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.