During the last two decades, a wave of immigration from the Horn of Africa has swept into the Seattle area, bringing people in large numbers from the three nations: Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Seattle has always been a choice destination for immigrants seeking safety from wars or human repression, relief from economic hardships, even from famine or natural disasters.
Most of these émigrés, though, came with a common theme and were allied generally seeking the same thing: escape from the past, and a new beginning.
But the last 20 years has brought a newer mix to our community from a fairly small space of the world, one fraught with internal disputes, decades-long wars, tribal and ethnic divisions and angst from continual human suppression.
We sought to talk with these people, to find out why here, so very far from whence they came, and now that they are here, are they succeeding in finding a new and rewarding life.
But it quickly became clear than most of these people wanted simply to get on with their lives and were not willing to discuss their new lives with people they did not know or trust. Of more than 50 requests for groups or individual interviews, none wanted to talk on the record.
An Ethiopian woman did agree to talk, but only if her name was not used. She is a Seattle professional woman who has lived here for 20 years. She said she felt freer to talk to talk publicly because her entire immediate family lives in the Seattle area. Her cousins live in many countries outside Ethiopia.
“I wanted to, but never went back,” she said, not because she could not afford to but because of political considerations from her family’s past.
“If we go, they will harm us,” she said.
“In Ethiopia, if you are from the government’s tribe, you get all the privileges,” she said. “You get to go to school, you get to do business — all the privileges. If you are not from the tribe — most cases, no schooling — you could be killed or jailed. So it is not safe to go back to Ethiopia right now.”
The émigré said Ethiopian police will take a person away, and that person often will never been seen again alive.
Some say often East Africans living in Seattle are approached by representatives of the Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia governments and told their relatives will be protected if they will inform on residents here in Seattle. Several people refusing to be interviewed for this story indicated they were concerned that their comments could cause problems for either them, their families or their relatives still in East Africa.
“That is why you never know who to trust, especially those who travel back and forth” from Africa, said the Seattle-area Ethiopian woman.
Retired University of Washington professor Sandra M. Chait is in the process of releasing her new book in which she interviewed 41 immigrants from the Horn of Africa who now live in the Seattle and Portland areas.
SEEKING SALAAM, Page 4