Ethiopia: Three girls and a kidnapping [By Abebe Gellaw]

Angelina Jolie is doing a “favor” by lending her name to raise awareness on abduction, or rather kidnapping of girls in countries like Ethiopia. She is leveraging her star power to promote Difret, despite the twisted saga behind its production.

The feature film, which is hitting the silver screen across the U.S. later this month, is based on the riveting story of Aberash Bekele, who was abducted, beaten and raped at the tender age of 14. She escaped after she shot and killed her abductor with his own gun. But she faced the wrath of her community and an unjust legal system in Ethiopia, which silently endorsed the kidnapping and rape of girls for the purpose of forced marriage.

The kidnapping that has made one British and two American girls from Texas to ask and act is a rare phenomenon. The victim isn’t one of the usual suspects but a fierce freedom fighter, who is in the forefront of the struggle to free the people of Ethiopia from injustice and tyranny. Andargachew Tsigie, 60, is an Ethiopian-born British citizen who was brazenly kidnapped at Sana’a International Airport while transiting via Yemen and taken to Ethiopia.

A daughter rising

Daughter Helawit

When Andargachew was kidnapped on June 23, 2014, his daughter Helawit was just fifteen. That same day she was having a good time at a friend’s birthday party in North London.

What can one expect a 15-year old girl to do when her beloved father is kidnaped by a brutal regime? Maybe she would lock her bedroom doors and cry her eyes out day and night. She may even get detached from the rest of the world, get depressed and withdrawn. She could feel helpless and hopeless.

Let alone a teenage girl, most stoic adults can easily resign themselves to such a heartbreaking reality. It is natural to feel desperately hopeless in the darkest hours of life. But such a reaction does not concern the exceptionally talented and courageous Helawit.

Instead of suffering from despondency, Helawit is fighting back and shining hope in the darkest hours of her family and others. She has become her father’s most authentic and vocal advocate. She needs his release sooner rather than later. She is campaigning, writing petitions, knocking on doors and using the power of words and creativity. Helawit is now an award-winning human rights activist whose campaigns and activism may not end with the release of her father from the dungeons of injustice.

She has created a new play, Ask, which vividly depicts her father’s plight and asks the hard questions why the British government is not doing enough to secure the freedom of their citizen facing the death penalty. Made in collaboration with the Royal Court of Theatre, Ask raises the thorny issues surrounding the abduction of her beloved father.

In partnership with her friends, she has made Ask from an idea conceived in her head to a reality on the stage. Her relentless effort is not in vain. She has recently graduated as an up-and-coming activist by winning Liberty’s 2015 Human Rights Awards.

Ask features her friends and herself from Islington Community Theatre, where she has been an active member for a while. Helawit’s extraordinary courage and creative activism has been noticed. Helawit was recognized with the Christine Jackson Young Person Award at London’s Southbank Center last month. Shortlisted for the award were Cardiff Law School Innocence Project and Tami Mwale, the founder of Get Outta the Gang, a group that tackles gang violence in London.

“I wish the reason behind this award wasn’t my dad’s abduction,” she said in her acceptance speech.

She took the opportunity to thank all those who have helped her to stay strong. One of the names she mentioned was the rock of her family, her mother Yemi Hailemariam. Yemi has proven to be a formidable fighter in her own right. A petition she has started online with Helawit and her twin boys, Menabe and Yilak, 7, to demand PM David Cameron to press for her husband’s freedom has already gathered nearly 130,000 signature.

The girls from Dallas

Alexis Franklin (left) and her friend Aida Solomon

A few weeks ago, I travelled to Dallas, Texas, for a meeting and a fundraiser. What attracted my attention the most was an amazing handmade painting (top left). It was a portrait of none other than Andargachew Tsigie. It looks so real that Andargachew seems gazing at the crowd emitting vision beyond the dark horizon. That painting was auctioned and raised $36,000 to the pro-freedom movement Andargachew has ignited.

I was so impressed with the painting that I enquired who created such a special artwork. I was flabbergasted to learn that it was done by a teenage African-American girl.

Unlike Helawit, Aida Solomon and her childhood friend Alexis Franklin were chitchatting in Aida’s bedroom. Both had no idea who Andargachew was until they heard about the tragic news of his kidnapping in a dramatic way. S

Suddenly they heard Aida’s mother, Rahel, wailing and crying in great sadness. They rushed out and asked whatever happened to her. But Rahel could not utter a word. Her tears streaming down her cheeks, she kept on crying and wailing in distress. It was a very unusual and disturbing scene to the teenagers.

Wondering what was going on, Aida called her dad, who was at work, to ask what was going on. He told her that her mother was distressed to hear that Andargachew Tsigie was kidnapped in Yemen and could be killed or tortured in Ethiopia.

“Who is Andargachew?” she asked in puzzlement.

The 19-year old teenagers, inseparable since their pre-K days, learned that Andargachew is one of Ethiopia’s most prominent freedom fighters. The Che Guevara figure is someone who has offered himself as a sacrificial lamb for justice and freedom since he was a young idealist revolutionary in the mid-1970s. He was part of the Ethiopian student movement that spearheaded the revolution which brought down Emperor Haile Selassie in September 1974.

Almost a year after Andargachew was kidnapped, Aida heard from her parents, who are longtime activists in Dallas, that they are organizing a fundraiser to support Andargachew’s cause. She asked her friend Alexis, a talented artist, if she could do a portrait of this freedom fighter. She was glad to it. In a few days, she produced the amazing life size portrait that not only fetched $36k but also got traction on social media. Many have shared and posted a picture of the portrait as their profile picture to express their solidarity to the jailed leader.

“I have been drawing and painting as long as I could remember,” Alexis said. “When Aida asked me to do the portrait, I was very glad to do it because it is a very important issue that I am happy to be part of.”

“This man has a lot of meaning to the Ethiopian people. The picture I used to do the painting appears to me one that represents the cause he represents. I wanted it to be a strong image. I hope I conveyed the meaning very well,” she says.

Aida strongly believes that the Ethiopian youth should do more to help Ethiopia bring itself out of cycle of tyranny and injustice. In spite of the fact that Aida was born and raised in U.S. she sees Ethiopia as her own country in a distance.

“The country, which I see as my own and that raised my parents, deserves dignity and freedom. I want to do whatever I can to help the realization of such a dream,” she noted.

In London, Helawit is preparing for A-levels. In Texas, Aida studies business at Boyle University and Alexis is currently studying media arts and animation at the Art Institute of Dallas.

The three girls, who have acted against an illegal kidnapping, have one thing in common. They all realize the power of creative action to convey loud and clear messages in support of a great cause. There is so much to learn from the promising young advocates of justice on leveraging creative art for more impactful advocacy and activism.

As the youngest Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai said: “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”

Go girls! The world is an unfinished project (and unjust for the majority) that you can shape and reshape for the better.

Sign petition demanding PM David Cameron to help free Andargachew


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