both Metaferia’s research and the anecdotes my mother has been sharing with me since I was a child.

“My dad and most of my family are really, you know, doing okay, during the Haile Selassie [period], so they called them adhari,” he said, referring to the derogatory Derg-era term used for people of status who were sometimes seen as Marxist reactionaries. “I don’t have anything to do with that, but during the Derg time I was in prison for three months.”

“My dad, he was a military officer during Haile Selassie’s [rule], and he was retired and he was sick,” Negussie continued. “So for three months he was in [a] military hospital, and I was in prison so I didn’t see him. And I was released [on a] Wednesday, I saw him only one day—Thursday—and he died Saturday.”

Negussie left home following the death of his father, with the assistance of a brother who’d come to Colorado years earlier. Eventually settling in Atlanta, he started a family and became disconnected from Ethiopia for fear of having his heart broken once more. These kinds of ruptures often extend intergenerationally. Girma, for her part, doesn’t speak Amharic. She has lamented not knowing her parents’ mother tongue for years, an anxiety that initially stayed with her ahead of the gathering.

“I’ve always been so proud of my heritage and like listening to my parents’ stories of Ethiopia, how much—just, like, the look in their eyes when they talk about back home, it’s as if I feel homesick for a place that I’ve never even been,” she said. “But at the same time, I wonder, I love Ethiopia, will Ethiopia love me back? Am I habesha enough?” she added, using the common (if also historically complicated) term that can refer to people of Ethiopian or Eritrean descent.

Negussie and Girma’s overlapping stories of separation—their fraught relationships to the country of Negussie’s birth and of Girma’s heart—are just one example of how political violence in and around Ethiopia has severed human ties along with ideological ones. The last several months have brought with them a swell of hope tinged with the residual effects of melancholy. Every newly freed political prisoner still carries the trauma of their unjust incarceration. Every recent photo of teary-eyed Ethiopians and Eritreans, most often family, embracing one another as they reunite is a reminder of the pain they felt while separate. Every feel-good story about Ethiopians calling random Eritreans just to test the newly reinstated telecom lines is a tale of prior disconnection.

Hannah Giorgis / The Atlantic

For Solomon Ayalew, a recent D.C. transplant of both Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage, “the change that’s happened over the past couple months that [Ahmed] has brought through different reforms and stuff is … monumental for my family.” Ayalew said no one in his family had been to Eritrea in over 20 years; both Ayalew and his father, an Ethiopian, had never seen the country at all.

“I never planned to go back to Eritrea, I never thought I’d be able to see Eritrea at all,” Ayalew said. “I would go on Google Maps and sometimes just look at everything like that. I started letting it go. But then as soon as [Ahmed] came, he opened it up, the borders and everything, and worked with [Afwerki], it just … it’s a miracle, really.”

Like Ayalew, Negussie, and Girma, many of the people I spoke to Saturday said Ahmed’s message of unity isn’t just about reuniting one generation of Ethiopians or about reinstating diplomatic ties with Eritrea as a means of correcting past misdeeds. The prime minister’s rhetoric also encouraged the diaspora to fortify frayed ties in the hopes that future generations will benefit—and help build the countries in return. Or, as Ahmed said, after inviting the opposition leader Tamagn Beyene to address the crowd ahead of him, “Ethiopianness has been woven not from single-colored yarn but from a multicolored, radiant set of threads that produce a beautiful garment together.”

It is difficult to overstate both the shock and significance of the Ethiopian diaspora’s shift toward a shared hope, however tentative. For immigrants (and their children) who keep tabs on the nation from afar, scanning headlines from the region has felt like a bleak mission for decades. Long before the daily news cycle became a constant churn of terror for Americans, dispatches from East Africa inundated the region’s children with horrors both new and familiar. In the past few years alone, the escalating protests in Oromia instilled such a deep fear in ethnically marginalized Ethiopians that the nation’s silver-medalist marathoner protested the Ethiopian government on the 2016 Olympic stage. To bear witness to his pain, to the struggle of Oromo and Amhara people suppressed by the government, to the myriad other sociopolitical ills facing the country, was to watch Ethiopia rupture.

“I was not listening to Ethiopian news because everything I hear is bad news,” Negussie told me of his years away from home. “I have really bad memories before, why should I have to be involved with that? I was isolated from everything.”

Women from Ethiopia’s Oromia region protest at the prime minister’s gathering in D.C.

Of course, with Ahmed’s rise, not all of this has changed. Migrants from Ethiopia, and especially Eritrea, continue to drown in horrifying numbers while trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of safety and opportunity on Europe’s shores. Some Ethiopians living along the Eritrean border have not gotten behind Ahmed’s vow to honor the 2000 peace deal ceding the town of Badme to the northern nation. Some Oromos contend that their ethnic group still faces widespread repression. At Saturday’s rally, not everyone was convinced that the prime minister’s message of love and unity could undo all of Ethiopia’s troubles. Supporters of Beyene applauded for Ahmed when he took the stage, but some attendees remained indignant. One woman I spoke to, who waved a flag reading I am Oromo; I will not stay silent so that you can stay comfortable, spoke plainly about her reservations. She cited the ongoing deaths of people in her community, from mysterious causes or allegedly at the hands of state-sponsored actors, as the reason she came to protest Ahmed rather than celebrate him.

For critics of Ahmed, voicing frustration with the fanfare surrounding the prime minister—everything from the ubiquity of T-shirts bearing his likeness to the term Abiy-mania being used to describe Ethiopians’ zeal—can be difficult. It is so rare for a sizable segment of Ethiopians in the diaspora to feel excited about any update from the country, much less a political one. But dissenting voices, even when they speak out against a figure whose reformist attitudes have won over many, contribute to the vibrant discourse that will shape the nation’s future. Without dissent, Ahmed would never have been appointed. Without dissent, he cannot succeed.

Still, the vast majority of attendees—and Ethiopians of the diaspora who have been sharing their reflections online—have watched this strange, new figure with a cautious optimism. In the days following his D.C. gathering, the prime minister traveled to Los Angeles and Minneapolis, meeting waves of enthusiastic Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans across the country. Some, like Girma, have found an unexpected affirmation of their identities—and a new voice.

“There’s a place for me in this … I can own my story and my context, knowing that Ethiopia is still yene hagere [my country] and I am hers,” Girma said after Saturday’s events. “And however my responsibility to [my] country manifests in the years to come, it comes from that place of love, of belonging.”