English Feature #7-33948 Broadcast July 31, 2000
About 85 thousand refugees came to the United States last year. Two percent - or slightly under two thousand refugees - were from Ethiopia. Today on New American Voices you'll hear the story of one of these Ethiopians, twenty-year-old Omar Bedane.
Omar Bedane has very little memory of Ethiopia, having spent virtually his entire life in refugee camps, first in Somalia and then in Kenya. He was only a child when he left Ethiopia with his parents - and thousands of others.
"Actually, I'm so young - I can say two and a half years old. I was with my parents in Somalia like 12 years, and then we came back together to Ethiopia, and then I leave them in Ethiopia in 1993 and I cross to Kenya, I was in Kakuma refugee camp like six years."
The food and shelter in the camps was provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In Kakuma, although the living conditions were crowded and difficult and violence was an ever-present threat, there were also schools for the young refugees.
"Sure, I'm going to school in the refugee camp. There's a school, high school, every kind of school they have, actually, in that refugee camp. But there's no full peace, that's the problem over there."
To leave Kakuma and emigrate to the United States, Omar Bedane needed a sponsor. He applied to various U.N. agencies to help him come to America, without success. In the end it was his sister, who happened to marry a U.S. citizen, who sponsored him, together with his father and four brothers. It was also the sister, along with the International Rescue Committee, who helped him settle in the new country.
"She take the responsibility for everything, when we come. She spent for our house, rented a house, to find a job. And the IRC, International Rescue Committee, they also helped me find a job."
Omar's first job was as a dishwasher-steward. After six months, having learned some English, he moved a step or two up the ladder.
"Now I have a hotel job as a houseman, housekeeping houseman. I started with stewarding, and then after six months I change my job as a housekeeping housman. I'm enjoying my job now."
At age 20, Omar continues to live with his sister and her family. Virtually every penny he earns he sends back to relatives and friends in Kenya or Ethiopia, who, he says with tears in his eyes, are so much worse off than he is. Meanwhile, young Mr. Bedane has dreams for the future.
"Certainly, I'm in school now, still, I'm trying to learn about computers, too, I'm hoping to change my job. Actually, my goal is so far away and right now I don't have the ability for that, but when I do have the ability I would like an office job - and also, I would like to work with refugees, because all my life I'm a refugee. I don't think I like a hotel job because it's so hard all the time, but I have to work, to build my future. I don't think I have any future, before I come here. Now I see myself as having a good future, if I try to go to school and then to work hard."
When he is not working, Omar Bedane spends his time learning to use a computer, and looking for other job opportunities, at the Washington office of the Ethiopian Community Development Council. The Council is one of ten volunteer agencies that work with the U.S. Department of State to resettle refugees in the United States. The Council's coordinator for Employment Services, Erik Robinson, says the organization provides a wide variety of services for refugees in the Washington area.
"It's very similar throughout all the resettlement agencies. In terms of the resettlement services you provide health referrals, mental health referrals, basic acculturation training, you provide English as a second language training, pretty much anything to help them adjust to life in America and to become self-sufficient."
That adjustment is seldom easy, even with the kind of help Omar Bedani has had from relatives, government agencies and community groups. Next week on New American Voices we'll talk with another Ethiopian refugee - one who after 20 years in this country has fulfilled many of his dreams.