[dehai-news] (Reno Gazette Journal, NV) Former political prisoner: 'Get involved'

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From: Biniam Tekle (biniamt@dehai.org)
Date: Mon Jan 26 2009 - 09:08:48 EST

 http://www.rgj.com/article/20090126/CARSON/901260334/1003 Former political
prisoner: 'Get involved'

By ROSEANN KEEGAN Special to the January 26, 2009

Reno Gazette-Journal
 Tewolde Habtemicael has never taken his right to vote for granted.

As a young college student in Ethiopia, he was arrested and sentenced to
five years in prison for demonstrating in favor of democracy. Now, at age
60, the longtime Carson City resident still is as impassioned as he was in
his youth. He spent most of last year knocking on doors and encouraging
people to register to vote.

Habtemicael told them, "You get involved, and you determine your fate. But
don't simply complain."

Last week, Habtemicael brought his message to teacher Blair Roman's
sophomore government class. For the past 20 years, Habtemicael, a state
personnel analyst, has been speaking to area schools about African cultures
and politics, the United States through the eyes of African students and the
importance of being engaged in the political process from an early age.

"I just want to motivate them so they can get involved in their politics and
community services in difference capacities," Habtemicael said.

"In a class where you study different cultures of the world and different
countries, it's good to have someone from a different perspective to come
and speak about their experience," Roman said.

A student asked Habtemicael, "What do you like about America?"

"Compared to where I grew up, this is paradise," Habtemicael replied.

Habtemicael was born about 60 years ago in Eritrea, which was then still a
territory in northeast Africa. His age is an estimate since there were no
birth certificates.

He walked seven miles each way to elementary school in bare feet, a T-shirt
and shorts. The class shared a single book with 16 pages, and each student
had one pencil. When he reached high school, 16 Peace Corps volunteers
arrived as teachers.

"We were so excited to be taught by Americans," he said. "They taught us
about hard work " about freedom of speech. You have to express your

The teachers also introduced Habtemicael to the concept of democracy. At
Haile Selassie I University, later renamed Addis Ababa University, he led
marches and demonstrations demanding the right to vote. He was arrested with
three other classmates and sentenced to five years in prison, but was
released one year later following a student boycott.

"It was a hell," he said.

After the government was overthrown by a military coup, he led another
petition drive for the right to vote. He was arrested again and on the verge
of execution when Amnesty International intervened. After eight months of
being tortured, he was released, but he knew he had to leave.

So, Habtemicael left Ethiopia by foot, walking to Sudan and eventually
reaching Saudi Arabia. The American Embassy accepted him as a political
refugee, and he immigrated to the U.S. He attended the University of
Montana, Missoula, graduating in 1985 with perfect 4.0 GPA and a master's
degree. He moved to Carson City in 1987.

"I think anything is possible in America," he said.

After hearing Obama speak in favor of the Peace Corps and his proposal for a
new American Opportunity Tax Credit, Habtemicael joined his campaign.

He canvassed neighborhoods and volunteered to be a precinct captain. But he
said he didn't care whether someone was registering as a Republican or a
Democrat. He just wanted them to register.

Habtemicael said it surprises him that so many American youths aren't
engaged in the political process. He encouraged the students in Roman's
class to get informed about their community.

"You have to get involved," Habtemicael said. "You have to read. Read
newspapers to see what is going on."

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