Inside the Goeth-Institute in Washington D.C, Abdulaziz Kamus, founder of the Africa Resource Center, clutches his microphone and places it close to his lips in a methodical manner. As a guest speaker for An Ethiopian Experience presented by The Refugee Experience Series, he has plenty to say that audience members find inspiring. He appears to be a reluctant star in the documentary directed by Chris Flaherty, Migration of Beauty which is premiering that evening. Abdulaziz reminds everyone inside the auditorium that he is a shy person, yet he speaks calmly and eloquently, and everybody who is listening to him speak have their their eyes fixated on him.
“When I was a student in Ethiopia in the 1970s,” Abdulaziz recalls, “we were in the grip of a large famine. People were starving and dying of hunger in large numbers. The Emperor celebrated his 80th birthday with a massive cake in front of the entire nation.”
Abdulaziz’s biography as a survivor and community activist is impressive. Prior to founding the Africa Resource Center, he resettled more than 1,000 refugees through the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and 50,000 refugees from the former Soviet Union in New York. Altogether he has devoted 16 years of his life to assist resettled refugees find employment. He is a major voice for the Ethiopian diaspora in America, particularly in Washington D.C. and is a member of numerous boards, and fund raises on behalf of between 5 and 10 million Ethiopians in their battle to avoid hunger amidst the recurring famine sweeping across Africa. Abdulaziz also created the Language Access Act Coalition, and also has the distinction is being a leading advocate for Amharic to becoming the first African language to be officially recognized and used in D.C. government. And thanks to his lobbying, the Emergency Non-Resident Taxicab Drivers Act 2007 permits more than 4,000 mainly African immigrant taxi drivers to work in the D.C. region.
Abdulaziz proceeds to outline just how hard life could be during Ethiopia’s darkest period in the nation’s history. He tells the audience that he lost many friends in this period. Grieving in public was banned by the authorities. “Unless you could afford to pay blood money, it was illegal to mourn for the dead in public because such behaviour was deemed counter-revolutionary, ” Abdulaziz declares during the documentary.
Ethiopia slid into civil war and then endured a period of violence and recriminations at the hands of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and his communist military junta in 1977-78, The Derg. With up to 1.5 million deaths in 2 years, it rates as the seventh largest genocide of the 20th century. Under Mengistu’s iron-fisted rule, the dictator enforced a large scale nationalization program, collectivizing farms, confiscating land and privatizing all businesses, companies and banks. The slogan “Land to the Tiller” was adopted. Civilians were shot and rotted in the streets and corpses were left hanging from lamp posts.
The documentary Migration of Beauty is not just about survival during the reign of a brutal regime. It also provides uplifting and positive moments, and one of its main messages is highlighting the necessity for communities to be active and organize for positive change. The documentary’s case study is Washington D.C.’s Ethiopian community, some 300,000 strong, and how the largest Ethiopian diaspora outside of Ethiopia came together and exercised their democratic rights as American citizens to pressure the United States to review its bilateral relationship with the Ethiopian government. The administration in Addis Ababa is regarded as being a key ally in the War on Terror commenced by George W. Bush.
The role of the Ethiopian community is particularly important. In Ethiopia’s historic elections held in 2005, the hopes of a new democratic era were crushed by the incumbent government amidst allegations of fraud and a backdrop of intimidation of civilians. After claiming victory over the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) Party prior to the announcement of the results in June 2005, several leading opposition figures, including leader Birtukan Medeksu, were arrested and detained. Thousands of her supporters were rounded up and tortured in prison. Following the implementation of martial law and a media blackout, the government set exemplified its no-nonsense approach to dissent on the streets of Addis Ababa once more when police opened fire, killing 193 civilians in June 2005. Ethiopia’s violent past had come back to haunt its people.
One of the key elements of the documentary Migration of Beauty is that it does not just focus on the negative aspects affecting the nation. Plenty of attention is devoted to the fact that Ethiopian immigrants and refugees to the U.S. are using their new citizenship and democratic rights denied to them by the government of their birth country to express themselves for change. “Ethiopia has a history of leading African liberation. It was the first African country to embrace Christianity, the King provided protection to Muslim refugees and guaranteed their rights as citizens, and Ethiopia resisted and defeated attempts at colonization by Italy,” continues Abdulaziz, as he constantly stresses the background linking his birth country’s association with democracy, human rights and resistance against a seemingly powerful foe.
For Abdulaziz, when American citizens exercise their rights as active citizens, results will appear and enforce major changes. The Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007 calls for democracy, human rights and economic freedoms to be respected, and came about through intense lobbying by the community towards sympathetic politicians in the United States. “Ethiopians living in America are not victims of the Ethiopian regime anymore. Being active participants in society means taking part in democratic processes.” Abdulaziz believes that having the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly is fundamental for positive, long-lasting change to take place, and it is something that must be practiced by all to ensure freedom and justice. The election of Barack Obama as President, he cites, is an example of everybody coming together in the spirit of unity, and he takes great pride in declaring that a man with African heritage is the next man to lead the United States.
According to the Ethiopian-born activist, life has not become easier for African immigrants seeking a new life in the U.S.A, and is quick to distinguish that they are not economic refugees. Abdulaziz knows the harsh realities that immigrants face upon arrival and settlement. “After I got my Masters degree in Plzen, in the country then-known as Czechoslovakia, my first job in America was sweeping floors in New York. Nowadays, diversity visa applicants are not treated equally. They must have high school education and be self-sufficient prior to arriving in the U.S.A.” Abdulaziz’s message is that everybody should be active by volunteering to help newly arrived migrants and refugees integrate with society. His work to give migrants a greater voice reflects his long lasting passion, for Abdulaziz is adamant that large scale community volunteering can produce permanent rewards.
Abdulaziz’s heart still beats deeply for his homeland and nowhere is this more evident than with his work in fund raising on behalf of between 5 and 10 million Ethiopians so that they may not endure the deadly famine sweeping across Africa. For him, government accountability to its constituents, and enshrining rights of free speech, free assembly and right and a free and open press that create the environment for a healthy, thriving democracy, and avert famine in Ethiopia. “I do not want to see Ethiopians dying of hunger, appearing on the front page of The (New York) Times,” he pleads passionately.
The legacy of the 2005 election’s aftermath still hangs over Ethiopia, a sign that some scores have still not been fully settled. On 30 December 2008, the BBC reported that opposition leader Birtukan Medeksu had re-sentenced to life imprisonment over charges of treason following her pardon in 2008. Medeksu had recently formed a coalition of opposition parties, the Union for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), and elections in Ethiopia are due to be held in 2010. In the meantime, the man who oversaw Ethiopia’s bloodiest period, Mengistu, continues to resist calls to be extradited to Ethiopia for his role in the genocide of the 1970s, in spite of being tried and found guilty in absentia in 2007. He lives in exile in Zimbabwe under the protection of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe.
Like so many other people in his presence for the evening, I consider myself fortunate to have heard about the experiences of Abdulaziz Kamus and admire how his past has shaped his career. nd that his visions of getting more communities to shape their destinies in their own hands by assisting one another will hopefully ensure brighter futures for every immigrant and refugee that will eventually undertake their own migration of beauty.