UPDATE: Ethiopia Welcomes Diaspora for A Holiday Homecoming

Ethiopia is welcoming members of its global diaspora who are returning home in big numbers this holiday season in response to an invitation from the country. Billene Seyoum, spokeswoman for the prime minister, welcomed diaspora travelers via Twitter this week, saying, “When the world said to run from home, your heart knew the truth!” (Photo via Twitter @Landoforigins)

VOA News

Thousands living in the Ethiopian diaspora have begun arriving in the Horn of Africa country, responding to the government’s call for a “great Ethiopian homecoming.”

Korso Koji looks forward to joining them soon.

“I have friends who have been abroad for a long time and who believe in the unity of Ethiopia. We will go together,” said Korso, 36, who has a trucking business in Columbus, Ohio, and came from the Oromia region’s town of Shashamane.

Ethiopian leaders hope to draw 1 million diaspora members like Korso to their homeland for celebrations of Orthodox Christmas on January 7 and through the January 19 Feast of the Epiphany and Timkat festivals that commemorate the baptism of Jesus.

Getahun Fetana (L) and his wife Emebet Melaku (R), married taking advantage of a chance run-in during Timkat, the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of epiphany, looks at photographs in their home in the city of Gondar, Ethiopia, January 18, 2020.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who issued the #GreatEthiopianHomeComing challenge in November, greeted diaspora visitors Tuesday with a Twitter post in Amharic reading “Welcome, my brothers and sisters, who have returned home in response to the invitation to show your citizenship!”

Abiy’s #GreatEthiopianHomeComing challenge came as a rebuke to countries such as the United States, France, Germany and Turkey, which last month urged their respective citizens to leave Ethiopia as yearlong fighting between federal troops and forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front threatened to reach the capital, Addis Ababa. On November 5, the U.S. State Department ordered nonemergency U.S. government employees and their families to leave “due to armed conflict, civil unrest and possible supply shortages.”

Fighting paused after Ethiopian forces reclaimed some ground, and the TPLF announced December 20 that it would pull back its forces to Tigray from the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, leaving room for negotiations, diplomats and analysts have said.

In a statement shared Wednesday by state-owned Ethiopian news media, Abiy encouraged the visitors to check out tourist sites and development work — and to “witness the atrocities committed by the terrorist TPLF against our people.” (In mid-December, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to set up an international commission to investigate alleged violations by all parties in the Tigray conflict.)

Billene Seyoum, spokeswoman for the prime minister, also welcomed diaspora travelers via Twitter this week, saying, “When the world said to run from home, your heart knew the truth! Home is indeed where the heart is.”

Earlier this month, she said the homecoming initiative would “demonstrate that Ethiopia prevails” and would “send a message of unity to the international community.”

If Tesfahun Kahsay has any message to send, it’s to oppose the Ethiopian government’s appeal. A Tigray native, the 50-year-old moved to the United States 25 years ago and lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington.

“While the international community is begging for food and medicine” to be delivered to people in Tigray, “my government is not permitting it, he said, complaining about what rights groups have described as a humanitarian blockade. “So, how do I be part of this campaign while my people are sentenced to death?”

Organizing a group

Abiy Gebrehiwot, who lives in Washington and chairs the nonprofit California-based Council for Ethiopian Diaspora Action, told VOA the council last year brought roughly 500 members to Ethiopia to celebrate the holidays and tour the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a new hydroelectric power plant on the Nile River. He said for the homecoming, he intends to bring “as large a diaspora community … as possible and engage them in every aspect of the country.”

The council chairman said one goal was to boost Ethiopia’s economy, battered by COVID-19 and the Tigray conflict. It had been the region’s fastest-growing economy, expanding by an annual average of 9.4% for nine years ending in 2019-2020, according to the World Bank. The poor country, with 112 million people and a per capita income of $850, had ambitions to climb to lower-middle-income status by 2025. The Ethiopian diaspora has sent nearly $9 billion in remittances over the past three years, the foreign affairs state minister said this month.

Another goal for the homecoming initiative is “to show the world the country is safe and peaceful” — and to make it an annual event, Abiy Gebrehiwot said.

Alebachew Desalegn, a London-based member of the Ethiopian Diaspora Task Force, said diaspora members would be encouraged to help rebuild war-torn infrastructure during their stays.

“We focus on development, rebuilding the destroyed houses, and helping the homeless,” he told VOA.

‘Honoring’ the call

State-owned Ethiopian Airlines has offered discounts of up to 30% on its fares for homecoming travelers.

The price drop enticed Korso, who paid $1,200 for a ticket and will leave for Ethiopia on January 10. He plans to bring extra suitcases packed with medicine, protective masks and clothing — paid “at my own expense,” he said, to aid Ethiopians.

The group Doctors for Ethiopia has encouraged diaspora travelers to bring medical supplies.

Korso said he and his friends “want to honor” the prime minister’s call “because I believe the pressure being exerted by Americans and Europeans on Ethiopia is not right.”

Tesfahun, in rejecting the homecoming appeal, also referenced reports of Tigrayans allegedly being targeted for arrest and detention. If he went to Ethiopia, he said, “I might not have the same fate as others because of my [U.S.] citizenship. But those are my people from Tigray who got fired from their jobs and live in detention facilities.”

On Wednesday, Demeke Mekonnen, deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister, presided over a welcoming ceremony at Wodajinet Park in the capital, Addis Ababa. According to the state-owned Ethiopian News Agency, he called on diaspora members to support the federal government’s reconstruction efforts.

This report originated in Amharic in VOA’s Horn of Africa Service. Carol Guensburg contributed.

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