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As civil war rages in Ethiopia, Missouri’s Tigrayans find support and community

St. Louis organizers raise awareness of violence against ethnic-minority Tigrayans in Ethiopia by marching down Cherokee Street on March 14, 2021.
Timothy Schinsky
St. Louis organizers raise awareness of violence against ethnic-minority Tigrayans in Ethiopia by marching down Cherokee Street in March.

Nov. 4 will mark one year since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive in the region of Tigray — a move that plunged the east African country into deadly civil war between the Ethiopian military and the Tigray People's Liberation Front.

For Tigrayans living in the U.S., the conflict has made it nearly impossible to stay in touch with family and friends in Ethiopia.

“Right now we can't call them,” said University City resident Biede-Tsion Fesseha, who is of Tigrayan descent.

Millions of people in Tigray are living without electricity or telephone service, he explained. “They cannot just pick up the phone and call. … It is very tough because this is a region that hasn't seen a lot of conflict in a while. So it's something new for them.”

It has also sown divisions within the Ethiopian community in St. Louis and Kansas City. The once tight-knit immigrant community — one that previously attended church, weddings and parties together — has been fractured on every level, Fesseha said.

According to Kaleb Zegeye of Kansas City, Ethiopian expats have differing takes on the violence that’s torn apart their home country. Some support the Ethiopian government’s offensive, while others call its actions genocide. As a result, marriages have broken apart and decades-old friendships have ended.

Biede-Tsion Fesseha and Kaleb Zegeye join St. Louis on the Air

To deal with the uncertainty abroad and the lack of support they feel from the broader Ethiopian community, Fesseha, Zegeye and other Midwest Tigrayans have formed a virtual support group. They meet once a week to share news from their home country. Sometimes they sing uplifting songs. They also raise money for humanitarian efforts abroad and organize awareness campaigns.

“Within the Ethiopian community, we’re a minority — out of 110 million, there's approximately 6 to 10 million of us,” Zegeye said. “[With] these social outlets, such as Zoom and other platforms, we've been able to organize and have a larger support system. … Being able to communicate with the St. Louis community and [others in] the Midwest has been wonderful for us.”

Fesseha and Zegeye joined Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air to talk about how the regional support group has helped local Tigrayans deal with the violence and turmoil in Ethiopia over the past year and the resulting division here in the U.S.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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