Horn of Africa Human Rights Network offers its community a hand
on April 23, 2015
In the corner of the Ethiopian Community Center in Oakland sits a young lawyer, waiting for his clients to arrive. It’s past lunchtime, and the delicious aroma of Ethiopian food still lingers in the air. With a gust of wind, the door swings open and in walks a client, seeking Tadios Belay’s help. And so starts his day.
“We provide free immigration services and legal representation for African immigrants,” said Belay, the founder of the Horn of Africa Human Rights Network, based in North Oakland. “It’s free because the community—especially from Ethiopia and Eritrea—are fleeing because of dictatorships. They are fleeing because of poverty or economic injustice in their country.”
The Bay Area is home to a large African immigrant community, and Belay finds that few organizations are there to help this group. “We don’t have the right voice,” he says. “We are the most neglected and the most unrepresented immigrant community in the Bay Area.” The goal of Horn of Africa Human Rights Network is to address the problems newly-arrived immigrants face, such as language barriers or economic ones, like finding housing and paying immigration fees. So far, in only six weeks, the newly-formed group has helped over 66 people with concerns regarding green cards, visa applications, legal representation, job placement and housing assistance.
“They really need legal assistance, and they really need someone who can help them in finding the right job,” said Belay, who volunteers his time to run the organization with the help of a couple of volunteers. He works in the Ethiopian Community Center, making it easy for those in need of assistance to find him.
As a refugee himself, Belay fled Ethiopia four years ago, fearing for his safety. Back home, he worked as a journalist and a lawyer in a country where journalists are often jailed for their writings. This year, Ethiopia landed fourth place in the top ten most censored countries, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2014, ten independent bloggers were jailed, leading to another 30 journalists to flee the country to avoid the same fate.
In 2011, Belay left Ethiopia for Kenya, waiting there for the processing of his immigration papers, and later made his journey to the United States. After his arrival in the US, Belay received a scholarship to attend the University of San Francisco’s School of Law program. After graduating, he enrolled there again as a Ph.D. student, where he currently studies human rights education.
One of Belay’s clients, Marzanab Kidane, came to get help with her divorce. If he’s unable to help his clients, Belay refers them to other non-profits able to assist at a low cost, just like he did for Kidane, who said she is grateful for Belay’s help in navigating the legal complexities of divorce. One elderly Ethiopian client, speaking through a translator, said how grateful she is to Belay for assisting her in applying for asylum as well as for Social Security benefits, noting that without his help she “would probably be sleeping on the streets.”
In addition to immigration and legal services, Belay uses his current studies to advocate against human rights abuses happening in Africa. For instance, on April 16, violent xenophobic protests erupted in South Africa, where locals vandalized foreign workers shops from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Nigerians and other African nations. Fearing their lives, many foreigners fled the country. According to The Guardian, the violence is in response the locals’ frustrations to a high unemployment and poverty rate. Last week, Belay met the High Commissioner of South Africa in Los Angeles, and submitted a statement requesting the South African government to respect and step in to protect the rights of refugees in South Africa.
But Belay knows many of his clients fear speaking publicly here about human rights abuses in their home countries and are afraid their own issues will lead to trouble back home. One client, when asked to talk to a journalist about the reason she was seeking Belay’s help, refused to be quoted for fear of retribution.
With 66 clients and counting, Belay says his network hopes to continue helping its community in whichever way possible. “These are my passions: fighting for social justice, fighting for refugee’s rights. Everyone, not only in Ethiopia, not only in Eritrea, but everyone deserves a decent life,” he said.
Horn of Africa Human Rights Network is located on 6116 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, CA. For information, click here.
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