Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Speakers in a virtual event discussed ongoing violence seen in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where many refugees were forced to flee.

March 30, 2021

Ethiopian-Eritrean Students Association Leads Discussion on Tigray Conflict

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The Ethiopian-Eritrean Students Association is bringing attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.  

Last Wednesday, the Ethiopian-Eritrean Students Association hosted the event for the Cornell community in collaboration with Omna Tigray, a global organization center that advocates the human rights of Tigrayans and other oppressed peoples in the Tigray Region. 

The discussion featured three speakers: Feven Girmay, an education researcher and a member of the global society of Tigrean scholars, Meaza Gidey, an international relations researcher and public relations for Omna Tigray, and Tsedale Lemma, journalist and founder of Addis Standard, an Ethiopian magazine. 

Tigray is the northernmost region of Ethiopia which accounts for 6 percent of the country’s population and has held political influence for 27 years before the current regime. Tensions between the region and the federal government have been ongoing for years, but those tensions turned into military action last fall. The Ethiopian military has also been backed by Eritrean forces who have been accused of brutally treating fleeing refugees. 

Feven Girmay started off the event by placing the conflict in historical context. 

“By the early 1980s, the [Tigray People’s Liberation Front] had grown to become the main adversary of the central military government, along with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which was fighting for Eritrean independence” Girmay said. 

Now, Girmay said Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed has targeted the Tigrean regional government over corruption and human rights abuses and has implemented blockades designed to cripple the economy. The federal government has also captured or killed several Tigray People’s Liberation Front leaders

Girmay also described the significant humanitarian toll on Tigray’s population. Eritrean and Amhara forces have destroyed crops leading to a food shortage and mass starvation

Lwam Asfaw ’21, the EESA’s co-event coordinator and Candace Megerssa ’22, EESA’s co-chair, both worked to coordinate the event. Asfaw’s parents are from Tigray and she identifies as a member of the Tigray diaspora. Her personal connection to the conflict inspired her to work on the event. 

“For me, and for my family, it’s been a really tough few months since November for us, when this attack first started,” Asfaw said. “Coming back to campus this semester, I was really thinking about what my contribution could be.”

Both Asfaw and Megerssa wanted to create an event that would be open not just to Ethiopian and Eritrean students but to the entire Cornell community to spread awareness about the conflict. Asfaw said she hopes that attendees would leave with a better historical understanding about the region and for people with differing views to come to a better consensus. 

“It’s very politically charged. There have been a lot of different opinions about what’s going on and a lot of different perspectives,” Asfaw said. 

Asfaw and Megerssa explained that as an organization, the Ethiopian-Eritrean Students Association had not focused on the ethnic cleansing going on in Tigray. Megerssa said the conflict can be a sensitive subject, as many first-generation Ethiopian-Americans and Eritrean-Americans have parents who fled for political reasons. 

Megerssa said she hopes that the audience spreads awareness, contacting their representatives and above all, educating themselves about this conflict. 

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Megerssa said. “I don’t view it as a political issue. And that’s why we want to make it a conversation that people are uncomfortable having, especially because we all are recognizing how differently we all have been taught to perceive things.”