Awakening giant!

By Prof. Al Mariam
July 4, 2006

Prof. Al Mariam
Can Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans living in America make a difference in their homeland?

(Full text of address given on July 2, 2006, at the Ethiopian American Council of the United States Forum, the LAX Hilton, Los Angeles, CA.)

Amesegnalehu. Enquan dehna metachehu.
Thank you. Thank you very much.

First, I would like to thank all of you for taking the time to come to this event. We appreciate very much your presence here today.

I would like to offer my special thanks to the Ethiopian Americans Council of the United States (EAC US) for organizing and sponsoring this event and for facilitating dialogue on issues that are critical to us in America, and our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia.

The very existence of the Ethiopian Americans Council and other similar organizations is proof positive that we have come of age in America.

I would like to congratulate the Ethiopian Sports Federation of North America as it opens its 23rd annual Ethiopian Soccer and Culture Festival in Los Angeles. Ms. Ana Gomes is here with us today.

As you all know, Ms. Gomes is a great friend and a staunch defender of democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. Who can forget?

Ana is the one who called the international cops when she witnessed the wholesale theft of an election, and the hijacking of democracy in Ethiopia in 2005. Ms. Gomes, thank you for being here with us, and for standing up for us.

Although our great champion, Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey, is not here with us today, we have our brother in the cause of justice and human rights, Mr. Greg Simpkins of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations.

Greg, we are indebted to you and Chairman Smith for your dedicated and tireless service in the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia.

When others chose to became mouthpieces for the doers of inequity and apologists for ballot thieves, cold-blooded murderers and jail keepers, Chairman Smith and yourself stood up and upheld the principles of human rights and insisted that democratic verdict of the people must be respected.

We thank you!

Last but not least, I want to extend a warm welcome to any government representatives who may have traveled far and wide from the homeland or the nation’s capital to attend this event.

When you return and file your reports on these proceedings today, I hope you will dare tell the truth -- nothing extenuate -- that you came upon a peaceful gathering of Ethiopians in Los Angeles.

That you heard them talk. And that they talked of nothing but freedom, human rights and democracy in their homeland.

Report to your superiors that these Ethiopians bear malice towards none, but stretch out their hands in friendship, peace and good will to all.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am an academic and a lawyer by profession.

I have spent a good part of my adult life teaching young Americans in the art and science of politics and the law.

The balance of my professional life has been largely dedicated to defending the rights of the accused, and safeguarding American civil liberties to the best of my ability.

I believe this has been and continues to be a worthwhile commitment for me.

I will confess to you today that I have not had the good fortune of rendering much service to the land of our fathers and mothers.

I assure you, this is not for lack of interest or desire on my part.

The fulfillment of my boyish hopes and dreams was to return to the motherland one day and make a contribution, however small.

But as you know, things fall apart, and so did my hopes and dreams.

Perhaps, some of you may sympathize with me if I tell you that I carry with me a sense of guilt about the way things turned out.

I should also let you know that I have been away from the motherland for many years now, perhaps too many to count.

But I assure you that I may have left Ethiopia, but Ethiopia has never left me.

My case is a simple one. To adapt an old saying: “You can take the kid out of Ethiopia, but you can not take Ethiopia out of the kid!”

That is exactly how I feel.

Let me also set the record clear at the outset.

I am a follower of Mahatama Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., two great leaders who were deeply inspired by the teachings of Christ.

I believe in the ways of nonviolence, truth and love.

I also believe that mere declaration of faith in these principles is not enough.

Ghandi and King have taught that the highest expression of love for mankind is to love justice, the highest virtue to stand for truth, and the highest value, compassion for our fellow man and woman.

There is no place for violence where justice stands tall.

No place for oppression where law reigns supreme.

I believe we prove the righteousness of our cause not in battlefields soaked in blood and filled with corpses, but in the living hearts and thinking minds of men and women of goodwill.

And so today I come before you to share a few words about a question of great interest to all of us:

Can we -- Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans-- make a difference in our homeland while living, working and struggling in America?

I shall argue that we can, and in fact, are making a world of difference today.

As I labor to answer this weighty question, I wish to speak with you, my friends, not as an Ethiopian, not as an American, but as an Ethiopian American.

I want to speak with you as one who was blessed to have been born in a country unrivalled for its beauty and the compassion of its people, and also as one who had the great fortune of living in a country that strives to be a beacon of democracy in the world.

I am going to speak with you bluntly today, and so I ask for your forgiveness in advance if the truth as I see it makes you uncomfortable, makes you question yourselves and your values.

I believe we must step out of our comfort zones if we are to do anything that will make a difference in our homeland.

It is no secret that our homeland today is gripped with terror and tyranny. And our people are floating precariously on a sea of melancholy and despair.

Over the past year, an irreversible course of tyranny has been charted in our country. And the light of freedom has been extinguished.

Everyday, our people look towards the westward sky for signs of hope.

But the star on the westward sky shines dimly.

Their despair deepens, and they are overwhelmed by a sense of abandonment.

And so today I have come here to gaze with you towards the heavens and face the question: “Can we make a difference in our homeland while living, working and struggling in America?”

My friends, this innocent question is pregnant with a serious accusation.

Today, we stand accused of the crime of moral indifference to the suffering of our people, moral indifference to evil!

You may ask: Who dares make such an outrageous accusation!!

Allow me to tell you a little story.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance meeting with a bright young man who had recently arrived in this country from Ethiopia.

In the course of our conversation, this young man asked me to explain to him why it is that Ethiopians in America seem not to care or be able to do much to help the suffering of their brothers and sisters in the motherland.

He said to me words to the following effect:

“There are many of you in America who are well educated, prosperous, politically and socially aware, but you do not seem to do much for the country that gave you birth.”

I must admit, I was caught a bit off guard by this matter-of-fact observation.

For a moment, I thought I was being asked not so much to offer an explanation, but to present an instant defense to a state of facts. But the young man’s inquiry was innocent enough.

Surely, he asked not out of malice but with the same innocence of a child who notices something out of place and is puzzled.

I don’t know if it was a reflexive reaction of a guilty mind on my part, but suddenly I felt I was standing accused:

Is this young man asking a question or condemning us all for living in America in relative luxury, apparently unconcerned and disengaged from the life of our homeland?

Is he asking me and the rest of us to make sacrifices?

In that fleeting moment, I thought I should object strenuously:

“What right do you have to expect sympathy from us or even assume we are patriotic enough to care?

Who are you to question our morality?”

I was uncomfortable. I was being held accountable. I did not like it.

I wanted to feign righteous indignation. Chastise him for his audacity to ask such an impertinent question.

But I thought it safer for me to steer the conversation away from this unrelenting question, and casually brush him off with an off-the-cuff response about not really being able to do much from thousands of miles away.

May be, I thought, he will buy it and will not insist on an answer. I will be off the hook.

But he did not have to ask again. I was deeply stung by his question.

I could not walk away by giving him a flippant answer. It would be disrespectful. And if I did not answer his question forthrightly, I thought I’d be at serious risk of compromising my own intellectual integrity.

I did not have to think much.

It dawned on me that the young man was not merely asking a question, but in fact indicting us all for the crime of moral indifference in the first degree, for failure to assist in the plight and suffering of our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia.

It was distressing to me.

You know, moral indifference to evil is the greatest crime of all.

It comes bundled with the lesser included offense of moral cowardice.

If the philosophers are right in teaching that suffering is what makes a human being human, then indifference to the suffering of our brothers and sisters is a demonstration of our inhumanity.

If the philosophers are right in teaching that compassion is what makes a human being human, then indifference to their plight is an act of cruelty.

If justice is what makes a human being human, then indifference to injustice is an injustice itself.

I submit to you today that when one is indifferent to the suffering of others, one has indeed taken a moral stand.

A moral stand which says, the life or pain of one’s countrymen and women is of no consequences. That their lives have no real value or meaning.

Now, I know, it is convenient to be indifferent. We do not have to get involved in another person’s despair or pain.

But if the accusation of indifference in the young man’s question is true, we are at perilous risk of losing not only our moral standing, but our essential humanity as well.

I felt I had to say something to convince this young man that everything is OK! Stop him from pursuing this uncomfortable line of questioning.

I desperately wanted to present a credible defense.

I wanted to tell this young man that life in America is really difficult.

He must understand that everyday we are fighting for survival.

We work long hours and we get weary.

We do not have time to tend to our own affairs, let alone to get involved in politics and save others. We need to be saved ourselves.

I wanted to tell him that he was new and naïve.

It will take time for him to understand the trials and tribulations of the black immigrant experience in America.

He will soon find out. It’s a jungle out there. Yes, live in America for a year and ask me the same question, I wanted to challenge the young man.

I wanted to tell him it takes generations to mature politically and integrate into the American political system and influence policy outcomes. He must understand, it’s not that easy.

I desperately wanted to convince him there really wasn’t much that we could do. That is just the way things are!

But I knew this litany of lame excuses was disingenuous at best, perhaps bordering on the dishonest.

I knew better.

There is really no defense against a charge of moral indifference to the suffering of others.

There is no argument in support of silence in the face of injustice.

There is no defense against a charge of inaction, apathy and political paralysis when our people suffer under the yoke of a brutal and merciless dictatorship.

There is no excuse for not taking a stand when our motherland teeters on the precipice of disaster.

I thought I should be honest with this young man, and answer his question without evasion.

“It is not lack of interest or compassion or inability to identify with the suffering of our brothers and sisters,” I confessed to the young man.

The real reasons, I said, are simple.

“You see, some of us do not know how to get involved, organize politically, or use resources available to us. We lack knowledge and experience.”

Some of us, I said, remain estranged from our homeland.

The wounds that have been inflicted upon us in the past are too deep and too painful, and have yet to heal.

Our thoughts can not be homeward bound. It hurts too much to look back. To think back.

Some of us live in America, I told the young man, resigned to a life of quiet desperation.

We feel lost. We do not feel at ease and at home in America. America is a wilderness to us.

We feel permanently cut off from our roots.

Some of us, I said, have given up hope and faith in the future of our motherland.

We are overwhelmed by the unending misfortunes that have befallen our beloved country.

We know all too well, our brothers and sisters die everyday not only from the bullets of ballot thieves and oppression, but also from the scourge of AIDS and debilitating poverty.

It is all too much to bear.

Some of us are afraid, I told the young man, afraid to speak, afraid to take a stand, afraid to be seen doing the right thing.

We lack courage. We fear our own shadows.

We are paralyzed by distrust and mistrust of each other, unable to unite or cooperate in any meaningful collective action.

Some of us, I said, are drowning in a sea of consumerism and suffocating ourselves in lifestyles well beyond our means. We struggle to keep our heads above water. We don’t have time to worry about anyone else.

I told the young man some of us have our own individual interests to protect.

We are building homes, operating businesses and helping in the economic development of our people. We want the best of both worlds.

Our credo is “Business and politics do not mix.”

Our mantra: “Leave politics to the politicians.” We can’t get involved.

We stand on the sidelines hoping against hope that if things change, we will still be around and still get ahead.

And, I said, yes, some of us, some of us, just do not care. We couldn’t care less!

I saw an expression of shock and dismay on this young man’s face.

Perhaps he did not expect such disarming honesty.

But I was not about to let him down!

“But look at us now!” I said effusively. “We are the sleeping giant beginning to awaken!”

“Did you feel the tremor in the Ethiopian political landscape when Chris Smith introduced the Ethiopia freedom, human rights and democracy act in the United States Congress?” I asked the young man.

Did you feel the earth move when we stood together shoulder-to-shoulder and said to Pharaoh:

“Release the prisoners of conscience, now!”

“Keep your hands off the free press!”

“Let justice flow in our country like the mighty waters of the Blue Nile!”

Did you feel it?

“Look at us now,” I said.

We are organizing, building coalitions and action groups, not only to demonstrate in the streets of America but also to walk the halls of Congress and executive branch offices.

“Look at us now!” I said. We are mobilizing at the grassroots level, groups with different agendas are coming together, uniting in a common purpose.

A new generation of Ethiopian Americans is taking upon the cause, and their thirst for justice in their ancestral homeland is no less than our own.

Our sons and daughters, born and raised in America, have claimed their identity, and their pride in their heritage is only exceeded by their enthusiasm to help their people.

Look at us now!

We are forging ahead-- without discouragement or reserve of action.

I could see the young man’s eyes lit up with anticipation and joy.

I wanted to reassure him.

“We can not turn our backs on the history of the past year.

We can not sit silent when freedom is rooted out, democracy hijacked in broad daylight, our brothers and sisters butchered in the streets, human rights trampled and the innocent languish away in overcrowded and unsanitary jails.”

We can’t. We won’t!!

We insist on a forward course, the only course. We have no avenue of retreat from our present struggle for human rights, democracy and freedom in our homeland. And so, I told the young man what I believed to be the truth.

I am not sure if he believed me, but I tried.

As I left the young man, the question he planted in my mind kept gnawing at me.

Part II


1 1 1