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Welcome Home Blog Series: Oromos organize and build bridges to hold Ethiopia accountable for human rights abuses

This is the third in the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota. Read additional posts here.

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Samuel Berhanu, one of the founders of the Peace and Justice Committee of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church and United Oromo Voice

 Minnesota is home to not only the largest Oromo community in the United States, but also the largest population of Oromo people outside of Ethiopia. The Oromo people have arrived in Minnesota over the past 30 years as a direct result of political persecution and other human rights abuses in Ethiopia.  Across the diaspora, Oromos continue to actively engage with the politics of their country of origin and encourage the governments of their adopted countries, including the United States, to apply pressure on Ethiopia to improve its human rights record.

 

One such organization is the Peace and Justice Committee of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church in Minneapolis, founded in part by Oromo diaspora member Samuel Berhanu. Samuel and others in his organization are dedicated to introducing Minnesotans to the Oromo people and educating them about the human rights violations Oromos experience at the hands of the Ethiopian government.

History of Persecution by the Ethiopian Government

Despite being the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo people face discrimination based on their ethnicity as well as their real or perceived political opinion. Reports from civil society in Ethiopia reveal the government’s alarming disregard for civil and political rights. These reports include accounts of extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, detention without formal charges, prolonged incommunicado detention, inhumane detention conditions, surveillance of government critics, and pressure on the judiciary to rule in the government’s favor. The government’s repressive tactics have stifled political dissent, undermined the independence of the judiciary, and weakened civil society. [The Advocates for Human Rights documented these human rights abuses in the report Human Rights in Ethiopia: Through the Eyes of the Oromo Diaspora, as well as in reports submitted to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights; the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child; the UN Committee on the Rights of Persona with Disabilities; and the UN Human Rights Council.

Western States have largely overlooked the plight of the Oromo, instead supporting the Ethiopian government, which is dominated by one ethnic minority group. Since 1991, the United States has identified Ethiopia as an ally in the Horn of Africa and an ally in the war on terror. Samuel explains that, with the largely Muslim populations in neighboring Somalia and Sudan, the United States considers Ethiopia a stabilizing force within the region. Western leaders then use this designation to justify the financial and military support afforded to the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States, despite the human rights abuses the Ethiopian government perpetrates.

Mobilizing to Build Bridges

Samuel and other members of the diaspora are working toward changing the United States’ approach to the human rights violations occurring in Ethiopia. The Peace and Justice Committee originally formed as part of the congregation of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church with the goal of influencing the Ethiopian government by appealing to the Western governments. The Peace and Justice Committee has helped build the capacity of the Oromo community to set priorities and engage in advocacy about human rights in Ethiopia.

The Committee worked with The Advocates’ International Justice Program staff attorney Amy Bergquist to organize a two-hour workshop attended by over 50 members of the congregation, as well as other concerned Oromos. At the workshop, participants identified priority issues and explored the different stakeholders who have the power to improve the human rights situation on the ground in Ethiopia. They then mapped out the people and organizations that influence those stakeholders to help Oromos in the diaspora better target their advocacy efforts.

Oromo
Oromos participating in an advocacy workshop organized by the Peace and Justice Committee of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church. Photo credit: Amy Bergquist

Since then, the organization has expanded its reach to include non-Christian and non-diaspora members through a new organization called United Oromo Voice. Like the Peace and Justice Committee, United Oromo Voice is devoted to fighting against the injustices and human rights violations committed by the Ethiopian government.  Samuel hopes that United Oromo Voice will encourage Minnesotans to engage with the Committee’s advocacy work.

Facing the challenges ahead

One of the obstacles facing the Peace and Justice Committee is successfully bringing together differing political opinions within the Oromo community. While the diaspora community largely seeks to end the human rights violations in Ethiopia, members disagree on the proper means of achieving that end. Some Oromos seek to work with the Ethiopian government, while others believe that succession is the only solution. Samuel makes a distinction between the role of the diaspora and the role of Oromos who remain in Ethiopia, explaining that at the end of the day, it is up to the people currently in Ethiopia to decide which approach is best. Samuel believes that their role as Oromos in the diaspora should be to provide a voice for Oromos remaining in Ethiopia, appealing to the West to exert pressure internationally.

Like other diaspora community organizations, the biggest obstacle is that members are trying to juggle work, family life, and the importance of the cause. Samuel does not seem to mind the burden, explaining that,

“God brought me here not to just live my own selfish life . . . I have to think of those who can’t make a voice for themselves.”

Our Redeemer Peace and Justice Committee of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church and United Oromo Voice

Website: https://www.oromochurchmn.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/oroec/

Volunteer Opportunities: The Peace and Justice Committee along with United Oromo Voice are currently seeking volunteers to assist with their projects and advocacy work. United Oromo Voice needs short-term and long-term volunteers to help with projects including community outreach, diplomacy, advocacy, media, and writing letters to government officials. If you would like to get involved, contact Samuel Berhanu at samueelb@gmail.com.

Learn More: To learn more about human rights violations against the Oromo people in Ethiopia, read:

Oromo Protests One Year On: Looking Back; Looking Forward;

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora;

UN Special Procedures Urged to Visit Ethiopia to Investigate Crackdown on Oromo Protests;

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review;

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia 

By April Will, a second-year J.D. student (class of 2019) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She was a 2017 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.    

This is the third in the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota. The first blog posts highlighted the contributions of the Karen Organization of Minnesota and the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota.

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Welcome Home Blog Series:  Providing opportunities for Cambodians in Minnesota, honoring survivors of the Khmer Rouge

This is the second in the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota. Additional articles can be found here.

UCAM flags

Minnesotans celebrated the Cambodian New Year in April at a day-long event in Mendota Heights featuring live music, drums, traditional dances, and Cambodian cuisine.

But those festivities bracketed a more solemn activity, an annual “Day of Remembrance” to honor victims of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. This year, the ceremony paid tribute to survivors who worked with the Advocates for Human Rights to provide information about human-rights abuses for submission to a war crimes tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia (ECCC).

UCAM

Each received a Certificate of Recognition for telling their stories, a process that allowed them to put their experiences on the record.

 

 

Many Cambodians keep their memories bottled up, which is not healthy, says Yorn Yan, executive director of the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota (UCAM), which worked with the Advocates on the project. So he tells them: “Number one, you document your own story, then you feel better.” Second, “Then your document will stay with you forever and your children, your grandchildren will see it, it’s not a fake story. That’s a benefit for society in general.”

Yorn Yan’s father was among an estimated 1.7 million to 2.2 million Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge during their 1975-1979 reign. He fled to Thailand after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978 and eventually made his way to Minnesota, along with three brothers, two sisters, and their mother.

UCAM, which sponsored the New Year’s event at its offices, is a nonprofit that aims to promote opportunity for the state’s Cambodian community, which numbers about 10,000. UCAM was created in 1993 from the merger of two existing Cambodian organizations. Yorn Yan has been executive director since 2005, taking the reins after it suffered a crisis.  He has a master’s degree in nonprofit management and administration, is author of the book New Americans, New Promise: A Guide to the Refugee Journey in America, and board president of the National American Cambodian Organization.

UCAM has nine employees but gets support from 300 volunteers, including a number of medical and mental-health professionals, and serves about 1,500 clients a year. Funding comes from the Greater Twin Cities United Way and the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging.

It gets half of its revenue from fees for services provided by its Adult Day Care program, which offers health, social, and other services to Cambodian elders. Many of them are in poor health from the strains of living through civil war, the Khmer Rouge, and life in refugee camps. They have high rates of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, mental health problems, and other chronic diseases that lead to strokes and heart attacks.

The Khmer Rouge era began just 42 years ago, Yorn Yan says, so many people age 50 or above continue to suffer trauma.  “The starvation, the killing, the loss of loved ones, all of those bring poor health,” he says.

UCAM’s other programs are Elder Independent Living, Youth Development, Health Education, and  Immigration. Under a five-year strategic plan it adopted in 2015, the organization is working to transition from one whose primary function was refugee resettlement to one that works to strengthen health, social, education, and economic opportunities for Cambodians and other refugee groups in Minnesota. One of its goals: develop new programs to help second- and third-generation Minnesota Cambodians understand their cultural values and traditions while still providing services for the elders.

When asked about main challenges, Yorn Yan says UCAM is trying to “do more with less” since the demand for services remains strong but federal and state funding has shrunk over the years.

The Advocates’ work with the Cambodian community began in 1990 when the organization helped conduct a mock trial at the Minnesota State Capitol of the Khmer Rouge leadership for the crime of genocide. The mock trial led to the Khmer Oral History Project, during which The Advocates’ volunteers interviewed 15 members of the Cambodian refugee community on videotape about their experiences during the years of the genocide, their experiences in refugee camps, and their emigration to the United States. Those interviews took place in 1992 and are available online at the Minnesota History Center. This year, the Center for Justice and Accountability asked The Advocates to interview participants in the Khmer Oral History Project and submit their information to the ECCC. The Advocates also worked with UCAM to identify Khmer Rouge survivors interested in sharing their information with the ECCC.

Twenty-two members of the Cambodian diaspora in Minnesota, including many who had participated in the mock trial and oral history project, provided detailed information about the crimes they experienced between 1975 and 1979 for the ECCC’s investigation. The interviews were conducted by James O’Neal, vice chair of The Advocates; Jennifer Prestholdt, deputy director; and Amy Bergquist, International Justice Program staff attorney. They were aided by volunteer translator David Chor.

David Chor and Yorn Yan of UCAM will be recognized for their contributions to documenting the stories of survivors of the Khmer Rouge in Minnesota’s Cambodian community with volunteer awards at The Advocates’ Human Rights Awards Dinner on June 15, 2017.

UNITED CAMBODIAN ASSOCIATION OF MINNESOTA
Website: http://ucamn.org/
Email: info@ucamn.org
Volunteer opportunities: The group welcomes volunteers, especially with legal or medical credentials. Contact Yorn Yan at YornYan @comcast.net.

By Suzanne Perry, volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights.  This is the second in the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota.  The first article highlighted the contributions of the Karen Organization of Minnesota.

Welcome Home Blog Series: Karen refugees in Minnesota have a critical ally

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Pictured: The Advocates for Human Rights’ Madeline Lohman & Karen Organization of Minnesota’s Hta Thi Yu Moom facilitating a meeting to strengthen community between Karen diaspora members and other residents of Roseville, Minnesota.

 

Minnesota has seen an influx of Karen refugees from Burma over the past decade, the majority settling in St. Paul. The transition to life here can be bumpy as they struggle to learn English, find jobs, navigate government bureaucracy, and sometimes deal with family upheavals.

But the new residents have a critical ally: the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM), the nation’s first Karen-led nonprofit. “You can come here any time as long as the office is open,” says Eh Tah Khu, KOM’s co-executive director, “and we’ll make sure you get the help you need.”

The Karen (pronounced Ka-REN) are an ethnic minority group from the mountainous border regions of Burma and Thailand who have been fighting for independence for many years. Subject to ethnic cleansing, forced labor, killings, and other human rights abuses by the former military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar), many fled to refugee camps in Thailand before resettlement in the United States. (Burma moved to a civilian-led government last year.)

KOM says about 12,000 Karen now live in Minnesota, some drawn from other states because of the high quality of refugee services here. Minnesotans should be aware that many Karen have “been through trauma,” Eh Tah Khu says, and “have never been able to raise their voice for any reason.”

Eh Tah Khu arrived here from Thailand in 2010 with his wife and son and joined KOM as youth development coordinator in 2011. He became co-executive director last year, sharing duties with Alexis Walstad.

KOM — with money from state and federal grants, foundations, and the Greater Twin Cities United Way — offers a wide range of services to Karen and other Burmese refugees. They include job training, English classes, youth programs, weaving, public transit orientation, and community health services.

The organization evolved from the Karen Community of Minnesota, a volunteer group that Karen leaders started in 2003 in St. Paul. They set up KOM as a separate organization with 501(c)(3) status in 2008. Based in Roseville, it now has 25 paid staff members, including two at an office in Marshall; three AmeriCorps members, and about 80 volunteers. It serves more than 1,500 clients a year.

But KOM is at a turning point. Some of its government grants pay specifically for services to new arrivals. But the United States has stopped resettling refugees from Burma, so Eh Tah Khu worries those grants won’t be renewed as his group focuses more on long-term services.

He is frank about other challenges facing the organization. Because KOM is so accessible, he says, “we are overloaded with walk-in clients.” They need help with everything from paying speeding tickets to enrolling in MNsure to filing divorce paperwork.

More mental-health services are badly needed, he added, noting that there are no Karen-speaking therapists, psychiatrists, or psychologists in the area. The community is also grappling with problems like drug use by young people, parents feeling they have lost authority over their children, domestic violence, and divorce (which is rare in Burma).

But Eh Tah Khu says KOM’s strength lies in the partnerships it has forged with a long list of service providers and educational, government, religious, legal and other groups over the years (you can see them here). “We know that without community support,” he says, “we can’t do our work here.”

Karen Organization of Minnesota
Website: www.mnkaren.org
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mnkarenorg/
Volunteer opportunities: KOM needs short-term and long-term volunteers to help with activities including youth mentoring, interpretation/translation, data entry, public transit training, and driving. Apply here or contact Rebekah Jacobson at rjacobson@mnkaren.org.
Learn more: KOM holds presentations on Karen culture and history on Friday afternoons every other month. The next session takes place on June 16.

By Suzanne Perry, volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights. This is the first of the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota.