COLUMBUS — President Donald Trump’s efforts to shut America’s doors to the world’s persecuted, homeless and forgotten don’t represent the kind of country I want to live in.
A recent meeting in Columbus with Abraham Beyene reminded me that not all Americans share the president’s fondness for mocking and demonizing those seeking a better life here.
I had taught Abraham English and math as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small Ethiopian town 50 years ago.
Thanks to a collection of open-hearted Americans, my wife Marcia and I were able to bring Abraham to the United States after he fled Ethiopia to escape the brutal Marxist military regime that took over the country after Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974.
Marcia had also been a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia.
Abraham, who lives in Atlanta, was visiting Columbus for a wedding when our discussion turned to his path to American citizenship.
We talked just as Trump was denouncing four Democratic congresswomen, all women of color, and suggesting they “go back” to “the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”
Three of the women — Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — were born in the United States.
The fourth — Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — is a naturalized citizen who fled Somalia and came to the United States after a stop in Kenya.
While Trump’s attacks grabbed the headlines, his real anti-refugee work goes on with less fanfare.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world is experiencing the highest level ever of displaced persons. Of nearly 25.9 million refugees, more than half are younger than 18.
Trump, however, has declared the United States “full” and set the number of refugees permitted this fiscal year at 30,000, a historic low. The Obama administration had set the number for 2017 at 100,000. Trump reduced it to 50,000. The cap for 2018 was 45,000.
This does not reflect the magical cooperation that resulted in Abraham reaching America.
He had become strongly opposed to Ethiopia’s Marxist military government and in 1979 joined a guerilla movement fighting it.
By 1980, however, he decided to flee Ethiopia. He joined a group that walked hundreds of miles through rugged terrain to neighboring Sudan and ended up in Khartoum, the capital.
His first break came when he went to a clinic for treatment of malaria. He asked an American doctor how to get in touch with Marcia and me. The doctor suggested he write us care of the chamber of commerce in Akron.
He did. His letter ended up at the Akron Regional Development Board where a research assistant found out that I worked in the Beacon Journal’s Columbus Bureau and forwarded the letter there.
“Dear sir,” it began. “I’m sure you have concluded that I’d dead.”
The letter ignited a flurry of phone calls and letters to U.S. Sen. John Glenn, two friends who were Presbyterian ministers and others. Glenn’s staff and church officials helped guide us through the resettlement maze.
Glenn, who died at 95 in 2016, apparently added a personal touch which Abraham recalled during his recent visit.
Marcia and I wanted to sponsor Abraham for resettlement in the United States, but there were many hoops to go through. Among them, he had to have an interview at the American embassy.
Embassy officials learned of Abraham from the people and groups helping us, but an embassy official told me in a letter than they had not been able to locate him.
Abraham told me that he went to the embassy in person to seek an interview but was turned away. He tried a second time, however, and got unexpected help.
Our Peace Corps service had ended in 1970, but Marcia and I returned to Ethiopia in 1973 to train new volunteers. Abraham lived with us during training and helped care for our young daughter Laura. He got to know the trainees.
Back in Khartoum, as he waited outside the American embassy Abraham heard the voices of two of the volunteers we had trained in 1973. They were in the Sudan for academic research. They recognized Abraham, and he told them that he needed to see the ambassador.
They arranged for a visit. Abraham handed the ambassador a note from me introducing him.
The ambassador then produced a letter from Sen. Glenn that apparently explained Abraham’s situation.
“He [the ambassador] rose up from his chair, firmly shook my hand and told me he was looking for me all over the city,” Abraham told me in an email.
That meeting helped set in motion the process by which Abraham was designated as a refugee. First Presbyterian Church in Akron joined us in sponsoring him, and he arrived in Columbus on Jan. 29, 1982, and eventually became a naturalized citizen.
He moved to Atlanta and married at Ethiopian woman who joined him there. Abraham’s now a retired cab driver while his wife works as a cook in a senior citizens’ development. They have two adult children.
He does not care much for Trump, but has fond memories of President John F. Kennedy, who he heard about as a boy over short-wave radio, and of Sen. Glenn. His email summed up his feelings for the country that took him in:
“God bless America.”
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.