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Denver metro area home to 30,000 Ethiopians, Eritreans

AURORA, CO – JULY 21: Women pray during a Sunday morning service at St. Mary’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church on July 21, 2013. There are over 30,000 Ethiopian immigrants in the Denver area, but due to countless languages and past political alliances their culture is divided. (Photo By Grant Hindsley / The Denver Post)By Joey Bunch

As America counted down to the bicentennial of its Declaration of Independence in 1976, Yoseph Tafari was taking the first steps toward winning his own freedom. The 21-year-old organizer in the anti-Marxist movement in Ethiopia staggered alone toward the Sahara Desert, the mountains of his native Ethiopia shrinking behind him with each stride.
To escape the military junta that had marked him for death, Tafari spent four days in the wilderness, until goatherds found him and took him to the dry riverbed that marked the Sudan border near Kurmuk.
He risked death because death seemed certain.
“It’s not death that you fear,” he explained. “It’s the torture. These were very brutal people.”
Like other refugees, Tafari never returned, though he continues to look back in his mind.
A bloody, 17-year civil war that began in 1974 drove a mass migration to the United States. Church groups helped at least 2,700 refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea, the province that split off after the war ended in 1991, resettle in Denver.
Others followed to join families, for education, for job opportunities. Today, activists and academics estimate there are more than 30,000 Ethiopians and Eritreans among the seven-county metro area’s nearly 2.9 million people.
As a group, Ethiopians have stitched together a vibrant piece of the city’s social and commercial fabric. They own businesses, build ornate churches, send their kids to state colleges and live an American dream.
The Denver Ethiopian Yellow Pages includes 118 Ethiopian-owned businesses, and their 17 metro-area restaurants are fixtures not only for countrymen, but a trendy favorite of foodies as well.
But for all their growth and enterprise, Denver’s newer demographic has struggled for cohesion, fragmented by 84 mostly tribal languages and dialects, old-country politics and

a determination to put their native country’s troubled past behind them.
Earlier this month, the specter of Ethiopia’s past re-emerged in Colorado. An aging Aurora parking lot attendant admitted in federal court that he was Kefelegne Alemu Worku, accused of participating in at least 101 deaths as a guard at a makeshift prison in the late 1970s, when thousands of Ethiopians were killed for political reasons.
He was recognized by a former prisoner at the Cozy Cafe, an Ethiopian eatery in Aurora, an amazing twist of fate.
“Frankly, many people who came in contact with Worku on the opposite side didn’t live to tell the story,” said Peter Van Arsdale, a cultural anthropologist and director of the African Initiative at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and author of “Forced to Flee: Human Rights and Human Wrongs in Refugee Homelands.”
Until the civil war, Ethiopia was ruled by royalty who claimed lineage from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, he said. That sense of dignity and pride has never left Ethiopia’s cultural identity, Van Arsdale said.
“They are a people of kings and accomplishment,” he said.
The character of Colorado’s Ethiopian community, he said, is reflected well in a legend about the Battle of Adwa in 1896, when citizens took the high ground above the city and fought off the well-armed Italian army by throwing rocks and tumbling boulders, a great shame for Italy and a message to other invaders. Ethiopia is the only African country never conquered or colonized by outsiders.
“They are industrious persons with a very rich history of hard work and making the most with modest resources,” Van Arsdale said. “They’ve done that same thing here in Colorado.”
Ericka Haile, a website engineer who came to Colorado as a toddler in the early 1980s, says her generation of immigrants is “just like every other American.”
“Ethiopians here want the same thing everybody else does: work, a nice family, a future,” she said.
Nebiyu Asfaw, a project manager for Verizon, community organizer and church deacon, said most Ethiopian immigrants follow a template. Most arrive with little more than lint in their pockets. They work multiple low-paying jobs, save money, buy a home, start businesses and send their children to college. “That’s expected,” he said.
They cling tight to their faith from the land identified or referenced 56 times in the Bible.
At Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo St. Mary’s Church in Aurora on Sunday morning, Christian art from Ethiopia hung on the walls, and the pews displayed a mix of fashion, equally African and Anglo. A man in a baggy white linen outfit called a netela sat one row behind a man in a cowboy shirt and jeans before their communion with holy water rationed from a blue Igloo cooler.
In the hallway outside, a half-dozen women covered from the tops of their heads to below their ankles in one-piece wraps sat on the floor with their knees pulled to their chests and watched over children romping nearby.
“We assimilate very well, but we also maintain our identity,” Asfaw said.
Like many successful Ethiopians, Feseha Wold, a customer service representative for the U.S. Treasury Department, looks ahead, not back. He has daily reminders of the horror he left behind — a glass eye and two stiff, disfigured legs from stepping on a land mine when he was a rebel fighter in 1978.
An Eritrean, he was a teacher who felt disgust with the communist regime’s murderous campaign. He remembers a nomadic song “from the dark days” that glorified punishment of disobedient children. The government would play it on the radio before they announced who had been killed that day.
Wold has four children. As he spoke in the living room of his handsome townhome, his daughter Rita Wold, 26, sat at the dining room table and listened closely.
“I’m hearing some of this stuff for the first time,” she said.
Her father explained: “I don’t want to teach them the bad things, how the government can kill people and take things. I want them to learn the good culture here, the good social values America has.”
He hesitates, then amends.
“There are good things there: the culture, the respect for seniors, taking advice, but my kids are Americans, so they walk away when I’m still talking; they don’t even look in my eyes,” Wold said.
Esubalew Johnston’s journey to the United States in 1997 is rooted in a triumph over cruelty much like the Ethiopians who came to Colorado in the 1970s and ’80s.
When he was 5 or 6, men from the capital city, Addis Ababa, came to his remote village, where he lived in a flimsy grass hut with his mother, grandmother and sister. They convinced his mother they would take him to a school.
Instead, they blinded him by putting poisonous tree sap in his eyes, and forced him to beg on the street, because blind children can earn the most. His future seemed hopeless, the 24-year-old Metropolitan State University of Denver graduate said last week.
“You can cry, flail and scream or whatever, but all that’s going to hear you is the hyenas,”
God intervened, he said.
A couple who ran a school for the blind rescued him, although his kidnappers were never captured.
The rescue led Johnston to a hospital for tuberculosis, the illness that killed his sister in his village, and eventually to adoptive parents in the United States and a school for the blind in Colorado.
Johnston is looking for a job and hopes to work with adopted children. He’s determined to send money back to Ethiopia.
“I have family back home,” he said. “They don’t really know what America is, but they’re counting on me. America gives you opportunities; that’s why everybody in the world wants to come here.
“When I speak to adopted kids I tell them, ‘Chase your dreams and your goals but don’t ever forget where you came from.’ ”
Joey Bunch: 303-954-1174, or

Read more: Denver metro area home to 30,000 Ethiopians, Eritreans – The Denver Post

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