Olympian Medalist A Hero to Ethiopian Torture Survivors

Famous long-distance runner and TASSC survivor, Demssew Tsega Abebe, has won over 30 medals all over the world.

Famous long-distance runner and TASSC survivor, Demssew Tsega Abebe, has won over 30 medals all over the world.

Feyisa Lelisa, the silver medalist from Ethiopia, focused international attention on the brutality of the Ethiopian government when he crossed the finish line at the men’s marathon at Rio with his arms crossed over his head.  He wanted to declare his solidarity with the Oromo ethnic group, who constitute about one-third of Ethiopia’s population and have long been marginalized by the ruling party—the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Massive demonstrations began in the Oromia region of Ethiopia in November 2015 against a government plan to expand the capital, Addis Ababa, by seizing the land of Oromo farmers. The protests have continued and spread to other parts of Ethiopia, challenging the entire repressive structure of the country. All 547 members of the parliament are from the ruling party, which tightly controls all sectors of society. Dissidents are imprisoned under bogus “anti-terrorism” laws while the regime pits one ethnic group against another to maintain power.

Feyisa knew his life would never be the same after he raised his crossed arms at the Rio Olympics.  He said he was afraid he could be killed or imprisoned if he returned to his country, where he has a wife and two children.  How likely could this happen? Ethiopian torture survivors in the United States, including elite runners just like Feyisa, say his fear is very real.

In Washington DC, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) International, which works with torture survivors from all over the world, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Ethiopians seeking asylum in the United States, some are elite long-distance runners like Feyisa. One of these athletes is Demssew Tsega Abebe, a 28 year-old marathon runner.

Demssew has won over 30 medals in marathons in the United States, France, the Netherlands, Dubai, Italy, Japan, Hungary and China. He has been running since he was 17, and had a good chance of being chosen for the Ethiopian team in Rio. In France, he ran a marathon in two hours, 9 minutes and 44 seconds (2:09: 44), ten seconds faster than Feyisa ran in the Rio marathon. 

But Demssew never made it to the Olympics. In December 2015, on his way back from training, he joined thousands of Oromos protesting a government land grab in the town of Sululta, not far from Addis Ababa.  He says the government seizes farmers’ land and sells it to foreign companies from China, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, or gives it away to loyal EPRDF members. Demssew’s own father lost eight of his 12 acres of land in 1997, taken by the government to build apartments for government functionaries. After that, his father had to become a day laborer, barely earning enough money to feed his nine children.

Demssew was recognized by security forces during the demonstration and dragged with another runner to the local police station; his face is well-known in Ethiopia because of his athletic success. For two days they hit him with sticks and plastic whips and accused him of encouraging other athletes to oppose the regime. They beat him severely on the heels of his feet, because they knew he was a runner.  Demssew could hardly walk when he was released. But he was afraid to go to the hospital, worried he would be identified and sent to prison.  

He did not receive any medical care until he arrived in Washington in February, still limping from the injuries on his feet. Like several other Ethiopian elite runners who were tortured by their government, Demssew is applying for asylum in the United States. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 830 Ethiopians were granted asylum in Fiscal Year 2014, more than for any other country except China, Egypt and Syria. 

Feyisa Lelisa is a hero to Demssew and other torture survivors from Ethiopia—athletes, pharmacists, doctors, nurses, engineers, lawyers, teachers and taxi drivers. They don’t want his famous gesture of defiance to be forgotten, especially by the United States, which provides over $600 million in annual aid to Ethiopia, or by other international donors who could force Ethiopia to stop its abysmal abuse of human rights. The Olympics are over but the killing in Ethiopia goes on.

Andrea Barron directs the Advocacy Program at the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) International in Washington DC.

 

 

TASSC Advocacy Consultant, Andrea Barron, Makes a Statement on the Kojo Nnamdi Show

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TASSC's Advocacy Consultant, Andrea Barron, spoke on the Kojo Nnamdi show on August 25th. The show discussed the civil unrest in Ethiopia and the persecution now facing Ethiopian Olympic Marathon Medalist, Feyisa Lilesa. Lilesa's symbol of protest while crossing the finish line in Rio has brought much needed attention to the Ethiopian government's human rights abuses and the widespread killings and arrests of its citizens.

Barron mentions TASSC and the prevalence of Ethiopian survivors seeking asylum in the DMV area. She described how Lelisa's symbolic statement resonated with many of the Ethiopians TASSC serves, including one survivor who was a famous long-distance runner who had been training for the Olympics before being persecuted and forced to flee Ethiopia to the US.  This particular survivor had participated in a peaceful demonstration in December of 2015, where he was singled out for being a famous athlete, arrested and tortured. Stories like this are not uncommon amongst TASSC survivors. TASSC applauds Lilesa's bravery and the subsequent media attention brought to the human rights situation in Ethiopia.

Click here to hear the full story.

TASSC's Social Services Program Coordinator quoted in the Washington Post

Alysha Tagert,  TASSC's Social Services Program Coordinator, was quoted in the Washington Post on August 25th. The article titled "This man launched a website so people can invite refugees to stay in their homes" covers a topic which affects most if not all TASSC survivors - housing. To address the lack of affordable housing available to refugees and asylees, Amr Arafa developed a concept called Emergency BnB - a website similar to Airbnb, where individuals with homes or rooms to rent can sign up to host refugees and victims of domestic violence. In turn, members of these vulnerable populations can register to find a temporary place to stay for free. While Emergency BnB is still in the beginning stages, it is a great concept that TASSC is extremely excited about.

The Washington Post reached out to TASSC last week to learn more about the difficulty of finding housing for the survivors we work with. When asked about the challenges associated with finding a place to stay and the possibility of utilizing a site like Emergency BnB, Alysha commented: "It is incredibly difficult to get a bed anywhere in the city. Public shelters are sometimes very dangerous environments. We're talking about sometimes very traumatized people going into dysfunctional environments. It would be a very natural welcome for an individual if they were staying in a home. I think it's important for enculturation, for feeling like you belong."

Click here to see the full Washington Post article.

If you are interested in becoming an EmergencyBnB host, you can sign up here.

TASSC Applauds Justice Department Decision to End Private Prison Contracting

TASSC welcomes the good news coming from the Department of Justice that it will cease contracting with private prisons, such as GEO and CCA (Corrections Corporation of America). Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said that privately run prisons have more safety and security problems than prisons run directly by the government’s Bureau of Prisons.  These private prisons hold about 12 percent of all federal prisoners.

This decision does not affect torture survivors and other asylum immigrants detained by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. But, it is an important first step in the long struggle by TASSC and allied organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for American Progress ,and Detention Watch Network, to end all government contracting with private prisons.  In 2015, GEO and CCA ran almost two-thirds of federal, state and local prisons that house asylum seekers and others detained by ICE, often under horrendous conditions.

TASSC has advocated for ending ICE contracting with private prisons for five years. Last year, it organized an initiative in the U.S. Congress that directly addressed this issue. Survivors and staff visited congressional offices to support the Justice is Not for Sale Act sponsored by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders, a former presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, said that private prisons “should not be making a profit off putting people in prison.”

Survivors in U.S. detention can be retraumatized because this experience reminds them of when they were imprisoned and tortured by their home governments. Alene, a  survivor from Ethiopia, was placed in solitary confinement for two weeks. According to Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, “prolonged solitary confinement” is considered torture because it “causes prisoners significant mental harm and places them at grave risk of even more devastating future psychological harm.”

Now, it is time for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to follow the example set by the Department of Justice. Department of Homeland Security needs to end all contracts with GEO, CCA, and other private companies that make money for every immigrant that ICE puts in detention.

Click here to see the full August 18th Washington Post's article.

 

We Will Not Be Silent - TASSC's 19th Annual June Survivors Week

The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) held its largest June Survivors Week ever from June 22-June 26, with more than 140 torture survivors and TASSC supporters. Survivors came from Ethiopia, Cameroon, Eritrea, Sudan, Uganda, Balochistan (Pakistan), West Papua (Indonesia), Chile and other countries. June Survivors Week coincides with the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on June 26, the day the UN Convention against Torture entered into force.

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TASSC Survivor featured in Article

TASSC survivor Taddese Dinku has been featured in a story about asylum seekers who become homeless. Taddese, who was a cartographer in Ethiopia before he came to the United States, lives in TASSC's Survivors House in Maryland along with six other men. He is proud that in 1989, he found the plane of Congressman Mickey Leland, who was killed in a plane crash in Ethiopia. Taddese is one of TASSC's most active members - everyone loves seeing his smiling face around the office.

Read the article here →

TASSC survivor is awarded scholarship

TASSC has awarded five female survivors, including Sewlesew Adamu (shown here) with scholarships to acquire the education and training they need to re-enter the job market in this country. Sewlesew was a civil engineer in Ethiopia supervising low-income housing projects until she was tortured for uncovering government corruption. The scholarship will pay for two science classes at the University of the District of Columbia and help Sewlesew earn a Bachelor of Science so she can become an engineer in the U.S. Frewani Tadesse, a former nurse, will enroll in a phlebotomy technician course at Northern Virginia Community College. Other scholarship recipients will take health-related or IT training courses. The funds were provided by the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia, a community of Catholic nuns committed to social justice issues.

Annual Open House 2016

TASSC had an outstanding turn-out at its annual Open House with over 180 survivors and supporters. Testimonies from survivors, music, dance, staff reports and volunteer recognition were all part of this amazing day. Catherine Provost from the office of Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen presented TASSC with a congressional citation to honor its work. The afternoon ended with everyone joining Sudanese performer Amal ElNour singing "Lean on Me." Survivors know they can always "lean on" TASSC for support. (Photo clockwise from top left, Catherine Provost presents congressional citation to Gizachew, Amal ElNour performing, Amal with friends and Ethiopian traditional dancing.)

TASSC Member Speaks at Rally in Front of the White House

Mary Harding from TASSC spoke at a rally opposite the White House calling on President Obama to close the Guantanamo Bay prison before he leaves office. Executive Director Gizachew Emiru emphasized that"as an organization that serves torture survivors from all over the world, TASSC is appalled by the fact that Guantanamo - synonymous with a U.S. torture chamber - is still open after 14 years. During his last last year in office, President Obama should honor his promise to finally close this facility and either release the detainees or transfer them to other locations where they have access to justice."

Survivors Speak at the College of New Jersey

The College of New Jersey invited Lewis Kunze from Zimbabwe, and two other torture survivors to address students. Lewis is a survivor from Zimbabwe and described how he and others from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community are driven from their homes and brutalized by police on a daily basis. President Robert Mugabe launched an anti-gay campaign in 1995, after seeing a book fair booth set up by Lewis's organization, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), which dealt with LGBT issues.

Survivors Participate in Amnesty "Write for Rights" Campaign

TASSC members participated in Amnesty International's "Write for Rights" campaign. They are pictured here with Amnesty's Africa specialist Adotei Akwei. They joined dozens of human rights advocates writing letters to support political prisoners all over the world including girl victims of forced marriage, democracy activists from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a political cartoonist from Malaysia and an ethnic Kurd from Iran.

 
 

TASSC Attends the Annual 'School of the America's' demonstration

TASSC survivors traveled to Columbus, GA for the annual 'School of the America’s' demonstration at Fort Benning. They returned rejuvenated and recommitted to being a force in the struggle to rid our world of torture and to resist the nearly world-wide addiction to militarization. We sang, marched, shared food and email addresses, saw friends and made many new ones with whom we intend to form closer bonds in the coming months, strengthening our work with survivors and offering to provide our resources to add that dimension to their work.
Representing Bolivia, Ethiopia and Sudan we spread out to attend as many workshops as possible in the time that we had. On Friday, shortly after arriving, some of us joined the discussion on the massacres in San Fernando and Ayotzinapa, Mexico and heard of the work of the peoples’ movements to spotlight these outrageous tragedies and make it impossible for the government of that country to deny its responsibility in the murder of these innocent, unarmed people. Likewise the United States cannot escape indictment as active agents in these crimes by its policy of supplying the arms used by the police and military - which find their way into the hands of the vicious drug cartels - and by its commitment to train the armed forces of various Central American countries either on their own soil or now in Columbia, S.A. which welcomes the US military bases on its sovereign territory.
Some of our group remembered sharing the lunch offered at the TASSC office with the families of the Ayotzinapa students when their caravan arrived in DC last April. We also joined with SOA Watch and the local Black Lives Matter organization to sponsor a program at Howard University that evening to demonstrate the need for uniting our resistance to a militarized police force that is claiming so many young lives.
On Saturday morning we joined with some 1400 marchers walking from the town center of Lumpkin, Georgia to the site of the Stewart detention center which is in the poorest county in the state, and has a majority of African American residents.

TASSC Members at the UN

TASSC was represented at the United Nations, as our survivors from three different indigenous nations joined others from around the world to pay homage to the indigenous people of the globe. Charles Abessoh (Cameroon), Cruz Ramirez (Guatemala) and Herman Waingaii (West Papua) joined indigenous peoples organizations, UN agencies, Member States and the general public assembled to hear UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s call for all nations to focus on “attention on promoting the health and well-being of the world’s indigenous peoples.”