A new group dedicated to raising awareness of human rights violations in Ethiopia against the Oromo — an Ethiopian ethnic minority with a significant Minnesota presence — held its first event Sunday in Minneapolis.
More than 70 people crowded into Norway House to hear the “Ethiopia to Minnesota” speakers panel, sponsored by United Oromo Voices, a coalition formed about six months ago.
Panelists spoke about Ethiopia’s history and ethnic groups, its current government and ideas for how the country can change.
“We need Americans to understand us, to push their representatives to [be a] voice for the Oromos to stop the ongoing genocide,” said Nagessa Oddo Dube, a United Oromo Voices member.
Minnesota has the largest concentration of Oromos in the United States. The Oromos are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, making up between 33 and 50 percent of the country’s population.
The state demographer’s office says 8,500 Oromos live here, but the Oromo Cultural Institute of Minnesota believes the number is much higher. Oromos are often mistaken for Somalis in Minnesota and thus not very visible, Dube said.
Dube recounted how he survived years of persecution in Ethiopia as an Oromo activist, including repeated arrests, beatings, threats and a murder attempt.
Ethiopian security forces have killed more than 400 protesters and others and arrested tens of thousands more during widespread protests in the Oromia region since November 2015, according to Human Rights Watch.
United Oromo Voices aims to inform Americans that Ethiopia is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid among low-income countries, funds they say support a government that terrorizes the Oromos by unlawfully arresting them, imprisoning, torturing and even killing them.
The St. Paul-based Center for Victims of Torture sees more Oromos than any other ethnicity, said Curt Goering, the center’s executive director.
Staff there treat torture victims’ physical wounds — broken bones and perforated eardrums — and provide counseling for the psychological ones, Goering said.
“It gives you some sense of the magnitude of the severity of the human rights violations,” Goering said on the panel.
Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, attended the discussion to show support for the Oromo, many of whom are his constituents, he said.
“My neighbors are Oromo, my best friends are Oromo,” said Hoffman, who authored a Minnesota Senate resolution in 2014 calling out Ethiopia for killing 85 college students.
Pending resolutions in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives condemn the Ethiopian government’s human rights violations — including allegedly killing hundreds and arresting thousands of dissidents, journalists and other civilians — and demand political prisoners’ release.
Kathleen Seestadt, an event organizer and group member, has been working with the Oromo community since 2001. The night was a success, especially because many non-Oromos showed up, she said.
“The real challenge is to get people who don’t know the Oromos [to come],” Seestadt said.