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July 1, 2014

BEAM: Lessons from a hope-filled room

WASHINGTON, D.C. — His nametag reads Takle.

The print is small, and you must squint in order to make it out as he leans over the white-clothed table.

After a panel on racial diversity at the annual National Society of Newspaper Columnists Conference, I officially met him. Rhonda Graham of Wilmington, Del.’s The News Journal had just spoken about reporting on the diversity of the “other people in the room.”

“I’m not the only one on the planet,” she said. “There are other people out there.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Takle standing in the corner of our meeting room ready to clear the dirty plates. The wait staff demonstrates this diversity that Graham speaks of on a micro level, like a tiny United Nations sidled with large round trays and silver water pitchers.

The journalists talk amongst themselves and listen to the speakers and, maybe, occasionally acknowledge the worker’s existence with a smile or gratitude or condiment request. Unlike in the real UN, the podium is reserved for others here.

During these past few days at a Washington D.C. hotel, Takle and I have spoken. Mostly “thank yous” after lunch or “sorrys” when I managed to get in the way of his duties. But when I finally got the chance to ask the man with a face of a Greco-Roman wrestler where he comes from, his work demeanor disappeared as he beamed with pride.

“Ethiopia,” he says.

“I’d love to go to Ethiopia someday,” I reply, my usual response.

It’s not a lie. With the beauty in the world, who wouldn’t want to experience every square mile of it?

But, as Takle explains, not all experiences are alike for all people.

His beloved homeland, he explains, is corrupt. The government suppresses the people, he says, with abuse after abuse. Since the state controls most of the media, what few press freedoms journalists have continue to be eroded.

In April, the country imprisoned six bloggers alongside three reporters for supposedly provoking violence through their work. Less than a week ago, Ethiopia’s state-run Oromia Radio and Television Organization fired 18 journalists in what Columbia Journalism Review’s Mohammed Ademo reported as a purge of dissenting opinions.

“At least 17 other journalists are in jail in Ethiopia in connection with their journalistic work,” cited a separate May 28, 2014, CJR article. “Only Eritrea holds more journalists behind bars in Africa.”

The financial support America gives to Ethiopia frustrates Takle even more. According to the organization USAID, Ethiopia received $865 million in economic aid from the U.S. in 2012. With the propensity for droughts and food insecurities, assistance can be useful. Roughly 37 percent of the population remains malnourished, so much so two out of every five Ethiopian children have stunted growth from being underfed.

Helping feed starving children is one thing, but America also provides military aid to the country. As one of its partners in combating Islamic extremism, the U.S. gives millions to Ethiopia in this type of funding despite Ethiopia’s documented human rights abuses. It’s the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality of foreign policy. The current leadership in Ethiopia commits abuses, but the U.S. government believes the extreme Islamic militant groups like Al-Shabaab in Somalia would perpetuate many, many more.

Still, with all those funds going to Ethiopia, you’d think the U.S. could pressure the Ethiopian government to treat their people better and ensure the protection of their rights. That’s what Takle complains about. Like with Egyptians before the fall of Mubarak, some Ethiopians see the U.S. as backing an immoral and tyrannical regime.

Moreover, Takle doesn’t believe the average American cares.

Two glasses with drops of orange juice clank into the push cart. Takle has work to finish, and I have more journalism to learn. So I leave the room of immigrants, their hopes clamoring among the dishes.


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