The largest group of asylum seekers in the Washington, DC area–and the majority of my asylum cases–are from Ethiopia, so a recent story in the Washington Post caught my attention (ok, it actually caught my wife’s attention and she emailed it to me, so she gets credit for this one). Henok Tesfaye is an Ethiopian immigrant who started his own very-successful parking business, U Street Parking. In some ways, Mr. Henok’s story is typical of Ethiopian immigrants and asylees that I see my daily work. Also, his story points to some universal lessons in refugee (and immigrant) resettlement and integration.
Mr. Henok’s story is typical because he came here at a young age with little money and few contacts, but with a strong desire to achieve success. Many of the refugees I have met (and represented) have suffered severe traumas. Nonetheless, they are optimistic people. They have left the past behind and have come to the United States to build their future. They come here with the same attitude as their predecessors, be they Puritans in search of religious liberty, Russian Jews fleeing the Cossacks, or Vietnamese boat people escaping a Communist regime. Of course they sometimes carry with them baggage from the old country–traditions that don’t always square with American values can be a problem–and they usually don’t speak fluent English. But the refugees I have known generally contributed greatly to our community. It is impressive that such people, who arrive here with so little, are able to accomplish so much.
Mr. Henok’s story also points to some of the challenges faced by refugees (and immigrants) in the United States. He was struggling until he finally obtained a loan from the Ethiopian Community Development Counsel, an organization that assists new Ethiopian arrivals in the Washington, DC area:
ECDC serves as a welcoming presence as well as a bridge for dialogue and education. Through our programs, ECDC seeks to empower African newcomers; giving hope for their future and helping them quickly become self-sufficient, productive members of their communities in their new homeland.
Groups like ECDC make it possible for refugees and immigrants to adjust more quickly to the United States. Not all refugees have community-based groups they can turn to, but there are resources available, such as the Catholic Legal Immigration Network and the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society.
Our country has a generous policy towards refugees and asylum seekers. We should be proud that we help people fleeing persecution. At the same time, however, we should remember that the refugees and immigrants who come here have helped enrich our nation. Mr. Henok reminds us that this true.