Anything is possible in America, Ethiopian immigrant tells students

January 15th, 2009 | by addis portal |

In a small cement high school in Ethiopia, Tewolde Habtemicael heard for the first time the concept of democracy.
“What is this?” he wondered as American Peace Corps volunteers taught him and his classmates about a government run by the people.
“We had no concept of democracy before that because we had one king and he did whatever he wanted,” Habtemicael, 60, told Blair Roman’s sophomore government class at Carson High School on Wednesday.
The visiting Americans also helped prepare them for entrance exams for the country’s only university, which accepted just 560 students each year. Habtemicael passed. In college, he ran for vice president of the student union.
“Because I attentively listened to what my American teachers taught me, I was elected,” he said.
Invigorated by the idea of democracy, Habtemicael led demonstrations calling on the government to hold elections. Instead, he and three classmates were arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.
A student boycott led to their release a year later. On probation, Habtemicael was forbidden from participating in political activities, a condition he couldn’t uphold.
Three years later, protesting a military takeover, he was arrested again.
“This time, they do not take you to court, they kill you,” he said. “We were on the verge of being executed. They killed our king. We were next.”
Amnesty International intervened and he was again released, but he knew he couldn’t stay.
“I walked from Ethiopia to Sudan,” he said. “I know I have to get away. I want to get to America. I love America because I love democracy.”
Hiding by day and walking by night, he ended up in Saudi Arabia. He met a Swedish man there, and asked if he could emigrate to his country. The man told him he’d be better off going to America.
“Anything’s possible in America,” Habtemicael remembers the man telling him.
He petitioned the American Embassy to accept him as a political refugee, and the World Council of Churches paid his travel to the United States.
He contacted the Peace Corps volunteer who first had taught him about American values, then a professor at the University of Montana, Missoula.
Habtemicael made arrangements to get his master’s degree there.
“I said now I can learn without any problem in the United States. My whole thing was to acquire education,” he said. “Yes, everything is possible in America.”
He got a part-time job clearing tables in the dining room, and dedicated himself to studying.
“I was scared at the university,” he said. “Now I have to compete with real American students. I have to study day and night. I drink coffee all night. I still remember it was NesCafe.”
When grades were posted, he received all As. He double-checked. But it was true.
“Then I think everything is possible in America.”
He graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average. Two years later, he got a job in human resources for the state of Nevada.
He moved to Carson City for the job and has remained here for 21 years, raising two children who are now 20 and 14.
Last year, when he heard President-elect Barack Obama’s support of the Peace Corps, he joined the campaign.
“I will help Barack Obama,” he said.
He became a precinct captain and campaigned every weekend, canvassing door-to-door to encourage people to register and vote.
His message was the same.
“Get involved, then you determine your fate,” he said. “I wanted people to use their precious votes to choose their future leaders.”
He knows what the other side is like.
“Back home, I had to run away from the leaders because they might arrest me, they might kill me,” he said. “Here, they beg you for your vote.”
For Christmas, he sent a picture of himself and Obama taken during a campaign stop in Carson City to friends and family all over the world.
“‘It is true then,’ they say, ‘anything is possible in America.’”
Habtemicael counseled the students to participate in democracy. They have a duty to do so as Americans, he said.
“This coming Tuesday, there will be parties all over the world — in many, many cities and many, many countries,” he said. “America has shocked the world. We elected the grandson of a goat herder.
“We taught the world it doesn’t matter your race. It doesn’t matter your sex. Anything is possible in America.”

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