Anything is possible in America
says Tewolde Habtemicael
Jan. 15 2098
In a small cement high school in Ethiopia, Tewolde Habtemicael heard for the first time the concept of democracy. “What is this?” he wondered as American Peace Corps volunteers taught him and his classmates about a government run by the people. “We had no concept of democracy before that because we had one king and he did whatever he wanted,” Habtemicael, 60, told Blair Roman’s sophomore government class at Carson High School on Wednesday.
The visiting Americans also helped prepare them for entrance exams for the country’s only university, which accepted just 560 students each year. Habtemicael passed. In college, he ran for vice president of the student union. “Because I attentively listened to what my American teachers taught me, I was elected,” he said. Invigorated by the idea of democracy, Habtemicael led demonstrations calling on the government to hold elections. Instead, he and three classmates were arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.
A student boycott led to their release a year later. On probation, Habtemicael was forbidden from participating in political activities, a condition he couldn’t uphold. Three years later, protesting a military takeover, he was arrested again. “This time, they do not take you to court, they kill you,” he said. “We were on the verge of being executed. They killed our king. We were next.” Amnesty International intervened and he was again released, but he knew he couldn’t stay.
“I walked from Ethiopia to Sudan,” he said. “I know I have to get away. I want to get to America. I love America because I love democracy.” Hiding by day and walking by night, he ended up in Saudi Arabia. He met a Swedish man there, and asked if he could emigrate to his country. The man told him he’d be better off going to America. “Anything’s possible in America,” Habtemicael remembers the man telling him. He petitioned the American Embassy to accept him as a political refugee, and the World Council of Churches paid his travel to the United States.
He contacted the Peace Corps volunteer who first had taught him about American values, then a professor at the University of Montana, Missoula. Habtemicael made arrangements to get his master’s degree there. “I said now I can learn without any problem in the United States. My whole thing was to acquire education,” he said. “Yes, everything is possible in America.”