AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre spoke with The Huffington Post last week about the Syrian refugee crisis and what it was like when he was a refugee himself, fleeing his home in Ethiopia at the age of 14. An excerpt from the interview:
Tefere Gebre has been following the political debate over Syrian refugees this week from his downtown D.C. office, about a block from the White House. At times, he said, the discourse has turned his stomach.
"It's been a tough week," Gebre, the vice president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, told The Huffington Post.
For Gebre, the issue is personal. He was 14 years old when, in 1982, he and four friends fled their native Ethiopia. They were seeking safety from the communist Derg, the military dictatorship that Gebre said had murdered several of their neighbors and left them dead in the street. After traveling for 93 days in the desert, abandoned by their guides, the boys made it to a Sudanese refugee camp. Gebre weighed 67 pounds.
"That's one number I will never forget," he said.
In Sudan, Gebre applied for U.S. refugee status. He had been part of a communist youth league at home, and he feels certain that if he had returned to Ethiopia he would have been considered a traitor and killed. After what he describes as an arduous screening process, Gebre was cleared to come to the United States several months later, leaving behind his mother and father. He was part of an influx of thousands of Ethiopian refugees fleeing a reign of terror in the early 1980s.
"I was the only one accepted," he said of his friends. "The other four did not meet the requirements." [...]
Gebre says his background as an immigrant, and particularly as a refugee, shaped his ambitions and his activism.
"I just wish Americans understood the spirit, the determination and the heart of people who want to be refugees," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's Afghanistan, or Central America or Africa or anywhere else. They're the most driven people, who want to better themselves and help us build as a country. We should be blessed to have a lot more of them come here.
"I don't think we can afford as a country to say no to these people," he added.
Read the full post.