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A Refugee from Ethiopia, 20 Years Later - 2002-04-17

English Feature #7-33970 Broadcast August 7, 2000

Since 1980, some 85 thousand African refugees have been admitted to the United States for permanent resettlement. Over 30 thousand have been Ethiopian. Today on New American Voices one such refugee from Ethiopia shares his experiences.

"I left my country around 1980, actually in 1979, I believe. There was persecution back then."

Abiyu Berlie fits the definition of a refugee as someone fleeing his or her homeland because of the fear of persecution.

"Just to give you the background, there was a dictatorial military government supported by the former Soviet Union, a puppet regime, and they were persecuting people on their beliefs, their political, religious, or otherwise, and I happened to be one of them, and it was dangerous for me to stay at home, so I had to flee my country. That's how I left."

Like many thousands of Ethiopians, Abiyu Berlie, who was twenty-nine at the time, crossed the border into Sudan, where the government provided the refugees with some shelter and the bare necessities of existence. Eventually he made his way to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. A United Nations refugee resettlement program had just started there; Mr. Berlie applied, and was accepted. To come to the United States, a prospective refugee - then, as now - needs a sponsor.

"I was sponsored actually by a voluntary organization known as the International Rescue Committee. The IRC was generous enough to sponsor a lot of Ethiopians, and I was one of them, that's how I came to the U.S."

The International Rescue Committee is one of ten volunteer agencies which work with the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration to resettle refugees in the United States. As a sponsor, it not only helps with the process of migration, it also provides essential support when refugees arrives in their new country.

"I arrived in New York City, and the IRC was still our sponsor and they were providing us with basic necessities, and in fact they paid our hotel expenses for a while, and they helped us resettle by giving us advice and information on finding housing, jobs and that kind of stuff."

As is often the case, Mr. Berlie also found help in a network of earlier immigrants from his native country.

"In my case, actually two or three friends and me were lucky enough to find Ethiopians who had been here longer, and they provided us with some information and advice, so that's how we stopped our dependence on the IRC and then we decided to look for a job, and that's how we settled."

Abiyu Berlie found a job with a refugee resettlement agency in New York relatively quickly. Settling in a new country was not without its difficulties, however.

"I mean, I had to make some adjustments, very frankly, because back home you see yourself in different identities than here, you know. It may be perhaps ethnicity, or geographic background, that always play a role when you come to a new place. Here it's slightly different. You know, coming to New York City you have a lot of people, it's a city of immigrants, and I happen to be defined also, sort of, like African, or black or, you know, those type of things, which had never been in my consciousness, necessarily, in my daily life back home."

Mr. Berlie didn't stay long in his job with the resettlement program. He had other dreams he wanted to pursue.

"The first thing I really dreamed that I wanted to be, was I wanted to continue my education. I happened to know even way back that the U.S. provided very good opportunities for someone who wanted to pursue their education."

In fact, Abiyu Berlie went on to study economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and then received a Master of Business Administration degree from Yale University. He now works for a transportation agency, coordinating information and communication technologies for improving transportation services. Abiyu Berlie himself never forgot his Ethiopian roots, and he tries to pass on to his children, who were born in America, an understanding of their Ethiopian heritage.

"I like to make sure my children are exposed to both cultures. We try to help them understand, you know, where we came from and so on, like all immigrants in this country. We try to do that, but it's not easy. Definitely, they are Americans, but we would like to remind them, their roots are Ethiopian."

Twenty years after coming to America as a refugee, with nothing, Mr. Berlie has a job he enjoys, a family he loves - and he hasn't stopped dreaming.

"I still have my own dreams, you know, this is a land of dreams, but in many respects I am happy with what I have done so far in my life."

Next week in this program we'll talk about some of the many agencies that resettle refugees in the United States and help them adjust to life in a new country.