September 12, 2007

For local Ethiopians, new year brings hope for peace

At the end of a 5 hour service, (left) Mesert Tesfaye (cq), Yeshawal Zeleke (cq) (with baby) and local Ethiopians are blessed for the new millennium with holy water applied with a mixture of herbs (rue and rosemary), at St. Gebriel Church in Seattle.

For local Ethiopians, new year brings hope for peace

Today marks year 2000 on their calendar


Wubeshet Assefa fled Ethiopia 27 years ago as a political refugee and settled in Seattle on Labor Day in 1990.

Assefa, 47, was one of thousands who escaped famine, war or poverty to settle in the Northwest. Now a King County employee, he has raised two daughters and a son. But although thankful for his opportunities here, Assefa is disheartened by the decades of struggle that have afflicted his people.

Yet he is hopeful as Wednesday marks the year 2000 on the Ethiopian calendar -- the start of a new millennium. Like many others in the Northwest, he hopes it will usher in an era of prosperity, peace and unity to his country, and to Africa.

"Ethiopia has an old history and a rich history and culture, but we are really behind. This millennium, we hope will close the gap and we'll be on the same page," said Assefa, of the Ethiopian Millennium in the Pacific Northwest Organizing Committee, which has planned a large celebration this weekend in Seattle.

Other large U.S. cities also will mark the millennium. Seattle's will last from Friday through Sunday at Warren G. Magnuson Park, where thousands are expected to participate in fireworks, a soccer tournament, dancing and a symposium of scholars, Assefa said.

Some community leaders estimate between 20,000 and 30,000 East Africans live in the greater Seattle area; many emigrated from Ethiopia during the 1980s and 1990s and had children in the U.S. who are now coming of age.

The Ethiopian Orthodox calendar is based on the old Coptic and Roman calendars and falls almost eight years behind the Western calendar. About half the country's 80 million people are Orthodox Christian.

The celebration is an opportunity for the next generation to remember its roots and for all generations to contemplate moving Ethiopia forward socially and economically, Assefa said.

"This is the bridge between my generation and the next generation, and what we can do for Ethiopia, we can do for Africa as well," Assefa said.

It's also a chance to share Ethiopia's culture with the greater Northwest, he said.

On Sunday at St. Gebirel Church, built by the Ethiopian community in the Central District, about 750 people packed the sanctuary, which usually draws about 300. Two bishops concluded the millennium service by blessing the masses and splashing worshippers' foreheads with rosemary leaves and rue dipped in holy water. Their foreheads and collars dripping wet, people greeted others with "Enquan Adreseh," meaning "May you have arrived to the new year peacefully."

Fikru Kiffe, who attended the church Sunday, traveled from Ethiopia 22 years ago after the military seized control of the government, he said.

"I feel lucky to be alive during this important moment in our history. This isn't something that happens every 10 or 20 years," he said.

Wyube Worku, who owns a food-service business and attended the service, said the Ethiopian New Year is celebrated much like a U.S. Thanksgiving.

"We don't celebrate it like Americans and wait for midnight to come. ... Our celebration starts at 7:30 in the morning."

Traditionally, friends and family gather and share food such as doro wet (chicken stew with hard-boiled eggs), lamb, tela (beer) and teg (honey wine). Girls sing and take flowers door to door, she said.

Worku's oldest daughter, Hannah, a University of Washington sophomore, plans to travel to Washington, D.C., for a planned celebration, which has been billed as the largest in the country.

But Galmesa Elemo sees no reason to celebrate. He is from Oromo, the country's largest province, whose people historically have been persecuted for ethnic reasons.

Many Oromo natives plan a vigil at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Oromo Community Center at 2718 Jackson St.

A social worker with the Center for Career Alternatives in Seattle and father of four, Elemo, 26, has supported groups seeking independence for Oromia, which is why he was forced to seek political asylum in the U.S., he said.

"We don't have a country. How can you celebrate?" Elemo said. "How can you feel happy when people are starving and dying in that country?"

Muluneh Yohannes, of Seattle, a former diplomat who left his country for political reasons in 2003, said the next millennium is a chance for healing in Ethiopia. He was encouraged a few months ago when the government released several activists jailed for protesting the country's 2005 election.

For almost 20 years, a socialist dictator ruled Ethiopia until he was overthrown in the 1990s. He was replaced by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who installed a system of federalism, but his opponents alleged his re-election in 2005 was rigged. Protesters who took to the streets were jailed or killed.

"My aspiration is for a better future for our country, for Ethiopia. But we can only do that if there is a genuine will from the government and the opposition side," Johannes said.

But he calls Seattle his "second hometown."

He laughs about the Y2K paranoia that preceded 2000 in the U.S.

"Our economy isn't very sophisticated, so I don't think you'll have the Y2K anticipation," he said.


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