As a new leader rises in Ethiopia, its diaspora dares to dream – The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The last time Neamin Zeleke saw home was in 1986. He was 16, dressed in his only suit, waiting for a plane in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that would take him to the United States for high school.
With a repressive communist regime running his country, he never returned. Instead, he settled in the Washington suburbs and remained there as the decades passed and the old dictatorship was replaced by a new one. He raised a family in Virginia and lost contact with relatives at home.
Then in February, after three years of mounting unrest, Ethiopia’s prime minister resigned. Abiy Ahmed, an outspoken 42-year-old reformer, took office. Since then, there has been a wave of stunning change.
Abiy has lifted a long-standing state of emergency, ended a decades-old conflict with neighboring Eritrea and called for Ethiopia to transition into a multiparty democracy. For the many Ethiopians who fled the country during the long years of autocracy, the reforms have revived a dream they once thought impossible: going home.
It was particularly unlikely for people like Zeleke, a leader in a resistance movement who agitated for change from abroad. In 2013, he was branded a terrorist by Ethiopia’s ruling party and sentenced in absentia to 18 years in prison. He decided that even calling his mother was too dangerous for her; they haven’t spoken in six years.
But now Zeleke is dreaming. In August, he bought a plane ticket to Ethiopia, planning to surprise his mother, celebrate the Ethiopian New Year on Sept. 11 and visit relatives he hasn’t seen since he was a child. But after years as an activist, he is also clear-eyed about the challenges that lie ahead.
Moves meant to expand political freedoms have also allowed old ethnic grievances to flare up, leading to a new spate of violence. The institutions that propped up the previous administration have been working to undermine Abiy’s reforms. “Even though they have lost power, we know they have money and guns,” Zeleke said.
But Zeleke is still eager to go back. “There’s much to be done,” he said. “We have a new nation to build.”
‘We were so mad for so long’
That eagerness is common in the area around Washington, which is home to the largest Ethiopian community in the world outside Africa — and some of the fiercest critics of Ethiopia’s rulers.
Whenever news of a brutal government crackdown emerged, groups of Ethiopians staged protests outside the State Department or the Ethiopian Embassy. In recent years, Washington-area Ethiopians led a growing movement to provide accurate information about what was going on in the country, launching blogs and online television stations.
“We were so mad for so long,” said Kenfe Bellay, a 61-year-old who lives in Silver Spring, Md.,
Bellay fled Ethiopia in 1976 after the communist regime confiscated his father’s farm and family home. He eventually settled in the United States and has regularly attended protests and candlelight vigils in Washington, hoping to raise awareness of human rights violations in Ethiopia.
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