‘I want people to know that the Oromo people are here’: A killing in Ethiopia ignites a youth revolution in Minnesota.
Young protesters, who call themselves qeerroo, speak out about what they want from the government in Addis Ababa (and St. Paul), and what they learned from George Floyd.
By JAIDA GREY EAGLE, JULY 17, 2020
(Sarah Journal) — On the evening of Thursday, July 2, hundreds of people from the Oromo community took to the streets and shut down the westbound lanes of Interstate 94 in St. Paul. A few days before, musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa had been shot and killed in Addis Ababa. Reports of further killings and prosecutions followed, until the government shut down the internet, plunging the country into turmoil and choking off news from home.
The highway protest made news broadcasts and headlines in Minnesota. More than that, it amplified the calls for justice and reform in Ethiopia from Minnesota’s substantial Oromo community. One more notable thing about the growing political movement? The relative youth of the leadership.
Sahan Journal sat down with five youth activists, who refer to themselves as “qeerroo,” and asked about their experiences with the George Floyd protests, their political goals, and their belief in the power of a younger generation of activists.
Here is what they had to say, in their own words.
Aisha Oromia Ali, 30, registered nurse, Spring Lake Park
Even though we have such a large diaspora population here in Minnesota, a lot of people don’t know who the Oromo people are. They either lump you as a Somali or as an Ethiopian. But we want them to know that we’re Oromo. We want them to hear our struggles, our frustration, our grief.
Our community is a very strong, bright, vibrant, resilient community. They’ve been through a lot to get where they are today. You could almost say that this is the hub. Outside of Oromia, this is where the big decisions and support is given to the Oromo movement.
I had a chance to participate in the George Floyd protests. The Black Lives Matter movement is a very close movement to me and many that look like me. I know a lot of our community members were there on a daily basis.
The Black Lives Matter movement: It’s not a movement that’s just going to start and stop today. It’s going to keep going until the goals are reached. You’re not fighting a person or a people; you’re fighting a system. And that’s exactly what the Oromo people are doing.
We invite anybody and everybody to show solidarity and stand with the Oromo cause. But specifically when it comes to our elected representatives, we have specific goals, specific demands, that we expect them to fulfill. Those include things like denouncing the human rights violations by the Ethiopian government. Pressuring them into stopping human rights violations. Releasing all Oromo political prisoners.
We want an investigation into the death of Hachalu Hundessa, who was an iconic artist and a revolutionary artist. He meant so much and symbolized so much to the Oromo people.
And ultimately we need the resignation of the current administration, led by Abiy Ahmed, because of the atrocities they have committed. Even though in the beginning he was portrayed to be such a reformist, a progressive leader, a democratic leader, he is nothing but the opposite of all those.
The older generation, the struggles they faced were immense. They were fighting for liberation. They were making sure that their identity wasn’t lost, passing on cultural and historical facts about the Oromo people.
A lot of them went through refugee camps to get to where they are today. My family is an example. My dad had to walk from his hometown in Oromia to Djibouti, and then to Egypt. And then my mom, my siblings and her parents had to walk from Oromia to Somalia. And they were in the refugee camps: hundreds of thousands were in those refugee camps.
My mom’s side of the family, in her birth town, there’s this place called “the grave of the 30 people,” where they were slaughtered by the Ethiopian government. And they were all related to her. It was her uncles, it was her cousins. Because her father—my grandfather—was very proud Oromo. And he would not accept the harassment and bullying and abuse by the Ethiopian government.
So he was targeted. They came after any family member that was blood related to him. They killed 30 people in one grave and they threw them in one ditch.
As I’m telling you this story it becomes—I get really emotional. Because even though I wasn’t there, to know that my mom was there, and she was a child? Imagine trying to hide from the Ethiopian government. You’re peeking from a fence and you can see them doing that.
This is not a unique story to my family. A lot of families have gone through this. And that’s why I say, they will overcome so much, and be able to teach the next generation—which is, you know, us. Their children.
Najat Hamza, student, Saint Paul
We protested for George Floyd because we understand what pain is. It’s not because we wanted to go seek an experience. It’s because it resonated with us, and we know what a prosecution looks like.
I can paint family members, friends, teachers growing up there when I was young, or even after we left. So we know that pain and the agony of seeing a human life expire before you, and the powerlessness you feel. You’re standing an inch away, but you can’t do nothing about it. That is who an Oromo is, our daily life.
I can cite the stories of my father being taken to jail and remember running after him. And him not being able to come back to me, to hug me.
So it’s kind of the other way around for us: We understood it because we live it. It’s our experience, too. It’s just a different place and time.
Before now, we used to just go to the state capitol, write letters, contact representatives. We passed a resolution, HR 128, condemning human rights abuses two years ago at the Congress. So we are very well connected with our communities across the U.S.
However, we have never taken a drastic measure to call attention to ourselves. And the reason we did that is, the day prior to that, we asked media to come and listen to our plight. And people usually don’t show up and don’t listen. And we usually just go home, you know. Some official comes out, talks to you.
This time around we said, no: We want the world to know. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, has shut down the internet since Tuesday morning or Monday night or something. And we don’t know what’s happening to our families.
When the Ethiopian empire was made over 150 years ago, one of the first things they did was to stop [Oromo people] from going to school. Erasure of culture, of language. They made the Amharic language the federal working language and the language for you to learn.
Our written language is fairly new: It’s 1990s. So the only way they could pass our cultural heritage to another generation was through oral ways: things like folktales and songs. Because of that, there isn’t a whole educated class in the older generation.
Now this generation and the generation down were educated back home, and here across the diaspora. We see what [the Ethiopian government] does a lot more more brightly. And we also know how to dismantle that as well.
This is the darkest fight. But it’s also the fight that can get us to the end, which is basically to have our own country—if we can’t coexist in peace and have our human dignity.
Naima Badri, 22, student, Golden Valley
I would like for Minnesota, our governors and state representatives, to stand by us and for them to hear our demands. For them to help us reach out to the White House and the U.N. and those types of big media platforms. Because our voices are getting shut down, our voices are getting outspoken by other people.
In these protests, there’s more youth involved—they call them qeerroo. They understand the challenges that their parents have gone through. Now, as you can see, we are witnessing it, and it’s attacking our young cousins, our young siblings back home.
It’s youth-led protests: We’re taking it more on social media, going on Twitter and trending, basically trying to get the media coverage.
We’re finally understanding, because of Hachalu Hundessa: an Oromo artist a lot of youth have listened to. So we understand now, we feel it now, and it’s hit us personally. Now we can stand up and fight alongside our grandparents, with our parents.
Simale Kadri, 19, student, Apple Valley
We have a large population of Oromo people in Minnesota, but people are not aware of it. Their voices are not heard. Because a lot of them are running away from the political problems they face back home, running for their lives. And not a lot of them have the necessary education.
To be out there and in the public and each making noise—you know, they usually quiet down and stick within the community.
I want people to know that the Oromo people are here. And I want leaders to be aware of us, to know that we have a voice.
You can’t just give up because you’re not being heard at the moment yet. Keep pushing for it to be heard.
This experience has made me more selfless than the way I was before. It has made me want to know more about other groups’ struggles. You know, I’m very privileged to be living here in the United States and I have access to a lot of things a lot of people don’t.
It almost is making me feel guilty for just taking advantage of my privilege and not wanting to learn about other people’s struggles. I have been looking more at what is happening around the world. Like what is happening in Yemen and other places: How can I participate? How can I help? And how can I bring attention to it?
Ultimately, I just want to see peace. I want my people to be heard. And I want them to be able to live in a country where, if they don’t agree with somebody’s political point of view, they’re not going to be killed. I want them to feel like they belong somewhere. I want them to have someone to identify with.
That’s what I’m hoping moving forward. I’m hoping that’s the future for Oromo people. Hopefully I can help make that a reality.
Abdulrahman Wako, 29, community organizer, Saint Paul
When I first started with the George Floyd protests, I was out there because I couldn’t stay home. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat.
I felt like my life was in danger. I felt like, you know, you can kill me in the street, just because I’m wearing a hoodie and there will be no retribution for that. There will not be justice. So I might as well get up and fight for my freedom now.
I’d rather they hurt me while I’m standing for what I believe in, rather than me just walking on the street.
With the George Floyd protest, I saw that anything is possible. And as a people, as a Black people, as Indigenous people, we should really, really, really know what we want to have. What type of world do we want to live in? Because we already know what type of world we don’t want to live in.
Oromo activism before now wasn’t like this. It wasn’t about shutting down the highway. It wasn’t about unity.
It wasn’t about different types of Oromo people, different types of Oromo tribes, coming together. Different Oromo religions—Muslims, Christians, traditional spiritual-practicing Oromos—coming together. It wasn’t about that before.
It wasn’t about the elders and the younger generations coming together, working together. It wasn’t about that. It wasn’t about the younger generations, Oromo youth, leading these efforts. It wasn’t about that. It wasn’t about the older generation, the elders, acknowledging, stepping back and actually pushing us into leadership and allowing us to lead. It wasn’t about that before. But now it is about that.
You know, all the power is always held by old men: old Oromo men, our elders. Not even our woman, not even our grandmothers. And they don’t have the capacity to lead us to a better world. They come from a world that’s nothing like this world.
You know, I was born back there. I didn’t grow up there, but I was there in my adolescent years. And then I came here. I still have the stories. My parents tell me the stories. I know where I come from.
The capacity that I have as an Oromo youth, my ability to use technology, you know, understanding how processes work, how politics works, how do you get something? How do you win something, political organizing, community organizing. I obviously have a lot more capacity than my elders to bring about a better world, right?
Now, in my mind, knowing the history of how my people were oppressed, how our human rights have been violated, left and right, for generations—knowing that and then having this Oromo protest, this Oromo liberation come up? And Black Lives Matter being here?
It’s not two different camps. I’m not here standing with the Oromos, saying Oromo Lives Matter or coming here to Black Lives Matters and saying Black Lives Matter.
Oromo liberation is Black liberation. Black liberation is Oromo liberation.
JAIDA GREY EAGLE, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jaida Grey Eagle is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.