Abiy Ahmed’s 2018 speech at the Target Center marked the first time that many Ethiopians from all corners of the country came together under one roof in Minnesota. Still, many carried separate flags, reflecting old political and ethnic divisions. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

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With rebel forces advancing toward the capital, the civil war in Ethiopia is alarming immigrants from Ethiopia in Minnesota, which is home to the world’s largest Oromo diaspora community. 

The Oromo people have historically suffered violence and oppression under various regimes in Ethiopia. But Abiy Ahmed became the country’s first Oromo prime minister in 2018, and won the Nobel Peace Prize the next year, largely for his efforts to end Ethiopia’s conflict with neighboring Eritrea.

Internally, however, Ethiopia has descended into conflict, and Twin Cities residents with ties to the country differ on who’s to blame. 

Mekfira Hussein, the president of the Saint Paul-based sports club called the Oromo Sports Federation in North America, has been closely monitoring the conflict back home. Sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night to check for updates on Facebook. 

“I got a chance to leave, but there are millions that didn’t get the chance I got,” she said. 

The estimated 40,000 Oromos living in Minnesota also are the second-largest East African community in the state, behind Somalis. In Ethiopia, the Oromo people make up about a third of the population. 

On November 2, Abiy declared a state of emergency after a year of fighting in the northern Tigray region against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which held control for three decades before Abiy took power. The conflict resulted in serious violations of international human rights law, the United Nations reported. Violations include killings of civilians, torture, arbitrary detention, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced displacement.

In the last year alone, thousands have died during the civil war in Ethiopia, and more than two million people have been displaced

Three weeks after the Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency, the United Nations began evacuating family members of its staff Tuesday with a deadline of November 25.

‘People are dying every day.’

Mekfira came to the United States in 1999 after fleeing the Oromia region and seeking refuge in Kenya. She was 14 years old when she left Ethiopia.

Mekfira is involved in different Oromo advocacy initiatives. She also owns a few small businesses in the Twin Cities and currently lives in Shakopee. 

When Abiy came to power in 2018, Mekfira had hope. But she has been deeply disappointed.

“It was a new era. We were all happy. The Oromia nation was happy. But then it went even worse than the government before,” Mekfira said. “I personally have lost a lot of family members, people I grew up with. People are dying every day. We’re in shock.”

Mekfira has led multiple protests calling for attention to violence against the Oromo people. She recently organized a car protest to call for international attention to the growing conflict in the Tigray region. She said more than 100 cars flying Oromia flags and posters drove towards downtown Minneapolis together.

Last summer, Mekfira led a protest that shut down the westbound lanes of Interstate 94 in Saint Paul after Oromo musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa was shot and killed in Addis Ababa. Mekfira remembered watching her son, who was 15 at the time, cry with other Oromo youth during the protest. 

“All these children, they’re American. They were born here. They’ve never been back home,” Mekfira said. “But they are a part of what is going on back home.”

She said she holds the prime minister responsible for the killing of Hachalu, and arrests of Oromo political leaders and activists.

In August, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front joined forces with the Oromo Liberation Army with the mutual goal of removing Abiy. When they pushed towards the capital last week, Mekfira was glued to her screen. She said she would wake up in the middle of the night to check for updates on Facebook, where she’s been getting most of her information.

Most of Mekfira’s family live in the capital. She said that they hear gunshots in the city every night, signaling that the Oromo Liberation Army may be close. For Mekfira and her family, they see the arrival of the Oromo Liberation Army as a positive sign. 

‘When it comes to peoples’ voices being heard, this is the closest we’ve gotten’

Dhuguma Bati, 27, is an addiction counselor in Minneapolis. Dhuguma, who came to the United States 18 years ago, has a different perspective on Ethiopia’s current conflict. “It’s a difficult situation,” Dhuguma said. “But this is the closest we’ve got to democracy. I’m not saying there’s democracy, but when it comes to peoples’ voices being heard, this is the closest we’ve gotten.”

Dhuguma said his relatives living in the Oromia region are worried, but their hometown has not been affected yet. He’s especially concerned about the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. 

“They’re attempting to come back to power,” Dhuguma said. “They ruled by force and propaganda. But there are people that are misled by what’s going on by social media misinformation.”

For example, Dhuguma has seen that the rebel groups are posting that they are 50 miles from the capital. Because of the communications blackout, it’s unclear whether this is true. “They’re doing that in an attempt to spark chaos in the country,” he said.

Siraj Ahmed, 24, works for the Somali Community Resettlement Services in Minneapolis. He’s originally from the Somali region of Ethiopia and came to the United States in 2014.

“The situation is getting worse and worse. So many people die every day,” Siraj said. 

While the Somali region of Ethiopia hasn’t been directly impacted by the war, Siraj said the people are still feeling other effects of war, such as a lack of food, water, and government support.

Siraj was also a staunch supporter of Abiy in 2018. He joined a local organization called the Dulmi-diid Movement, an advocacy group for the Somali diaspora in Minnesota that also supported a change in government. But the actions of the current administration have troubled Siraj.

“At the beginning, he was really good. I never thought he would go to war,” Siraj said. “I don’t support him anymore, but it’s not for me to say.”

Siraj said he hopes the different ethnic groups in Ethiopia can come together, end the killing, and start talking about peace.

For Mekfira, simply discussing politics with her family back home has been difficult: “If you’re Oromo, you’re not safe,” she said. Her relatives fear their calls and texts are being tracked, making it difficult to stay updated. So she’s taken it upon herself to constantly track social media for more updates.

“They’re scared. They don’t talk,” Mekfira said. “We know more information than they do over there. They’re just waiting.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.