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In exile in the U.S., Ethiopian journalist struggles forward

After almost a year in exile in America, an icy ocean away from his home in Ethiopia, journalist Samson Mekonnen, left, only recently received his work permit in Washington. In the interim, like most journalists undergoing the emotionally and financially grueling resettlement process, he has relied on friends, family, and international organizations like CPJ to support himself and his family while his petition for asylum navigates the bureaucratic waters.  

Back in Ethiopia, Mekonnen reported on everything from government corruption and famine to sports and social issues, earning the ire of the authorities as a result. After suffering nearly seven years of increasingly aggressive state brutality, the journalist told me he fled for his life in November 2009, along with his then-expecting wife.

"What makes life here so difficult is that nobody can understand the pain of what I've been through in Ethiopia," said Mekonnen. "It makes everything hard. I can't forget."

Journalists under extreme threat have two painful options before them: to either remain in their home countries at the risk of suffering a fate like Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga, who prophesied his own murder in an editorial written shortly before his death, or to flee and entirely and forsake the profession for which they have endured so much. At least 85 journalists fled their homes worldwide between June of 2009 and 2010, 42 from the continent of Africa alone, according to CPJ's June 2010 exile report. Ethiopia, along with Somalia and Iran, marked the nations with the highest exile rate this last year, with 15 Ethiopian journalists leaving the country compared to only two between 2008 and 2009.

Less than one-third of all resettled journalists continue to work in the field, CPJ research shows. Even after surviving the lengthy bureaucratic asylum process with no legal allowances to support themselves, the linguistic and cultural differences they contend with can force accomplished journalists to take any employment opportunities they can find.

"Of course, I wish I could work as a journalist here in the U.S.," Mekonnen told me recently, "But how am I to do it? My English skills are a barrier, I have no contacts. How can I be recognized for my experience? Where am I to start?" Even once asylum has been granted, there are few adequate resources--such as cultural orientation, affordable language classes, or job training services--for refugees.

As part of Ethiopia's diaspora community, Mekonnen says he that expatriates cannot truly reach their countrymen even if they were to start reporting again. Only Internet-savvy users can circumvent the widespread censorship of foreign-based Web sites about politics and human rights, including CPJ's homepage, which the Ethiopian government has blocked. Few Ethiopians regularly access the internet; connections are tiresomely slow. "Any news Web sites founded by overseas Ethiopians won't reach the people back home," he said. "The government would ban them right away, and, in any case, not many people have proper access to the Internet."

However, despite the harsh realities of resettlement, Mekonnen is still optimistic. "Whatever else is said, we don't give up in Ethiopia," he insisted. "Even if we cannot reach the Ethiopian people from abroad, we can still reach the international community, and the USA, and urge them not to support a government which brutalizes its own citizens."

Since the move to America, Mekonnen and his wife have been taking care of their months-old infant, born after their arrival. Now that his work permit has finally come through after almost a year of anxious waiting, the journalist says he and his family can embark on the heavy task of rebuilding their lives. 

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Comments

First and foremost thank you CPJ, with out you Mekonnen his fallow Ethiopian journalists who tirelessly reporting of brutal, barbaric and criminal acts of Meles regime wouldn't get such a recognition fore their hard fight. And also doing o much for the world of journalists and human right. Mekonnen be strong things will change for good soon. We went through what your going through here in the state. I’m just wondering how long tit takes to educate all these governments about barbaric dictators like Meles. Isn’t enough all the report and education they get from the journalists, activists, CPJ and human right activists. More things to say but it have been said so much. In Ethiopian official language Amharic we call it “HODE YECHALEW”

Thanks!

Asfaw

I am one of the victims of this brutal regime. I had visions and dreams to serve my country and the people through the sport sector. Unfortunately, all the dreams have gone now. I don't know how I should serve the motherland. Fortunately, thanks to face book, I could contribute a bit. But the real question is 'for how long?'

I have two feelings about the profession when I re-consider my move as a refugee outside Ethiopia. One, those who are outside Ethiopia have the freedom to write & comment but they are far from the real resource of the news. On the other hand, those who live in Ethiopia are near to real resource but they are under the gun. They are forced for self censorship. They are counting dark days in each morning.

With all those draw backs, I can see a better and bright day for the profession and mama Ethiopia. Finally, I would like to thank CPJ for your endless effort to protect the suppressive move on free journalists by the incumbent in Ethiopia.

Regards,
Ermias Amare

I really apreciat the work of the CPJ and other institutions and also Mekone's friend for helping him.

I am not pessimistic,but I don't think Ethiopia could be free from this leader easily.He has several ties which cannot be recognized by alot of people.Everything in Ethiopia is dramatic.

Tigre atrocity. It is a reality all non tigrean Ethiopians are facing every day.


Your comment is immature. Meles come from Tigray, but he doesn't represent Tigray. The people of Tigray never had given a chance to elect their representatives freely the same as other Ethiopians. Why are you generalizing? Are you really for Ethiopia? I doubt it. Meles is using the same thing dividing our people along ethnic, religious, etc lines. It looks like you are working for Meles/Issayas when you generalize your hate for the whole people.

I appreciate CPJ's financial, professional and moral assistance to many exiled journalists all over the world. I wish your support is also available here in Sweden where I have been an asylum seeker for the last five years. I understand Mekonen's frustration because I have been and am still through that terrible experience of not being able to practice my profession. But at least in his case he is lucky enough to get his work permit which I don't have. I tried to reach out local (Swedish) and Ethiopian medias in Stockholm but I haven't got any response from neither of them so far. I even googled if there're any association of Exiled Ethiopian Journalist;but I couldn't find any. Please let me know if anybody have any info with regard to such matters. Good luck Mekonen with your new and promising life in the land of opportunities and keep on trying.
Theodros
Stockholm, Sweden