Law grad had to flee homeland

Teklemichael Sahlemariam never takes justice for granted.

The UBC law graduate knows too well the costs of injustice.

In 2001, Sahlemariam was in his fourth year and president of the student government at Addis Ababa University Law School when he learned that the government was arresting students. Sahlemariam and other activists were speaking out for greater academic freedom and human rights.

With the help of a friend, Sahlemariam fled the country.

“In a dictatorship, there is no other opinion except for the government’s,” he says. “That is why I love Canada. Here, you can leave your home in the morning and know that you’ll be able to return safely that night.”

Sahlemariam escaped the fate of 40 youths who were gunned down in the streets of Addis Ababa in April 2001. He made his way to Kenya where he stayed “in limbo” at a refugee camp for four years.

In 2005, his story took a happier turn. Sahlemariam was sponsored by the Dunbar Heights United Church for permanent residency in Canada. In Vancouver, he was “adopted” by a Canadian family that he continues to live with.

Sahlemariam initially attended Langara College and Royal Roads University, and in 2007 was accepted into law at UBC.

“I really wanted to study here because of the reputation of UBC and the close ties I have to my Canadian family,” he says, adding that Vancouver’s mild weather and stunning views also sweetened the deal.

Throughout his studies, Sahlemariam has worked nights and weekends to earn money to support himself and to send funds to his family as well as friends living in refugee camps in Kenya, Eritrea, and Uganda. He currently works as an attendant at a residence for people living with mental illness and addiction.

“Two hundred dollars a month can support a large group of people,” says Sahlemariam, who was born in Negelle Borena, and raised in Arsi Negelle, small towns that are 600 kilometres and 225 kilometres respectively from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

With a Juris Doctor in hand, Sahlemariam says he hopes to find an articling job in possible areas that include criminal law, immigration, administrative or human rights law.

What fuels his hopes and dreams is to help free his country, says Sahlemariam. But at this point, he has no plans to return to Ethiopia “since I would be required to renounce everything I believe in and tell the government that I totally agree with them.”

Instead, Sahlemariam is plugged into a network of Ethiopian activists across Canada and abroad. This month, he is organizing a fundraiser to sponsor a candidate for Ethiopia’s upcoming federal election although “no one expects the election to be free and fair by any standard.”

With a couple of friends, he co-hosts two Co-op Radio programs, Meleket Radio and Radio Ethiopia. Sahlemariam is also a member of the Ethiopian Canadian Citizens League. The organization is working with Burnaby-New Westminster MP Peter Julian to sponsor a private member’s bill for supporting human rights in Ethiopia and freeing political prisoner Birtukan Mideksa, a 36-year-old woman who is the president of the main opposition party in Ethiopia.

“This is what gives me happiness. These are the ways I try to make change.”