Spotlight: Abyssinian Student Union rallies for Ethiopian immigrants

Photo by Vincent Ta
Photo by Vincent Ta

“Students of UC Riverside are against the violence in Saudi Arabia” read the large black letters scrawled onto a plain, white canvas by UC Riverside’s Abyssinian Student Union (ASU) President Menbere Dejenie and fellow ASU member Leah Takele. The yellows, greens and reds of Ethiopia’s national colors took the form of headbands, flags and long, plastic horns used by energized protesters, who stood for hours on end on the sidewalks of Sawtelle Boulevard in Los Angeles. Handmade cardboard signs exhibited photos of Ethiopian violence with an individual’s bloodied head, exposing a smashed-in cranium with bloody brain nerve endings, held up for display.

The Saudi government began a crackdown on undocumented immigrants after they were given a seven-month amnesty period to formalize their status by Nov. 4. The deportations have triggered violence between Saudi police forces and Ethiopians leaving the country. And in response to such violence, about 13 ASU members participated in a demonstration, which took place in front of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. The ASU members sported black clothing and gave off rumbling cheers with their fellow demonstrators as a sign of solidarity with the Ethiopian community during the protest — a protest so prominent, the embassy needed to be closed down for the day.

“Abyssinian” is a collective term that is used to describe individuals originating from Ethiopia or Eritrea, explained Dejenie. Founded in 2005, the student organization brings together the cultures and heritages from each country, while promoting community service, academic advancement and social engagement. “ASU is different from other universities’ (organizations) because we choose to unify two countries that other schools do not (due to) the history of political tension between the two countries,” Dejenie said, referring to the conflict-laden secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993.

Takele held the concern that Ethiopians working in Saudi Arabia faced mistreatment due to Saudi Arabia’s recent anti-immigration policies. “A lot of Ethiopian women do not work in our countries because there aren’t a lot of jobs given for them,” Takele explained, saying that undocumented Ethiopians are being sent to detention camps prior to being deported. The Ethiopian government is spending $2.6 million in relief programs to assist in the return and rehabilitation of its citizens in Saudi Arabia; 50,000 Ethiopians have since been returned to their homeland with an additional 30,000 planned for repatriation, according to Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti.

According to Ethiopia’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, about 200,000 Ethiopian women searched for employment abroad in 2012. The International Labour Organization reports that 27 percent of women and 13 percent of men are unemployed, with a majority of Ethiopians making less than two U.S. dollars a day. The Ethiopian government reported three of its civilians were killed in a confrontation with Saudi security forces.

ASU was also joined by student groups from UCLA, UC Irvine and Anaheim’s Cypress College. The exuberant crowds exchanged chants with one another, who screamed, “What do we need? Justice. We are Ethiopians. We are hard working.” Additional chants condemned the Saudi government and said, “Shame on you. Shame on Saudi terrorists.”

Organized by the Global Alliance for the Rights of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia, the demonstration drew hundreds of protesters and spectators for nearly five hours. Given prior notice of the protest, members of the West Los Angeles Police Department and local spectators enjoying their afternoon brunch watched with curious eyes at the march that soon unraveled in the sidewalks and in the streets.

Swarmed by a small group of local reporters, protest co-organizer Dan Teshome passed out press releases which condemned the alleged actions taken by the Saudi Arabian government, leading to the killings, gang rape and severe beatings of Ethiopian immigrants. He called for the government to halt systemic violations of human and civil rights to the Ethiopian community.

Taking brief steps away from the cacophonous background, Teshome explained how the protest was started. “We go through our churches, womens’ groups … and organizations all over the world. So that’s how you network,” said Teshome. “To show what the Saudi government did to women in general, not just Ethiopians. It’s hell for women.”

ASU posted a continuing change.org petition, which calls for the United Nations and the United States to place international pressure on the Saudi Arabian government to respect laws governing safe security practices across the world.

When asked her reasoning behind attending the protest, Dejenie said, “ASU decided collectively to attend a protest … in order to spread awareness about the atrocious violence acts that are occurring to our people in Saudi Arabia. As students who belong to a club that identified with the Ethiopian and Eritrean ethnicity, we saw it as our duty to help people realize the violence, rapes and murders that are occurring overseas to Ethiopians without legitimate reason.”

Spotlights highlight the recent, noteworthy actions by members of the UCR community and do not imply endorsement of the opinions expressed by the spotlighted party.

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