Speech Delivered at Dunbar Heights United Church On my 12th Year Anniversary in Canada
The year was 1997. In a small town 225 KM outside of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and for many, the capital city of Africa, many people were in a festive mode. The festive mode was because of a celebration of a milestone in the lives of young men and women. About 30 graduates from the town’s high school had earned scores, which would guarantee them a place in universities and colleges.
This is in a country where an admission to a university was highly competitive. This was an opportunity afforded to the select few. Each year, a little over 100,000 high school students sat for the Ethiopian National School Leaving Certificate Examination (ESLCE), but only about 10,000 made it go past high school. I was one of the lucky youth who was lucky to have been chosen and a bright future seemed to lie ahead of me.
For me, it was not just my success, but the success of my parents, who had struggled to make ends met with a pension of about 20 Canadian dollars. It meant hope; hope that help was on the way, that I was escaping my circumstances because of the power of an education. In a matter of four to five years, it was hoped, I would complete my degree, land a good job and become a financially independent person. The hope was to extend to my families circumstances as well. People in my village also had a stake in my success. In one way or another, they had all made a contribution to my achievement. It was a time when, even when poor, had an optimistic outlook in life.
I entered Addis Ababa University in the fall of 1997. In Ethiopia, as perhaps in many other countries, universities are where the young, idealistic, future leaders of the country have the courage and determination to combat oppression and all sorts of social ills. Addis Ababa University had a vibrant academic community, hosting events spanning a wide range of issues, including politics, literature, and sport.
Students were politically and socially conscious, well aware of the important issues facing their country. In the year 2000, I was elected as president of the student council. I was elated and I wanted to be the reform candidate. I did not want to be president in name only.
My council immediately began asking the university’s administration to address certain administrative problems. We believed our demands were easy to implement and we were convinced we had asked a serous of reasonable requests on behalf of our members. We were young people with full of idealism goals and ambitions. Our demands were to free the student council from political pressure, lift the banning on publication of the student council magazine and have the police withdraw from the campuses.
Dictatorial regimes, like the one in Ethiopia, preferred, still prefer squashing riots with brutal force, even when it could easily have been done with tear gas or police batons. What is worse? Their arrogance had no limits. For example, in 1995 when Addis Ababa University students took to the streets in opposition to the government, the police opened fire, kill protesters with live bullets. When asked for explanation, the late prime minister said, “We didn’t inherit from the previous government rubber bullets or tear gas to use for dispersing the protesters.” In the 2001 riots sparked by the university’s refusal to meet AAU students’ demands, police shot to death 41 protesters. The protesters’ crime had been the burning of cars or smashing their windshields and petty theft. The students didn’t take any one’s life. We killed no one. They killed us.
As former president of the student council and one of the leaders of the movement, the government accused me and my friends of instigating the riots, which later became a nationwide protest. A man hunt was launched and I went into hiding. My hometown, which had celebrated my success four years previously, was now flooded with police looking for the “fugitive” because in Ethiopia you are presumed to be guilty until proven innocent and that is more so in political matters. My brother and mother were caught. My mother was later released but my brother was jailed for over a week. Neither my mother nor my brother was involved in my political activities.
However, authoritarian regimes believed in so-called collective punishment or perhaps guilt by association.
The saddest part of it all is that dictatorial regimes, instead of launching reforms, only grow more paranoid, tightening their grip on power and escalating repression, perhaps in response to their own economic and political interests. And perhaps because they feared reprisal for the horrendous crimes they had committed on innocent victims. Fearing that I would be imprisoned, tortured and even executed, I fled Ethiopia to a neighboring country, Kenya, in search of a home. Four years later, with the help of Dunbar Heights United church, to which I will be eternally grateful, I was able to come to Canada, on April 27, 2005.
I do believe in the rewards for hard work. I have to be honest with you, though, that when I went to law school in Canada, I never thought that I would practice law here. I was hoping that my home country would become free someday, I would be able to return, and the education I was to receive in Canada would help me serve my country. After years of hard work and generous help from dear friends, I successfully completed my law degree, LLB and LLM. I articled with a law firm and was eventually called to the Bar of Upper Canada (Ontario) in September 2014 to become a full-fledged lawyer.
Unfortunately, my dad didn’t live long enough to make it to my graduation day. He passed away when I was a third year law student in Ethiopia. My mom, who sent me off to AAU in 1997, hoping I would be back with my degree five years later, after another thirteen years, finally came to Toronto to witness my graduation. However late it might have been, she did finally see me succeed and reach a milestone.
Scores of authors have written books about how the history of the human being is the history of migration, people moving from one place to another. I am the product and beneficiary of this struggle. In 2010 when I left law school after finishing my degree, the world economy was in a deep recession and it was very difficult to find an articling position with a law firm. Hence, I continued my study and graduated with an LLM. I volunteered with a Washington, DC based diaspora Ethiopians media called ESAT for a year. Finally, I managed to article with Mr. Jaswant SinghMangat, who, like myself was an immigrant who came to Canada about forty years ago as a refugee from India. I am now passing on the help I received from Mr. Mangat by helping other new immigrants to Canada. I started working as a lawyer in a basement office, as that was all I could afford. Now I work in a big two-room office in the heart of downtown Toronto.
Ethiopia is an ancient country with a rich history, civilization and culture. Unfortunately, over the last forty years, it has not been fortunate enough to have a government with the mandate and vision to govern the nation responsibly. The administration of Emperor Haile Silassie, who ruled Ethiopia until 1974, was plagued by serious problems that ultimately led to his demise. However, his administration came nowhere close to the brutality that subsequent governments have showed in their treatment of citizens who have resisted their rule. There is no historical account of extrajudicial killings of tens or hundreds of demonstrators during Haile Silassie’s reign. At least, I haven’t read about any.
In a world that has seen one country after another, launching democratic reforms over the past several decades, Ethiopian governments have been going in the other direction, growing increasingly intolerant to dissent and eventually asserting absolute control over the country. In 2010, there was only one opposition member in the Ethiopian House of Commons which has 547 seats.
Five years later in the 2015 national election, the ruling party denied even that single seat to the opposition and took all 547 seats for itself. And since October 2016, the government declared a state of emergency granting its security forces complete impunity, which has allowed them to harass, imprison, torture, and kill anyone as they please. The state of emergency has been extended for four months at the end of March 2017.
Canada is a safe country that provides sanctuary to people who are forced to flee their home country on account of their ethnicity, membership in opposition parties, views, political or otherwise. Democratic governments protect their citizens, ensuring their safety. Authoritarian governments do the opposite.
They threaten the safety of their citizens. Canadians have consistently demonstrated their high moral standards and generosity by offering a new home to people who were denied freedom in their own lands, to people who were persecuted by their own governments whose primary objective was supposed to be to protect them. Thank you for doing that Canada.
I am always fascinated by Canada’s admirable moral standing. For example, before I became a lawyer, I worked as a court interpreter for about a year. As a translator I was being paid $90 for a case involving a minor parking infraction where the fine is only $ 50. If convicted, the individual might pay only $ 50 plus surcharges. This is meant to make sure the defendant gets a fair hearing, despite the penalty for the violation being such a paltry sum.
Another good example is the concept of humanitarian and compassionate considerations. When immigrants become inadmissible because of criminality or misrepresentation, or by violating the terms and conditions under which they were admitted to Canada, they are not automatically deported. Rather, after a long due process of law, most are given another chance to have their cases considered on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
Canadians are doing this out of the value they place on human dignity and out of a sense of moral obligation, not in response to outside pressure from international organizations or because it expects a reward for doing that. I hope that many of you have heard the news about the kind treatment received by asylum seekers illegally crossing the Canadian border from the US. I am immensely grateful to Canada for what it has done and continue to do for me and the whole of humanity.
I am forever thankful. Our kindness, generosity and moderation are how the world knows us to be and I hope we will not surrender that vision. Our vision!
Thank you for everything that you did for me over the past 12 years. I will forever be a proud Ethiopian-Canadian. Thank you!
TeklemichaelAbebe Sahlemariam, April, 2017