Asylum: The Story of Zena Tafesse Asfaw

Zena Asfaw, the author of an upcoming book called "Asylum," speaks at a Los Angeles Press conference on Thursday, November 8th, 2012 calling on President Obama and the new Congress to pass immigration reform. (Courtesy photo)

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Updated: Saturday, November 17, 2012

New York (TADIAS) – Two days after President Obama was re-elected for a second-term, owing in large part to the support of young voters, minorities and immigrant communities, a rally and a press conference was held in Los Angeles, urging the President and the new Congress to pass immigration reform in 2013. Among the speakers who were invited by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) to address the gathering held on Thursday, November 8th was a political refugee from Ethiopia named Zena Tafesse Asfaw.

Zena knows a thing or two about forced migration. Zena’s own personal story is part of an upcoming book called Asylum, which details her painful and at times shockingly daring journey as a fugitive from her country, illegally criss-crossing three continents and several countries with forged documents — including Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, and Mexico — before arriving to her final destination in the United States, where she sought and received asylum.

Parts of her tragic odyssey became public four years ago when she testified before the House Subcommittee on Immigration while looking into problems associated with medical care at various immigration-detention facilities in the United States. At the hearing that took place on June 4th, 2008, Zena recounted a near death experience during a five-month imprisonment in San Pedro, California while awaiting a decision on her petition for political asylum. She told Congress that she was forced by a nurse and guard to take the wrong medication that almost cost her life.

In a recent interview with Tadias Magazine, Zena said her stay in San Pedro was the most difficult aspect of her situation. “Prior to that I was on the road for more than a year, with very little money, without a home and in strange lands where I did not speak the language,” she said. “By the time I got to America, I was exhausted, too stressed, unable to sleep and was experiencing female health problems.” Zena added: “So I approached the medical unit for help. I was prescribed medication that was supposed to help me relax, two pills each night administered by the attending nurse. The medication was working fine for weeks until one day there was a different nurse on duty. This nurse gave me seven pills to take at the same time. The pills were different in color and bigger than my regular pills. I asked her if she was sure that those were my pills because I was supposed to take only two at night. She became angry and shouted loudly to swallow them. Then she instructed the security guard to check my mouth to make sure I did not hide the pills in my mouth. The guard used a flashlight to examine my mouth. That night I became very sick, I was shaking, sweating, and vomiting blood. I could not keep anything in my stomach. It would take me more than a month to recover. To make a long story short, I am certain that I was forced to take medications that was not mine.”

But Zena’s ordeal under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the United States, is only the end-tail of a long and sad journey that began in Ethiopia in 2005. She was then a young woman in her 20′s training to become an airline ticketing and reservation agent, while working at USAID and living in the home of the country’s USAID director at the time.

When violence broke out in Addis Ababa following a controversial national elections, Zena says “I happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Zena added “I was doing errands along with the family driver. There was a lot of girgir (Chaos) in the city and many students were being arrested. I was crossing the streets towards the car, when a policeman shouted at me to get on my knees.” Zena continued: “After checking my mobile and finding a text message from a relative that he thought was a supporter of the opposition, I was arrested and taken to jail where I spent 12 days. Until then, I thought of myself as a very strong person. That day, however, I felt the world came crashing down on me.”

She said she was eventually released on a $10,000 bail signed by her uncle. “I was upset, I wanted to sue, I wanted justice, I wanted to do something,” she said. “My life in my own birth country could never be the same again.” She added: “In the end, I was advised by those who loved me that the best thing for me was to leave Ethiopia.”

And so begins her epic sojourn into exile with a car trip to the Kenyan border and then through a smuggler to South Africa where she obtains a fake passport for her travel across the ocean to São Paulo, Brazil, where she ends up in a hostel mostly crowded with African immigrants from Eritrea, Somalia and West African countries. Zena said she befriended two Eritreans there who had the same mission as she did: to get to the United States.

In an excerpt from her upcoming book, shared with Tadias Magazine, Zena notes that along the way she received financial and other assistance from her former employers in Ethiopia whom she kept in touch via occasional phone calls from the road.

In a chapter entitled On the road to Bolivia from Sao Paulo, while traveling with her new friends from Eritrea, Zena describes a dramatic scene in the mountains of Bolivia where their bus came under fire by rebels. “On the second day of our bus journey, all hell broke loose — the Bolivian guerrillas against the government forces emerged…men came out of the forest, from behind rocks, from nowhere with rifles and machine guns blazing,” She wrote. “We all ducked down in our seats and I crumpled up as tight and as close to the floor as possible. Bullets were whizzing overhead and men were shouting something in Spanish. I didn’t speak the language so I didn’t know what they were saying but it was angry and intense. In that blur of violence, I glanced to my left to see how the boys were. My one friend was flopping around in the aisle like a large fish out of water. At first, I thought he’d been hit by a bullet, but there was no blood. Then his friend said he was having a seizure.”

Zena said her Eritrean friends survived the incident as well, but she said they separated in Ecuador after the bus trip. “Both of them have finally made it to America.”

Zena, who currently works and lives in Los Angeles, gives a lot of credit to her attorney David Paz Soldan, with whom she connected by memorizing his number, which she discovered posted on a board inside a room where she was being questioned by immigration officers in L.A. after she turned herself in to airport security upon her arrival in the United States on November 15, 2006. “He manged to get asylum approved, he got me my work permit and my green card,” she said. “He is an incredible human being who never failed to give hope and always delivered on his promise.”

In his endorsement of Zena’s book, Mr. Soldan wrote: “Zena’s tale is the most tragic yet inspirational story that I have encountered in all my years as an immigration attorney. Her strength and perseverance in overcoming the insurmountable obstacles placed before her are an affirmation to the human spirit and her will to survive. I consider myself fortunate to have met Zena, and it is a pleasure to see her continue to grow and achieve her goals.”

This article has been abridged from the original version.

Zena Asfaw can be reached at

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