Fissaha Tassaw can’t sleep. Danait Tafere is losing her hair. Ribka Alem feels numb.
These are horrible times for Seattle’s Tigrayan community.
The Tigrayan population here, among the largest in the country, has spent the last nine months in a dreadful limbo, fearing and sometimes learning the worst, while all the time waiting, waiting, waiting for news from family as their homeland is consumed by war and famine.
Phone and internet communications in Tigray, a mountainous region in northern Ethiopia, have been cut off.
On Nov. 4, 2020, as the United States waited anxiously for the results of the prior day’s presidential election, rebels in Tigray attacked an Ethiopian military base. Ethiopia’s president responded immediately, launching a military operation in Tigray. He said it would be over within weeks, but it has led to months of ongoing war.
According to the United Nations: The fighting has displaced 1.7 million people. It has caused the worst famine anywhere in the world in at least a decade, with 400,000 people in famine conditions and 1.8 million more at risk of following them. There have been more than 1,200 reports of sexual violence, but that is likely “just a fraction of the actual number of cases in a conflict that is impacting women and children especially hard.”
At least 9,600 civilians have been killed, but that is an undercount, “only the tip of the iceberg,” according to researchers at Belgium’s Ghent University.
U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in March, that they’d seen “acts of ethnic cleansing” against Tigrayan people in the region.
“Violence is rampant. Rape by militants widespread. Famine looms. It is not a crisis; it is a catastrophe,” wrote Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.
Phone and internet access to the region was cut off soon after fighting started.
“Not being able to talk with your family, your loved ones, brother and sister and everyone else, it’s a nightmare,” said Tassaw, 58, the president of the Tigray Community Association of Seattle. “You don’t know what they have been through, you don’t know whether they are alive or dead you don’t know.” He paused. “I can’t sleep, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, its just, you don’t know what to think without your family, without talking this long. It’s devastating.”
Tassaw’s mother, brothers and sisters all live in Tigray, where he was born. A lab technician at the University of Washington, he emigrated 32 years ago and has been in Seattle for the past 24 years.
Since the war began, he said there was only a brief stretch in February when phone access was restored and he could contact his family. But nothing since then.
His family — all farmers — have had their livestock confiscated and killed, Tassaw said.
The Seattle area Tigrayan community has about 1,200 to 2,000 people, Tassaw said, making it, after Washington, D.C., among the nation’s largest Tigrayan communities.
Two weeks ago, about a handful of local Tigrayans spoke with three Seattle-area members of Congress, pleading for the United States to help facilitate a cease fire and open routes for humanitarian aid to the region.
“The urgency of this crisis and the instability it has caused in the region cannot be overstated,” Metropolitan King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said at the public meeting earlier this month. Zahilay, who organized the meeting, also has family in Tigray — his father, his grandmother and many cousins.
“I live in fear myself of what’s happening to my family back home,” he said. He hasn’t been able to reach his grandmother, but has been able to reach his dad, sporadically.
“He tells me that many of his family members are now in the famine, starving to death,” Zahilay said. “It’s not too late to save a lot of lives. I hope a lot more people pay attention and elevate this issue.”
Fedilla Kassa, a University of Washington student, told the members of Congress, Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Adam Smith and Marilyn Strickland, about her cousin.
He was 27, “the heart of our family,” Kassa said. “Anything my grandparents needed, he was the first one to run out the door to get for them.”
He was killed, Kassa said, defending a hospital from attack and looting.
Her family, here in Washington, didn’t learn of his death until two weeks after he was buried.
“I just remember getting the phone call from back home at like 4 in the morning and our entire lives were just torn apart,” she said. “There really aren’t enough words to describe the pain that our community is feeling.
“Everybody in our community has either lost a family member or is waiting to hear back that they’ve lost a family member.”
The representatives were receptive, empathetic. They said the conflict is on the administration’s docket, noting recent trips to the region from Power of USAID and Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, of Delaware.
“When we hear about these things they seem so removed, and we forget that there are people right here who are our neighbors, who are among us, living through these tragedies and this heartache,” Strickland said.
Danait Tafere, a racial-justice program manager for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, counts six relatives who have been killed in the war.
She told her story to the representatives. She’s told her story before.
“It’s hard to keep having to tell these stories,” she said. “I have a huge bald spot on the top of my head that apparently was created by the stress.
“You feel helpless, you feel unimportant, because no one cares about it.”
Ribka Alem was in Tigray in 2019 and 2020 visiting family before the coronavirus pandemic cut her trip short.
Alem was born in Washington and has lived here her whole life and so hadn’t really followed the political climate and ethnic divisions that have fueled decades of conflict in Ethiopia. When the war broke out in November, she remembers being in disbelief.
“My mom is telling me a war broke out in Tigray and all the communications cut off and I’m like ‘what are you talking about, what do you mean?'” Alem said. “I go into panic mode and call every phone number I ever had that is located in Tigray.”
She called family, her grandmother, friends. She even called taxi drivers who’d given her rides just “to see if I am able to get through.”
She couldn’t. Like Tassaw, she was able to get through, briefly, for a week or two in late January and early February. But not since then.
“As of the last time I was able to talk to them they are alive,” Alem said. “It’s hard to say they’re OK, because we know they are not.
“It was very numbing, because I couldn’t do anything, you felt very helpless,” Alem said.
She’s been organizing with the Seattle Tigray Network, trying to bring awareness to the war and the humanitarian crisis. They have a demonstration planned for Aug. 20, at Westlake Park.
“You get into this mode of you continue to advocate, you don’t have the privilege to be emotional all the time, because being emotional and breaking down is not going to be productive to your family back home,” Alem said. “You get to a point, you just go about your day.”
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