Monday, April 11, 2016

International Services Lunch and Learn Explores Dark Chapter in Ethiopia's History

By Cassie Schoon

Ethiopian restaurants are a fixture of my East Colfax neighborhood. Ethiopian text adorns storefronts in nearby shopping centers. When I lived in the Governor’s Park neighborhood, I used to watch in curious wonder as Ethiopian women dressed in white would walk to the church at 7th and Pearl. It seems my life in Denver has never been far from the presence of Ethiopian immigrants and refugees. I’d often wonder, why did so many Ethiopian families seek refuge so far away, here in Colorado? A partial answer is a terrible historical event: the Ethiopian Red Terror, the topic of last week’s special edition of the Red Cross International Services Lunch and Learn, featuring speaker Dr. Peter Van Arsdale of University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. In the 1970s, dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam gained control of Ethiopia’s military junta, the Derg. Under his direction, the Derg carried out a campaign of violence- torturing, raping and murdering hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian people.

Dr. Peter W. Van Arsdale
Nearly four decades after the Derg’s atrocities began, Ethiopia is a nation transformed. Once the country of origin for most African refugees, Ethiopia is now the continent’s number-one host nation for asylees and refugees, particularly from neighboring South Sudan. Ethiopian life expectancy and quality of life has increased to a point where Ethiopian refugees and their families are returning to their homeland in unprecedented numbers. So why is it important to revisit the horrors of the Derg and the Red Terror? For Dr. Van Arsdale, it’s a matter of history repeating. The Red Terror may be over, but the factors that gave rise to it are evergreen.

“A consideration of the Red Terror" today is essential, since bullying, brutality, and genocide sadly are ongoing. We must learn more about the ‘how’ and ‘why,’ not just the ‘what’" of these crucial issues,” he said. “Furthermore, these are not just ‘overseas, distant lessons,’ but ‘at-home, nearby lessons.’"

For Dr. Van Arsdale, however, it is not enough to simply study and discuss these tensions. Dr. Van Arsdale’s life work has always blended an academic background with the mission of advancing human rights and dignity.

“My work in anthropology has been as an applied cultural/medical anthropologist,” he said. The key term is ‘applied,’ meaning that I've always been less interested in theorizing and more interested in what's called "praxis," the on-site intersection of practice, ethics, and theory.”

A co-founder of Denver Hospice and the force behind the Denver/Axum Sister City program, Dr. Van Arsdale has also worked toward the provision of refugee mental health resources, torture-survivor assistance and other services for the more than 30,000 refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea in the Denver Metro area. Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross remains committed in Ethiopia and surrounding nations to reconnect refugee families with their loved ones.

For more information on the presence of the ICRC in the Horn of Africa, click here. For more on Dr. Van Arsdale’s work, click here.

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