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.
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.