Tsehaye Teferra is the president of the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), a nonprofit devoted to helping refugees from African countries, as well as other parts of the world, resettle in America. Mr. Teferra, 57, was one of the original founders of the organization, which was established in 1983.
A native of Ethiopia, he came to the United States in 1972. His commitment to helping refugees adjust to their new homeland in the United States spans close to two decades. He graduated from Georgetown University in 1977 and earned a doctorate in social linguistics.
Before starting ECDC, Mr. Teferra worked at Georgetown University and Howard University as a researcher in linguistics and African studies. He lives in Arlington with his wife, Nigisti Desta, and their two children.
Question: Why was the Ethiopian Community Development Council formed?
Answer: It began in the early 1980s when a number of Ethiopians were fleeing Ethiopia as a result of human rights violations taking place in their country and coming to the United States. At that time, there was no organized host community [in the metropolitan area] to welcome and assist the newcomers with their adjustment and integration into mainstream society. So we decided to form this organization in order to meet the needs of this young Ethiopian community in this country.
That was our initial reason that’s why we started in 1983. We immediately found the needs of the Ethiopian community were not that different from those of other communities. We’ve broadened our focus to be more inclusive on general refugee and immigration issues. Because of our background, our focus is still primarily with African refugees. Some of our programs assist refugees from Bosnia, Kosovo, the Middle East and China, but the bulk of our refugees come from Africa.
Q: How have you been involved with the “Lost Boys” of Sudan?
A: We have resettled over 40 of the Lost Boys in the Washington metropolitan area. We assisted the Lost Boys in finding adequate housing, employment and, for some, training and schools to help them access educational opportunities, whether it’s a GED or enrollment in high schools. We have also placed a few of the Lost Boys with the Job Corps. The United States government decided to bring them to the U.S. and help them assimilate into their new homeland. And, after five years, the Lost Boys will become eligible for citizenship.
Q: Has the September 11 tragedy affected your work?
A: In a major way. Immediately after the attacks, the U.S. government suspended the refugee resettlement program pending a thorough review of all security procedures. That stranded an estimated 22,000 refugees who had already been cleared to come to the United States.
They have remained in a kind of limbo ever since, facing even more hardship and additional delays as new clearance requirements are imposed. The suspension has also created some severe economic impacts as resettlement agencies seek to maintain infrastructures needed to meet the needs of new arrivals, including linguistically and culturally competent case workers.
Q: What are your focus points?
A: One is to work with the refugee population directly by providing orientation to their new environment. At the same time, we also work with the local community in helping people better understand the needs and the potential contributions refugees can make to their new homeland. So, we serve as a bridge between the newcomers and the local community. One of our programs, Bridges for Cross Cultural Understanding, helps refugees adjust to their new environment and helps service providers such as the medical community, educational institutions and police and fire departments be more responsive and understanding of their needs.
Q: What has been the Ethiopian Community Development Council’s greatest accomplishment to date?
A: I think we have done a lot. We serve as a role model for the community. Today, you will see a number of organizations around the country that were established after us and used this organization as their model. Today, we are a major service provider.
When we started in 1983, there were only three volunteers. Today we have about 40 staff members, working here in D.C. and in Denver, Colorado. In the 1980s, the number of refugees admitted was 800 people, which was peanuts compared to people admitted from other regions. Through our advocacy, ECDC has been in the forefront in creating public awareness of African refugees. This year, the number of refugees set to be admitted is 22,000. I would say we have had something to do with that. Most importantly, the majority of the refugees we have helped have become good entrepreneurs and contributing members of this great society.
Q: How can people contribute to the Ethiopian Community Development Council?
A: They can volunteer if they have time. Our goal is to create understanding among people to create good communication. We believe that misunderstandings between cultures lead to an incoherent society. So, we encourage people to mentor newcomers take them under their wings and learn about their culture as well. It benefits you as an American, because you are learning about a new culture and a new way of life, and the person you mentor is also learning about your culture. We believe that creates a good understanding and appreciation of each other. Conflicts often arise because of lack of communication. We hope to minimize the misunderstandings that exist.
People can also donate clothing, furniture and other household items. They can serve as mentors to our refugee newcomers, provide lodging, educational and cultural support. And, by making financial contributions, of course, to help us sustain and expand all aspects of our work.
Denise Barnes contributed to this report.