Together, Ethiopians and Eritreans make up one of the largest immigrant groups in Colorado — and an ambitious bunch at CU.
When Tesfayohanes Yacob arrived at CU-Boulder as a graduate student in 2005, he spoke a different language, used a different alphabet and followed a different calendar than most other students. But he found the culture he’d left 8,000 miles behind was surprisingly accessible in Colorado: At the foot of the Rockies, he discovered something like Ethiopia.
“It was very comforting,” says Yacob, now a 31-year-old PhD who works as a research associate in CU’s civil, environmental and architectural engineering department. “I had family here and quickly made Ethiopian friends. I could go to restaurants nearby and find my cultural roots. Sometimes I’d be [at CU] all day and miss speaking Amharic, but I didn’t have to wait long.”
Yacob, who goes by “Tesfa,” is among tens of thousands of ethnic Ethiopians and Eritreans to settle or be born in Colorado since political upheaval, drought and famine in the 1970s led to mass emigration in the 1980s. Heavily concentrated in Aurora, Coloradans from the once-united nations in the Horn of Africa constitute the state’s second-largest immigrant population, after Mexicans.
News media organizations and advocacy groups estimate the number of first- and second-generation Ethiopians in the Front Range at more than 30,000. Minneapolis, Seattle and Washington, D.C., also have sizable Northeast African communities.
Three decades of growth and maturity in Colorado have firmly established Ethiopians and Eritreans in the state, and they’re increasingly prominent in society and at CU, where various sources now estimate affiliated students at between 60 and 80. (The university tracks students by citizenship, but not by heritage; as of January, 11 students were Ethiopian citizens, up from six in 2000 and two in 1988, according to CU-Boulder’s Planning, Budget and Analysis office.)
In 2008, Joe Neguse (Econ, PolSci’05, Law’09), whose family fled Eritrea in the 1980s and came to Colorado in 1990, became one of the youngest ever members of CU’s Board of Regents.
Today, with nearly 100 million residents, a fast-growing economy and an increasingly sophisticated infrastructure, Ethiopia is a rapidly modernizing society and among the most populous countries in Africa. When Yacob returned home last year for the first time in nearly a decade he found a light rail network under construction in Addis Ababa, the capital, and condominium complexes mushrooming.
One of few African countries to escape full colonization by Europeans (an Italian attempt failed), Ethiopia is the seat of a unique and proud culture, one that Ethiopians in Colorado make a point to preserve and share as they pursue fundamentally American lives.
“A lot of people, when they think of Ethiopia, they think of famine and war,” says CU sophomore Lidia Feseha, 19, an integrative physiology major from Aurora, Colo., who serves as communications director for CU’s African Students Association. “I try to explain all the positive things about our culture that have been such a huge part of my life.”
She grew up speaking both English and Amharic, studied the symbols of the Ethiopian script along with the American alphabet and attended religious services at Ethiopian Evangelical Church of Denver.
Her dad drove a cab and her mom worked as a nurse’s assistant. Now Lidia and her brother, junior Simon Feseha, both attend CU-Boulder.
“I think a lot of us are motivated to work really hard because we realize how hard our parents worked to get us here,” says Lidia, whose father, Feseha Gebresllase, left Ethiopia on foot in 1981 at age 18.
He walked 10 days to Sudan, spent 18 months in a refugee camp, and ultimately made his way to Denver, drawn by the high altitude and mountains reminiscent of home, the schools and a budding network of his countrymen.
For Lidia, working hard means more than focus and effort. It also means making the most of her expanding abilities to help others. Interested in science, she’s considering a career in medicine. Through CU’s Volunteer Resource Center she planned to lead a spring break trip to New Orleans to build houses.
“We have to use what abilities we have to benefit our community,” she says. “If I have the ability to be a physician or a surgeon, and I’m interested in science, then I should pursue that.”
Lidia’s best friend since childhood, CU-Boulder sophomore Reatea Kifletsion, 19 and also from Aurora, emphasizes their community’s belief in advancement through education. Parents speak in reverent tones of children in other families who work as doctors, lawyers or other learned professionals, she says: “They have high expectations.”
Kifletsion is an integrative physiology major, a practical choice given her own interest in healthcare.
When you talk about the U.S. being the land of opportunity, my parents lived it. I feel it's incumbent upon me to pay it forward.
She’s also pursuing a minor in philosophy and a certificate in leadership, endeavors that work her mind in ways she finds a refreshing and stimulating counterpoint to science.
“I’m not questioning whether photosynthesis works the way it works,” she says. “You don’t question it, you just learn it. In a class like [philosophy], you take a different viewpoint and you really have to analyze any given claim.”
At CU, newcomers find each other through the African Students Association, the Black Students Association, Facebook, Ethiopian cultural events in Denver and Boulder — Denver’s annual Taste of Ethiopia festival and Ethiopian New Year’s Celebration — and, of course, spontaneously. When Yacob sees a new face on campus, he says, “I try to make an effort to say hi and introduce myself and be a nice compatriot.”
Yacob and other CU-Boulder graduates of Northeast African heritage are helping to improve life in developing countries like the one they or their parents left.
Shewaga Gebre-Michael (IntlAf’12) was born in Ethiopia, moved to Lakewood, Colo., in 2002, and graduated from CU-Boulder in May 2012 with a degree in international affairs and a minor in ethnic studies. She’s now working in Ghana, helping to rehabilitate child victims of human trafficking and reintegrate them into their communities.
“My vision has always been a stronger, self-sufficient and developed Africa,” she says, “and I want to contribute to that vision in any capacity I can.”
Yacob, a member of engineering professor Karl Linden’s lab, also is addressing problems in the developing world. In his youth in Addis he experienced ill-kept pit latrines at school and throughout the city. At CU, he has helped develop a toilet that uses solar energy to sterilize human waste and transform it into a fertilizer and potential fuel source called “biochar.”
All the while, Neguse, a lawyer in Denver, continues to make a name in public life.
The Colorado Democratic Party identified him a “rising star” in 2010, and in fall 2014 he ran for Colorado Secretary of State, receiving 45 percent of the vote.
“The importance of public service was drilled into us at a very early age,” says Neguse, 30, whose parents fled Eritrea in the 1980s and came to Denver in 1990. “When you talk about the U.S. being the land of opportunity, my parents lived it. I feel it’s incumbent upon me to pay it forward.”
Photography by Patrick Campbell