Bekele Gebreab

12/04/2013 13:33



I was born and grew up in a Christian home in Addis Ababa.  My grandfathers were priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  At that time Addis was a typical sized city, about 5 million and life was pretty normal.  Over the years it became large and hectic; the political climate changed, people became displaced because of political turmoil as the military took over the country.

In Ethiopia we don’t make the huge salaries that people make here but with the little amount we earn, we are much happier due to the fact that our emotional attachment to family, friends and neighbours are very important.  We live with one another either in times of happiness or in difficulties. For example, on holidays, weddings or events, if we prepare a special meal, we are not going to eat or feast by ourselves; we invite neighbours to share in our meal. If someone dies, the whole community mourns and attends the funeral procession and comforts the relatives by being with them, and by bringing foods and beverages for at least three consecutive days.  In contrast in Canada I don’t even know who my next-door neighbour is. The cost of the funeral is always covered by contributions from the community. People are very important in our life; we have and old saying: “a close neighbour is more important than a distant relative”. In contrast in Canada I don’t even know who my next-door neighbour is.

I went to India to complete my Bachelor degree and stayed there four years.  It was the best place I have ever known.  Although it was poor at the time, people had freedom and I witnessed the largest democracy at work.  I have fond memories of my time there.

Upon returning to Ethiopia I worked for the water resources commission of the government as one of its engineers.  While working with the commission, I worked with Canadian government sponsored projects.  It’s through this CIDA sponsored project, that after three years I received a scholarship to study in Canada.

I left Ethiopia on September 15, 1990 while the military was still in power and arrived at UBC to finish my Master in Engineering.  I finished in 1993 and while I was here the military government in Ethiopia had been overthrown by the rebel movement so I was no longer comfortable returning to my country.  While I was a student my views went against the present government, and since the president of the ruling party was one of my university opponents, it would not be safe for me to return as long as this government was in power.  This is the only reason I am still here, let me explain.

When I finished at UBC, the reality of life was that my coveted degree ended up being just a piece of paper.  Because of the situation at home, I had applied for immigration.  I had applied at the same time for my wife and daughter. Since I was staying in Canada for safety reasons, I did receive refugee status but it took from 1993 to 2008 to receive an interview before the Canadian Border Security and because of my political involvement as a student way back when, and joined a political party that was against both governments, I was not granted permanent residency.   As a result my wife and daughter were refused entry into Canada and we have not seen each other for the last twenty-one years.

 Moreover I have been living on work permit since December 1993; these permits have to be renewed every year.  However because I never received permanent residency, I cannot be part of any professional engineering association or receive work in my specialty.  You can imagine that my life in Canada has been very meaningless and far from what I had dreamt of twenty years ago.  I have been taking any non-professional jobs that were available just to survive over the years, none well-paying or satisfying.

I am in touch with my family through letters and from time to time over the telephone. Electronic mail is monitored by the government therefore we don’t communicate at all through email. My daughter was ten months old when I left Ethiopia and I am a virtual stranger to her.  My wife, a civil engineer as myself, can fortunately work in her profession and is doing fine under the circumstances.

The future is not very hopeful but I have learnt to live one day at the time.  Although I was not a serious believer as a young person and going to church by tradition, after high school I became closer to God.  When I came to Canada I was attending University Chapel at UBC, which brought a spiritual renewal and when I moved away from UBC, I started going to Ebenezer where I have been attending for the last ten years. 

Whenever I faced some problems I used to fear but now I see it as an opportunity to grow in my faith.  Passing through difficulties is making me stronger but I really don’t know what tomorrow holds in store. No matter how many discords and inharmonious situations I faced in my life, I know God knows best.

Although my present life is not much of a life, on the positive side I am still alive; had I returned to Ethiopia I would most likely have died at the hand of the present government.  If I didn’t have faith I would not be here today; it’s the one thing that keeps me going notwithstanding the ongoing setbacks.

My first impression of Vancouver twenty-one years ago was of an almost empty city, compared to the five million in Addis.  Canada was not the first country I visited outside Ethiopia; Canada is very peaceful and what I noticed is that people took the freedom for granted.

Throughout our history, our life is always attached to the church. Starting with baptism, pre-school, how to learn writing and reading, are all conducted in a church. Even the reading materials are the Bible and the Gospels.  Children go to church with their parents and then as they grow up, they pass it on to their children.  Religion is steeped in tradition, whereas in Canada, at least where I am, people who go to church are convinced in what they believe.  Although Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world, continued difficulties in Christians’ life makes them put their faith more in God. People come to realize that only God and their faith in Him is the only solution for these never ending difficulties.

Christians back home face many difficulties to worship freely, whereas here you are free to believe whatever you want.  The Muslim population in Ethiopia is growing and surrounding Arab countries are putting increasing pressure by recruiting Muslims to build mosques and to make followers among the Ethiopians.

What I did observe is that outside of Christian churches and circles, Canadians are mostly secular and many Christians have become quite materialistic. People go to Sunday worship, listen to what the pastor preaches and then they go home and do whatever they do.  It seems believers dedicate their time between 10:30 and noon to the church and then go each their own way.

For me, I had Ethiopian friends during my UBC years, however many of these friends went their own way and once my fortunes turned, I lost those friends as well.  I have some friends that are more like acquaintances in my neighbourhood but haven’t had any close friends in the years I have lived in Canada.  Sometimes you don’t think about such things but when you are actually faced with it you learn to tolerate it.   I know God is good and whatever is going on in my life, God has a better plan; I know that this is not the final chapter.

Ebenezer is the only place I go to.  I work nights at the church and it is somehow bringing me closer to other people and helps me to know them better.

In some ways, one thing I have been impressed by is the Jehovah Witnesses, they are dedicated to their faith and they probably contact more people than we do.  We should in some way communicate with the community around the church.  Jesus did teach to go out and reach people.  If people don’t come to the church, we have to go out and reach them where they are.