‘God, give my children … The courage to help’ – Louisa Taylor, The Ottawa Citizen

July 18th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

To get an idea of the burden weighing on Bekele Geleta, consider the heartbreaking inventory of human disaster around the world right now, all the people struggling to survive and regroup and rebuild after earthquakes, cyclones, famine, cholera and on. It’s his job to get help to them, all at once. (more…)

To get an idea of the burden weighing on Bekele Geleta, consider the heartbreaking inventory of human disaster around the world right now, all the people struggling to survive and regroup and rebuild after earthquakes, cyclones, famine, cholera and on. It’s his job to get help to them, all at once.

Bekele is the new secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the international symbol of rescue and relief, the world’s largest humanitarian organization.

He doesn’t just oversee the teams that put tents and tarps and food parcels into the hands of desperate people; he must persuade diverse — often competing — groups to work efficiently together, he must get them the tools they need when they need them, and he must convince global power brokers to pay attention and pay up.

The Geneva secretariat has 500 employees and works with thousands of staff and millions of volunteers in the federation’s 186 national Red Cross Societies, each of which has its own culture, interests and agenda. Getting the federation’s members pulling in the same direction requires strength and finesse. It demands diplomacy and decisiveness, a manner that is equally at ease in the corridors of European palaces or dusty, crowded emergency camps and the ability to withstand punishing travel.

Many in the Red Cross world believe Bekele is particularly suited to the task. A gentleman with a courtly manner and a twinkle in his eye, Bekele is nevertheless shrewd and driven. As one former colleague says, “it might not sound like it, but I mean this as a compliment: Bekele is both a very honest person to deal with and a wily old fox.”

He also has something that sets him apart from the other suits in the room, something mostly unspoken but just as significant as the fact he is a high-ranking Canadian of African origins in a field dominated by Europeans and Americans. In Red Cross language, the people it serves are “vulnerable,” and Bekele Geleta has been vulnerable. Growing up, his family frequently made do with just one meal a day. He survived five years in an Ethiopian prison and he made something out of nothing as a middle-aged refugee in Ottawa.

He can sit down with a hungry child or an earthquake survivor and say, I know what it’s like to lose everything, I know what’s it’s like to keep going and I will help you. And he can negotiate with leaders from the developing world and donors from rich countries and honestly say to each, I know your world, I know what you need and I will help you.

“I have started life over three times,” says Bekele, but he may be underestimating — it’s more like four or five.

Act I

Early morning in Nedjo, a small town in the lush green coffee plantations of western Ethiopia, in the mid-1950s. Alemi Dinsa, a young mother, is making breakfast for her family of eight. Breakfast most days is a piece of injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread, and a cup of strong, dark coffee; there will be no lunch, and dinner might be more injera and a bit of stew.

Alemi moves about the earthen floor of her mud-walled tukul, rousting sleeping children, boiling water, straining the aromatic beans and talking to God. She begins every day this way, and her son Bekele listens closely, even though her prayer is always the same.

“God, give my children the wisdom to think good thoughts,” Alemi says.

“Give them the ability to do good and the courage to help people in need. God, give them the patience to learn from today so they are better people tomorrow.”

Alemi prays in the only language she knows, the language of her ethnic group, Oromo. The Oromo have long been a persecuted minority in Ethiopia, and by the time Bekele is born in 1944, speaking Oromo is banned in schools, businesses and public meetings.

Alemi is praying to God, but Bekele feels she is also talking to him, and her words stay with him. Years later, he will marvel that it is almost a humanitarian’s prayer, but now, he teases his mother. “Is that all you can ever say?” It is enough, she says.

Alemi and her husband, Geleta, have six children. Bekele — in Ethiopia, your first name is the name you are most commonly known by, and your father’s first name is your surname — is the second son. A tailor with an entrepreneurial spirit, Geleta tries a variety of businesses and persists in spite of failures, which Bekele absorbs as a lesson to dare and to risk and to never give up. His parents, themselves illiterate, stress the importance of education, and it will pay off: their children will find success in business, education and medicine.

Bekele thrives in school, a smart, popular student and skilled debater who makes to university in Addis Ababa, a huge accomplishment for a poor rural family. Soon after graduating with a degree in political science and economics, he takes a job with the Ethiopian Roads Authority.

“In a developing country, you don’t plan your life, you get appointments,” he says. “I didn’t apply for this position, I was told to go and work there.”

It is the beginning of a swift ascent. The company sponsors him for graduate study, and he goes to England to earn a master’s in transportation economics from the University of Leeds.

By 1978, Bekele’s life seems set. He is married and has a two-year-old son, Jiffar; his wife, Tsehay Mulugeta, is expecting again. His charisma and talent as a manager have landed him the top job at the Franco-Ethiopian Railway, in spite of his youth — he’s only 34 — and his Oromo heritage.

As the general manager, Bekele oversees 3,000 employees. He lives in a company house and drives a company car. He thinks about getting the trains to run on time, he wonders when he might get government sponsorship to pursue a doctorate abroad, he feels that life is on track.

Act II

October 1978, inside the main police station in Addis Ababa. Bekele is hanging upside down, his feet being beaten bloody by interrogators. They insist he belongs to the Oromo Liberation Front; he insists he doesn’t. He is a civil servant, not a politician or an activist.

It doesn’t matter. Bekele has been caught in another purge of Oromo by the Derg, the socialist dictatorship led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, in an effort to eliminate the OLF. Many of his friends and relatives have been arrested.

“At that time there were roundups in the country, lots of killings left and right,” says Bekele. “Anybody who was reported to be politically anti-government was rounded up and sent to prison.”

The beatings continue. His feet blister and wounds open. On it goes for a month.

Finally he is brought before a special investigator, who declares a sentence of five years in jail, no trial. Bekele is transferred to the Central Prison in Addis Ababa, known informally as Karcheli prison. The inmate population numbers in the thousands, with as many as 1,500 political prisoners alone. Pickpockets, activists, academics, businessmen, murderers, civil servants — all are penned together behind the imposing walls and iron bars of the prison building in the city’s downtown, “right behind the offices of the Organization of African Unity,” says Bekele.

When he first arrives, he’s put into a cell with 200 inmates and two hole-in-the-floor toilets. There are no chairs, no tables, no beds except for some mattresses on the floor.

Prison food is meagre — “terrible, terrible stuff,” says Bekele — not enough to survive a long imprisonment. Every day, Tsehay cooks a meal and leaves it at the prison gate. That daily gift sustains Bekele physically and emotionally, “a huge contribution” to his survival. Only later does he learn that Tsehay has sometimes gone hungry in order to feed him.

Tsehay and the two boys — Hinsermu was born shortly after Bekele went into prison — are forced out of the company house and eventually move in with relatives. At first they survive with the help of family, but as it becomes clear that all her pleas for Bekele’s release are being ignored, Tsehay begins selling textiles to support the family.

Bekele and other political prisoners decide they need something to keep them engaged during what could be a long, bleak imprisonment. The prison warden — “a generous man,” Bekele says — authorizes a prisoner-development committee, and the inmates elect Bekele chairman. The Derg has sent so many graduates to jail, the committee is able to offer lessons in every field, from mathematics and sciences to languages and history.

“Almost overnight we organized classes from literacy up to postsecondary education,” says Bekele. “We formed half a dozen sports clubs and built a prison stadium. On weekends, the warden allowed us to come out and watch soccer games. We played some national clubs and we even beat, twice, the national champions.”

They build a large library and stock it with books donated by the British and the Americans. The school is recognized by the Ministry of Education, and inmates are allowed to sit for the university admissions exam. “We were the top school on the entrance exam for several years in a row,” says Bekele.

For all that, there are still beatings, solitary confinement and worse. Every day, a van arrives and a handful of prisoners are called by name. Those called in the morning are getting out; those called in the afternoon will not be seen again.

“People would say goodbye, shake hands. They knew they were being executed,” says Bekele. “That was very bitter. That was the first two years. After that it stopped.”

An Oromo prisoner, a schoolmate from Nedjo called Fekadu Eba, is transferred temporarily to Karcheli. He spends some time in the same cell as Bekele and watches his old friend organize the inmates.

“Bekele is very diplomatic, very tactful, and he was able through his committee to talk to the administration about some of the conditions, issues of mistreatments and abuse,” says Fekadu, who was in Karcheli for a year before being transferred to another prison. “Bekele was extremely popular among the inmates. Some of them when they were released went directly to university and now they are doctors and leaders.

“Being in such a hard place, a place of cruelty and torture and killing, and thinking of positive developments for your colleagues, it’s a gift, really,” says Fekadu. “People loved him for that.”

Bekele is living his mother’s prayer, doing good things for others, but it’s for himself, too. Being active and staying positive keep him sane.

Gradually, life gets a little easier. Some prisoners, including Bekele, are allowed to make supervised trips home every two or three months for a couple of hours, under police guard. While many Oromo — including Fekadu — will serve 10 years or more behind bars, Bekele is released when his five years are up.

Bekele has no house, no job, no money and no plan. Sympathetic ministers in the Mengistu government quietly offer him jobs, but he declines.

He needs time to find out who he has become, but there is one thing he knows: prison may have taken five years of his life — it will not take the rest of it.

“Prison prepares you mentally, physically, to accept hard realities and it teaches you the need to work to get over it, the need to be positive,” says Bekele.

“It also teaches you that the way people are organized determines how successful a group can be.”


Act III

The height of the Ethiopian famine, 1984. Years of drought and battles between insurgents and the Derg have led to a scarcity so dire that millions of Ethiopians are leaving their homes in search of food.

British rocker Bob Geldof has seen the heartbreaking reports and will soon launch his landmark Live Aid appeal for help, but for now thousands are dying largely unnoticed by the outside world.

Things are particularly bad in the northern region of Wollo. Relief camps spring up overnight in the areas where the starving converge, and local and international aid agencies struggle to help.

At one such camp, Bati, Bekele stands quietly, surveying the scene. He has just been hired by the Ethiopian Red Cross Society to help expand their relief operations. It is his third day on the job, his first visit to the field.

Everywhere he looks, people are on the edge of death.

Scores of starving men, women and children from distant villages have collected on an open plain, collapsing on the hard earth after walking for days. Gaunt mothers cradle motionless infants. Silent men sit holding empty bowls.

Red Cross volunteers are setting up food tents, but more than 130 people are dying each day. Those who make it to the next day know if they survive this crisis, they still face the task of rebuilding. Their farms are barren, their villages largely empty.

Bekele, too, is rebuilding. He is 40 years old, barely a year out of jail and struggling to find his place.

A friend set him up with a contract with an Irish aid agency, working on an urban development project in the capital. It was interesting work and it kept his family afloat, but he chafed at its limitations.

Before prison, Bekele led a company with 3,000 employees; in prison, he organized thousands. With the aid agency, he was just part of a small team on a small project.

Then the Red Cross approached him, drawn by his reputation as an effective manager. In spite of his complete ignorance of relief work, he thought, why not?

Now, standing amid the hungry thousands in Bati camp, Bekele swallows his shock and begins to assess the needs. He tours the scene, talks to Red Cross staff, makes notes. As he works, a couple approach and ask if he has three pieces of cloth to spare.

“What for?” he asks.

“To wrap our kids who just died.”

Bekele decides then and there to turn things around. He begins to organize improvements to the food and shelter. Within a month, the death rate has dropped drastically, more camps have been established and Bekele is consumed by the logistics of disaster relief — planning, delegating and networking to boost Red Cross aid to famine victims.

He has no doubt this is what he wants to do. It is Alemi’s prayer in action again.

“From that time forward, I became a Red Crosser,” says Bekele. “I strongly committed to spend my life making a difference in people’s lives.”

Act IV

It’s 1994, and Bekele wears a white apron behind a cash register in an Ottawa gas bar. The former secretary general of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society is now a 49-year-old unpaid trainee at the Quickie mart on Richmond Road, no longer a humanitarian but an anonymous purveyor of cigarettes, gas and lottery tickets.

It has been a long, complicated road from Bati camp to the Quickie mart. At first, things went well in the Red Cross. He thrived as head of the Ethiopian society, hiring more people (including a few fellow veterans of Karcheli), improving training, expanding distribution networks and increasing ties with sister Red Cross societies abroad to bring in more aid.

Four years into his Red Cross career, it was suddenly over.

“One day it was announced on the radio that I had been appointed vice-minister of transport and communications,” says Bekele. “It’s the biggest ministry in the country. You can’t say no.”

Bekele made the most of the position, refining his diplomatic skills on trips abroad and broadening his management experience. Then Mengistu fled in 1991, and a new coalition government came in with participation by the Oromo Liberation Front.

Bekele was appointed ambassador to Japan. Even though he believed the new regime was an improvement over Mengistu’s dictatorship, he was wary. So he accepted the posting, with a caveat that his service hinged on the regime’s continued movement toward democracy. He was assured by the foreign minister that it was their goal, too, and in 1991, he and his family departed for Tokyo.

By then, Bekele and Tsehay had four sons. Jiffar, 15, was sent to a boarding school in the Philippines, but the rest — Hinsermu, 12, Atkilt, 7, and two-year-old Baakal — settled into a comfortable villa in Tokyo. Bekele wined and dined with dignitaries and tooled about the city in their chauffeur-driven Mercedes.

Within six months, everything fell apart back home. A snap election was a violent, undemocratic mess, the OLF pulled out of the coalition. Bekele recognized a turning point: if he continued to serve a government most Oromo didn’t support, he would be a pariah in his community; if he returned to Ethiopia, he would have to either jump into the political fray or stay on the sidelines. He wanted neither.

“I said, ‘Look, I spent five years of my life in prison, I’d rather move on’,” says Bekele.

He and Tsehay decided to leave Ethiopia — family, friends, work — and start over. They chose Canada for its reputation for democracy and racial tolerance; they chose Ottawa because it’s the capital. It was a daring gamble, for they had nothing beyond modest savings and the names of a few old contacts from Bekele’s Red Cross days. They were now refugees.

They rented a modest apartment on Riverside Drive while Bekele looked for a job. He signed on with a recruiting agency and went to scores of interviews, but no offers materialized. Their savings dried up and they went on welfare. It ate at Bekele that he was receiving money he hadn’t earned. He looks back on this time as one of the most difficult of his life, but he was determined to work and considered every possible option, from immigration officer to parking attendant.

“Bekele’s story is not unique to Bekele. It reflects the story of so many of our immigrants,” says Bekele’s longtime friend Abebe Engdasaw, fellow Ethiopian and a diversity specialist at Ottawa Public Health.

“When you come as an immigrant in that age bracket and with that level of higher education, there are so many conflicting things on your mind. Can I start from scratch? But you’re already at midlife, you can’t possibly reach the same level you had before. Can I break through all the barriers into the Canadian system to work at the level where I’ve been? Then you’re into some stiff competition.”

Bekele describes middle-aged immigrants like himself as misfits, potential assets that Canadian employers can’t figure out what to do with. “It’s not their fault,” he says. “It’s hard for both sides.”

Bekele continued to network with old friends such as Abebe, who was on the board of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society that hired Bekele in 1984, and George Weber, the outgoing head of the Canadian Red Cross. Weber did his best to open doors for his friend, even though he was on his way to take up an important post in Geneva: secretary general of the IFRC.

“George got me invited to parties and send-offs and introduced me to people in high places,” says Bekele. “He told people, ‘Look, this guy is going to be somebody someday, so take good care of him’.”

Abebe often tells Bekele’s story to new immigrants, because he’s proud that his friend didn’t wait for something to happen. Thinking he might open his own corner store, Bekele asked a friend if he could learn the ropes at his business. Which is how he ends up manning the cash at the Quickie mart.

For four months, he spends his days stocking shelves, making change and figuring out if his family could survive on convenience-store profits. Finally, more than two years after arriving in Canada, he gets a contract with CARE Canada — in a Kenyan refugee camp. He jumps, even though it means leaving the family behind. The following year, in 1996, Weber encourages him to apply for an opening at the IFRC, and he gets it.

Twelve years after his first visit to a relief camp, Bekele is back with the Red Cross, this time as director of its Africa department, a high-pressure job that requires balancing the needs of the African societies with the demands of the richer members.

“Bekele was able to help the African societies really assert what it means to be an equal member of the federation,” says Peter Walker, who was director of disaster policy for the IFRC when Bekele was leading the Africa department.

“He also had to help the American and European societies to understand that while they had most of the money, that didn’t mean they called all the shots, and he had to do it without pissing them off so much that they would go off in a huff and take all their money.”

Bekele’s background proves invaluable.

“Africans know he was in prison for what he believes in, they know he was a refugee and they know he has put stuff back into Africa. A hell of a lot of street cred comes from that,” says Walker, now a professor of nutrition and human security at Tufts University and director of the Feinstein International Famine Center.

After a few years, Bekele goes to New York as deputy head of the federation’s delegation to the United Nations, making speeches in the General Assembly and expanding his already formidable Rolodex. Then it is on to Bangkok to be the IFRC’s regional director for Southeast Asia — just in time to work on the Red Cross’s early response to the 2004 tsunami.

In 2007, Bekele joins the Canadian Red Cross as its general manager of international operations, a position that enables him to stay involved with tsunami recovery efforts while being based in Ottawa.

Bekele and Tsehay buy a spacious house in Hunt Club, pleased to be in the same city as Jiffar and Hinsermu, while Atkilt and Baakal are nearby in Toronto. He settles in to a comfortable routine — rising at 5 a.m., reading historical non-fiction for 15 minutes (one of his recent reads was Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope) and then turning on the BlackBerry to begin the work day. Then he gets word that the secretary general’s job is open, and a new act begins.

Act V

July 1, 2008, a third-floor office at Red Cross headquarters, overlooking Lake Geneva. It is Bekele’s first official day as secretary general. It is also Canada Day, and his own 64th birthday. The latter is the least important to him, although as a recent citizen, he treasures Canada Day and looks forward to retiring in Ottawa when his term at the Red Cross is up.

That is four years away. Now he is settling in, greeting staff — many of whom are old friends — reading reports, coming to grips with a budget in the neighbourhood of $20 billion U.S. and refining his mandate.

“Bekele is expected to ensure smooth continuity with the past, but he is also expected to increase the speed of moving ahead, to reach more vulnerable people,” says Encho Gospodinov, director of policy and communications at the IFRC.

“He is expected to ensure stronger investment in the field of risk reduction, not just moving trucks and tents, which we will continue doing, but he is expected to make a local communities more resilient so these communities can protect themselves, by training our local Red Cross chapters in each village and in each city to expect the worst Mother Nature can do and to act immediately.”

There’s a lot on his plate at home, too — his eldest son, Jiffar, is to be married in early August. Guests will be coming from around the world to celebrate. As he begins to make his own family, Jiffar reflects on what his father taught him, his own version of Alemi’s prayer.

“Growing up, he used to tell us that his father lived a better life than his grandfather, and he managed to do better than his father,” says Jiffar. “He used to tell us that we should do better than him. Not materially, not at all — he meant personal growth, understanding and learning, everything that has to do with life, essentially.

“Those are hard shoes to fill.”

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