By Mary Nugent, Chico Enterprise-Record |

Chico, CA― Dawit Zeleke immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia when he was a child. He has done well in his life here, and shares credit all around for his success.

“I’ve had the gift of this country. All my life I’ve been offered kindness, food, help getting jobs. I was offered opportunities, and I hope I’ve given back,” said Zeleke, the guest speaker during the annual meeting Wednesday for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Chico State University’s learning-in-retirement program. His talk was titled “An Ethiopian Immigrant Story in America.”

Zeleke, of Orland, is senior director of Agriculture and Conservation in California for the Nature Conservancy.

His story was articulate and entertaining, but he stressed tolerance and acceptance of immigration. He compared the war-torn life his family experienced when they fled from Ethiopia in the 1970s, to what Syrians face today.

His father came to the U.S. for an education. His parents divorced when he didn’t want to return to Ethiopia. He married an American woman, and because his mother and stepmother were reasonable people, Zeleke said he and his siblings had good lives. “They negotiated that my sister would live with my mother, and my brother and I lived with my dad and stepmother. We all went back and forth,” he said.

Things changed in 1974. “People were disappearing. We packed up, left for the Congo and never went back,” he said, adding it was particularly difficult for his father, an international businessman.

“It wasn’t about the money. It was about his role in society,” Zeleke said.

Even if times are dire, it is devastating to leave a homeland. “You always want to go home, and you always say you will. But then the U.S. becomes home and you don’t leave,” he said.

His parents worked hard to come to the U.S. and give their children a better future. Growing up, he and his brother lived in New York City and Dallas, Texas.

“It was because of the kindness of other people that my brother and I went to a boarding school in New York,” he said. “It was a school run by Quakers, who believed in the diversity of a community.”

Zeleke never knew it at the time, but his mother helped hundreds of immigrants complete the complicated application process to stay in the U.S. “My mother was a rock. She never gave up,” he said.

As an adult, Zeleke received a degree in anthropology from Friends World College in Huntington, New York. He began his career as a farm laborer at a Northern California vineyard in 1989, and today is a senior advisor for Conservation Farms & Ranches, a not-for-profit subsidiary of the Nature Conservancy that manages a 9,000-acre farming operation in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta.

With more than 20 years of agriculture, habitat management, and habitat restoration experience, Zeleke serves as an internal resource to conservation programs and initiatives. A California Agricultural Leadership Program graduate and Dean’s Advisory Board Chair for the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Zeleke manages relationships with the agricultural community and industry in California. Prior to his current position, he directed the Nature Conservancy’s Central Valley and Mountains Region and the Migratory Bird Program in California.

Zeleke and his wife own and operate Capay Satsuma Mandarins, a certified organic orchard.

Zeleke said he and his relatives are examples that immigration can be successful. “I have aunts and uncles, lots of extended family, who have come here and done well. They are business owners, nurses, taxi drivers, salesmen. We took advantage of what was offered, and we are contributing citizens,” he said.

He will always be grateful for the opportunities he experienced in the U.S., he said. “Programs are important to immigrants who come from Syria, Turkey, Ethiopia, Mexico,” he said. “Instead of insulting immigrants, we need to find a solution. I believe that kids who are born here from illegal immigrants should be citizens. Immigrants should be given work permits, but if they commit a crime, they should be deported.”

It’s prudent to remember who immigrants are, he said. “They are not just immigrants. They are real people.”

Source: Chico Enterprise-Record
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