Ethiopians and Eritreans in metro Denver have mixed feelings on Ethiopian prime minister’s Nobel Peace Prize

Abiy Ahmed was recognized for his work in ending a conflict with Eritrea.
4 min. read
Kids clamor for a portrait during Ethiopian New Year at St. Mary Ethiopan Orthodox Church in Aurora, Sept. 9, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Friday was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to help end the country's conflict with neighboring Eritrea.

The former Denver resident became prime minister in April 2018. His sudden ascendance spurred optimism among the thousands of Denver metro area immigrants from the two countries. Polls show Ahmed enjoys massive support among Ethiopians.

The Ethiopian community here has become so large that its support is coveted by politicians hoping to represent cities like Aurora.

Millete Birhanemaskel, owner of the Whittier Cafe in Denver, is from the northern part of Ethiopia. She was one of the people excited about Ahmed's rise, but she has mixed feelings about his peace prize, partially because there's continued strife in the region and millions are still being displaced by violence.

"I was one of those cheering him on. I am a little bit surprised, but at the same time, peace is worth celebrating," Birhanemaskel said.

Aurora community organizer Neb Asfaw, a native of Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, said his phone has been inundated with supportive messages following the news and he's seen supportive messages pop all over social media.

"This is a great victory. It's a big triumph," Asfaw said. "He is now a Nobel Peace Prize (recipient), alongside Nelson Mandela. So this is a huge deal for Arica and really for the African diaspora."

The Nobel committee cited Ahmed's "efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation," and in particular, "his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea,"  among the reasons for awarding him the prize.

Yet Birhanemaskel said there are additional concerns in the region. For one, Eritrea President Isaias Afwerki is described by some as a dictator. Afwerki has served as president for more than 20 years. He faces intense criticism from Eritreans abroad, including Mathew Mengesha, who is from the southern part of Eritrea. Afwerki worked with Ahmed to create peace agreements last year.

Mengesha, of Aurora, helped organize a protest in Denver last month against Afwerki and what he calls Afwerki's oppressive regime. He does think Ahmed has helped the two countries to some extent.

"For me, it's kind of premature," Mengesha said. "I think he's made strides toward progress. He's making the right things but I feel like it's been a little premature."

Mel Tewahade was born in the northern part of Ethiopia and has been in Aurora since 1993, where he now owns a money management company. Tewahade said young people now have another positive role model.

"The win, of course, is an incredible achievement, not only for Abiy, but for a lot of black children around the world," Tewahade said. "There are a lot of people who are kind of being left behind from the community."

Yohannes Tesfay came to Denver from Eritrea when he was 19 and has now been here for 30 years. He said Ahmed deserved the recognition, adding that was what he was able "to do in the last year and a half is unbelievable." Ahmed said its a point of pride for him as an African.

But he disagrees that he's been able to achieve peace in his neighboring country. Tesfay thinks Afwerki should be removed, calling him "unhinged."

"If you see it from the Eritrea side, there is no dividend of peace. Things have gotten worse," Tesfay said.

Aurora resident Girum Alemayehu, who's originally from Ethiopia, first heard of the news while watching television.

"I am expecting this to give more unity for people who have had doubts about him," Alemayehu said.

Asfaw also mentioned ethnic-based clashing and displacement as continuing concerns. But he called the award a positive step.

"Ethiopia has many changes. But I wish him all the best. I am happy he won, it's historic," Asfaw said.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are more than 19,000 foreign-born residents from Eastern Africa in Colorado, making them the largest subgroup in the state from Africa.

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