Saskatchewan man fears for Ethiopian family displaced by violence

Ted Jaleta, an accomplished Regina-based athlete, said he feels powerless to help his brothers who have lost their homes and livelihoods as ethnic violence grips Ethiopia.

The well-known running coach and community volunteer made the Saskatchewan capital his home after fleeing violence in the African country nearly 40 years ago. Now he fears for his family members and other ethnic minorities who are under threat.

Thousands of people are believed to have been killed and around 950,000 displaced recently, as violence has erupted and ethnic tensions have risen in the country since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. Local and international rights groups have expressed concern about the arrests of thousands of other people following outbreaks of deadly violence.

Jaleta said his brothers Gedamu Jaleta and Nazi Jaleta have both been displaced from the Benishangul-Gumuz region, about 400 kilometres northwest of the capital Addis Ababa, where they all grew up. Jaleta said he’s been trying to help, but that the situation has left him feeling powerless.

The Jaletas are part of the ethnic group Shinasha, also known as Boro, which is one of the smallest in the country with about 33,000 people. Ted Jaleta was born in Dangur, Ethiopia, which is part of the Benishangul-Gumuz region.(CBC)

Jaleta, who was born in Dangur, came to Canada as a refugee in 1982 and has lived in Regina for decades. Jaleta was recently elected as a Regina Public School Board trustee. He made a name for himself as a competitive runner and was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. His running club, the Jaleta Pacers, has focused on giving back to the community for years.

Jaleta never imagined his family in Ethiopia would face the violence that’s erupted there recently. But his brothers Gedamu Jaleta and Nazi Jaleta have had their lives uprooted.

Humanitarian crisis

“Both of them lost everything,” Jaleta said. “They’re basically homeless now. They cannot go back. They’re starving with just the clothes on their back.”

Both are near the age of 60 and have several children and grandchildren.

In an effort to raise awareness, he posted a social media message on Christmas about the situation and photos showing people slain in a massacre and bodies ready for a mass burial. The well-known athlete said he wants others to know about the humanitarian crisis underway in Ethiopia.

After being imprisoned and tortured during Ethiopia’s civil war, Ted Jaleta came to Canada as a refugee(NDP)

Gedamu Jaleta and his family had to flee the village where they grew up when their farm was looted last year, Ted Jaleta said. Their livelihood of land, livestock and possessions were stolen. They were displaced but held onto hope that one day they could return.

And last month, Nazi Jaleta’s farm was looted as civilians’ homes were lit on fire and dozens of people killed in a massacre — later to be buried at the funeral featured in the photos posted by Ted Jaleta.

Jaleta knows intimately what it’s like when the world around you erupts in violence. Four decades ago, he was jailed when he was a university student marching in the streets.

Ethiopian women who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, gather in Hamdayet village near the Setit river on the Sudan-Ethiopia border in eastern Kassala state.(Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

He was tortured in prison for six months until the day he literally ran for his life and then spent four years in Sudanese and Kenyan refugee camps. Jaleta said it is incredibly difficult to live amid such violence and fear, especially if you are forced from your own home.

Living with violence

“You are displaced and you don’t have any place to go and you don’t have support — it is very humiliating,” he said, adding situations like these can drive people to desperation. Jaleta said as violence grows, the lands become lawless and people with weapons rule and kill.

Jaleta came to Canada as a refugee but his brothers can’t flee the violence like he did, Jaleta said. They are much older with many dependents. Jaleta said the conditions in refugee camps are challenging, especially for older people. On top of all that, there are also concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve been sending money from our savings and we are getting help from friends, and we do what we can,” he said.

His friend Derek Smith, who is the superintendent for Saskatchewan’s Prairie Valley School Division and has been part of the Jaleta Pacers Running Group, has started an online fundraiser to raise money. Jaleta paused, overcome with emotion, as he expressed gratitude for the help even as the “future of peace is very unknown.”

Ethiopians who fled the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, carry supplies at the Um-Rakoba camp on the Sudan-Ethiopia border.(Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/REUTERS)

He’s hopeful that money raised can help his family members get through the immediate hardships and eventually restart their lives if the violence ever settles. His greatest wish is for them to live a life of peace.

Jaleta said urgent international attention — condemnation and action — is needed.

Canada condemns violence

Global Affairs Canada said on Monday that Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of the country’s international assistance and that it received $198.15 million in 2017-2018.

Last month, Canada responded to an uprising in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray, by pledging $3 million to “experienced humanitarian partners who are providing assistance to people affected by conflict within the Tigray region of Ethiopia and to those who have crossed the border seeking safety in Sudan.”

And in mid-November, Canada called for “a thorough investigation into reported massacres and to bring those responsible to justice” in a statement that also condemned attacks on civilians.

Jaleta thinks Canada should do more.

He’s afraid that people won’t pay attention, let alone intervene, quickly enough. He pointed to the Rwandan genocide where hundreds of thousands were slaughtered and intervention came far too late.

He said he receives calls, sometimes daily, from people who are starving, terrified and desperate for help.

“It is very scary.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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