By Emma Johanningsmeier / World-Herald staff writer |

It’s hard for Eddie Mekasha, a chaplain at Tyson Foods, to think about the time he spent in a concentration camp in Ethiopia as a young man. He doesn’t talk to his teenage daughters about it.

Only a teenager when he was arrested for participating in peaceful student protests, Mekasha was tortured and spent more than two years in the camp, he said.

At the time, Chale Akalu was a soldier in Ethiopia, employed by the same military regime that tortured Mekasha.

But now, living in Omaha several decades later, the two men are friends.

“I was fighting with this guy,” Mekasha said of Akalu, sitting next to him in the basement of an Omaha church recently. “Now we are brothers.” They laughed.

Not only are the two men “brothers,” but they serve together on the leadership committee of the Ethiopian Community Association, a nonprofit organization they helped to start in Omaha last year to support the city’s growing Ethiopian population, welcome newcomers and pass on their heritage to their children.

“We have a great social interaction here,” said Mekasha, who serves as secretary of the association. “We share our culture here, and share our joy, and share our burdens.”

According to census data, there were 67 Ethiopian-born people living in Douglas and Sarpy Counties in 2000. By the time of the 2009-2013 American Community Survey, there were an estimated 289 in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area. That doesn’t include children born in the U.S.

The association has a membership of about 200, including children.

Leaders said many Ethiopian immigrants are migrating here from San Diego after hearing from relatives about Omaha’s employment opportunities and low cost of living.

“There are good opportunities here for our people,” Mekasha said.

Some Ethiopians, like Mekasha, came to the U.S. as refugees or asylees. Others won diversity visas through the “green card lottery.” All came seeking a better life for themselves and their children.

But raising children is harder in the U.S. than in Ethiopia, they agreed. Between drugs and other pressures, there are more ways for young people to go wrong.

That’s one reason the community association exists: to provide members’ children with advice and role models, and to keep them connected with their heritage. Mekasha says proudly that his daughters are honor students.

Teaching the children tolerance is important, he said, especially because their families come from a nation whose recent history is fraught with conflict. Following the military overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, the military ruled for 17 years and was overthrown by the U.S.-backed Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front in 1991. Political troubles continue.

In Omaha, though, Ethiopians have gotten along well despite coming from different political and religious backgrounds.

“[Immigrants] might be having a conflict at home, but they recognize that here they need to work together,” said anthropologist Dr. Pam De Voe, who helped train Mekasha in community mediation when he lived in St. Louis.

The community association is nondenominational. Many members belong to an Ethiopian Orthodox church, but some belong to other Christian denominations, and a few are Muslim.

No matter what a newcomer’s background is, Ethiopians in Omaha welcome his family. They bring groceries and give a little money to help out. “That is our culture,” said Mekasha, who remembers the warm welcome he got when he came to Omaha two years ago.

Members of the Ethiopian community also make hospital visits, and when relatives in Ethiopia have died, they’ve joined families in mourning.

“We try to not touch the sensitive issues,” Mekasha said. “No matter what your politics or faith, in times of sickness or death we help each other.”

Although there haven’t been any big conflicts in the Ethiopian community here, Mekasha is prepared to help should any arise. De Voe said he’s a good mediator and respected by people from different ethnic groups, not just Ethiopians. Other immigrant groups at the meatpacking plants look to him for help and guidance.

“He’s a treasure to the refugee groups,” De Voe said.

There are a few professionals and business owners in the Omaha Ethiopian community. However, most in the community work in meatpacking plants.

Everyone works hard, the leaders agreed. Like many immigrants, they struggle. Many meatpackers, from Ethiopia and elsewhere, tell Mekasha they’re depressed. Life in the U.S. is much more stressful than at home, Ethiopian Community Association president Berhanu Workneh said.

“In this country, you can work, you can have a better life,” he said. “Does that mean you are happy? Maybe not.”

The community association’s leaders say they’re inspired by the idea of the American dream, though, and the prospect of a bright future for their children.

The local Ethiopian community is holding its second annual Ethiopian New Year celebration Sunday in Elmwood Park. Among those expected to attend are several American families with adopted children from Ethiopia.

The New Year, or Enkutatash, celebration will bring members of the Ethiopian Community Association together, but they’re also hoping to attract individuals, agencies and churches interested in helping out, financially and otherwise.

The assistance the Ethiopian community has received from area Lutheran churches and organizations has been vital, Mekasha said, and Tyson helps by letting him do community service as part of his job as chaplain. But the association needs more support “to help the American dream,” the leaders said.

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