Teklemichael Sahlemariam Is Ethiopia’s Loss and Canada’s Gain By Chris Goldsburger
Teklemichael Sahlemariam has only lived in Canada for a decade yet he has achieved what most would only dream of achieving in a lifetime.
The Canadian lawyer, one-time Ethiopian refugee is emerging as the most reasonable voice for Ethiopia and Ethiopians in Canada and in their homeland. It is unfortunate; he is not in Ethiopia, fighting for the ideals he passionately cares about. It disappoints me to know the young man is a wanted man in his homeland and will likely be sent to prison if he set foot there for advocating for political change. To Canada, he is one of our valued celebrated Canadian citizens.
In 2011, a colleague from my law-school days had suggested I meet with the young political activist in Victoria. I was a retired lawyer and he was a new Law school graduate. I was not sure if we would have anything in common to talk about.
I suggested we meet at my favorite Irish bar and he wanted to invite me to an Ethiopian restaurant. I was not sure. I was not familiar with the food. I persisted we go to an Irish bar and I won.
There was nothing extraordinary about him when he walked to my table 15 minutes later than expected apologizing repeatedly. His hair was a mess and his facial hair had almost swallowed his baby face. His grey hair made him look 20 years older than his actual age. I expected our conversation to last an hour and I wanted an use an excuse of family obligations to leave.
By the third round of our drinks – he prefers Heineken – I had been extremely taken-aback by this young man.
A university student leader during an Ethiopian election, he had fled to Kenya and Uganda as a political refugee. He had challenged the Ethiopian authority and they had come after him. His many friends had been beaten up, and many have disappeared to neighboring countries. He also would follow in their footsteps. From the day he left, he would refuse to cut or trim his hair, as a protest to what was happening, in Ethiopia.
My only association with his country was during the infamous Ethiopia famine where I had made a generous donation with my wife. For me, Ethiopia, always represented misery and charity, but that would soon change. Beyond the history and politics of his home country, he knew more about Canada more than I would care to know. He loved Canada and respected the many Canadians who gave him opportunities along the way.
He had come to Canada, as a refugee and with a still incomplete academic destination, yet would soon earn an undergraduate degree, an LLB and LLM in record time. Upon graduation, while unsuccessfully securing an internship, he would become a powerful voice with ESAT – a TV station that opposes the Ethiopian government. (In 2014, he was called to the bar). He would introduce me the biographies of Eskender Nega, an Ethiopian journalist and an Amnesty International adopted prisoner of conscious.
The one-hour planned conversation would last four hours. At the end, I would gain an understanding of the hope and reality of Ethiopia. I would soon read books and follow the current politics of the country. The reality of today’s Ethiopia – is where a brutal government holds an election and every parliamentarian seats is won by them while opposition leaders are imprisoned and journalists who did not endorse the government are imprisoned.
Teklemichael Shalemariam is an important and extraordinary voice in Canada – for better ideals for all of us. I have never known a better advocate for peaceful political change, at home and abroad, than him. I am lucky to have known him and continue to have a regular conversation about many important issues, including about Ethiopia and Canada. I am forever thankful that Canada has given such a significant voice a home. He is Ethiopia’s loss but Canada’s gain.