Ethiopian refugees highlight community success

From Voices, 7:00 am on 18 March 2019

Dawit Arshak has a big smile, a friendly demeanor and a sense of humour as he pours some freshly brewed Ethiopian coffee.

When we meet at Auckland's first Ethiopian restaurant Café Abyssinia, the former Ethiopian refugee tells me he didn't know much about this country before he got here.

"If you ask me what do I know about New Zealand? It's maybe the 60,000,000 lambs ... And when I polished shoes, I had a Kiwi [brand] polish and so maybe that's the only thing I could relate to from New Zealand."

Dawit escaped war-torn Ethiopia in 1984 during the height of the Ethiopian Civil War.

Fourteen years later, Dawit ended up here in a land he barely knew much about with his wife and two small children.

"The hardest thing for us as refugees is that it's very hard to overcome and you will never overcome until you die, you carry everything with you."

He likens that experience to leaving your mother behind.

"Your mother remains in your heart, even if your mother has died physically ... So the country is taken away from my hand but nobody can take my country out of my heart. Still you struggle to cope, and you wish to retreat, but it's very hard."

Ethiopian refugee Dawit Arshak

Ethiopian refugee Dawit Arshak Photo: RNZ / Sara Vui-Talitu

The push to leave Ethiopia came when Dawit began to feel his life was under threat and he felt hated.

"When I was very young, the political situation in the country was not fair and I participated in politics which was against the military regime."

He walked for 11 days in the desert to cross the border and find refuge in Sudan, where he stayed for more than a decade before coming to New Zealand.

"I don't feel safe to live in my country, I don't feel comfortable to live in that situation, but at the same time, I don't want to live like an ostrich and hide my head in the sand. So I was forced to run away."

A significant part of Dawit's life has now changed forever. he says.

"Even if you go back, it's hard to feel the same as before. Because you are already uprooted, you will never find what you left behind."

For Dawit's daughter Mahlete Tekeste, the reality of her dad's past life has been revealed slowly.

"My dad kind of told me those stories incrementally in accordance with my maturity," she says.

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"I had some friends over and we were all chilling and he kind of came over and was like 'yo, what's up?'" Mahlete says.

"And then [my dad] started telling us this really long story about how he buried his own friends and saw their corpses rotting."

Mahlete's father's life story has been hard for her  to process at times.

Her mother Meseret Arshak has her own story, too.

"My mum, she was 14 when she left her country and made the same trip by foot in the dessert but her and her friends actually got lost for like two months."

"They had to drink their own urine, they came face to face with a snake and then they got played by their smuggler."

Both Mahlete's parents have similar backstories, they happened to meet and fall in love and the rest is history.

For two decades, Dawit has worked for the Red Cross helping new refugees settle in and assimilate into New Zealand.

Ethiopian coffee and tray

Ethiopian coffee and tray Photo: RNZ

While his children are second-generation immigrants who have been raised as Kiwis, Mahlete is in touch with her culture.

"One thing my dad always instilled in me is to know who you are and if you are secure in yourself, it's a safe way to be.

"He has always instilled in us pride in who we are and where we come from so I'm very secure in being Ethiopian and I'm proud of that."

These days, Dawit is at the helm of a new project - an Ethiopian Graduate Journal. 

The publication aims to celebrate the stories struggles and successes of youth in tertiary education.

Mahlete, who is currently in her final semester studying anthropology and sociology, found the stories inspiring.

This father and daughter have led vastly different lives but are both united in their desire to help others.

Dawit and Mahlete's work to produce a publication soon to highlight successes in their own community is just one way to celebrate how different their lives are now, here in New Zealand.