Oromo activist wants the world to “hear the cries” of her people
Weeks after winning a silver medal at the Rio games, Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa’s Olympic story is far from over.
His gesture at the finish line and the medal podium sparked a worldwide reaction. In crossing his arms and raised them skyward, he mirrored a gesture used by young Oromos in peaceful protest against the violent persecution of the Ethiopian government.
Images of the runner’s political gesture flooded the Internet. The social media hashtag #OromoProtest has pushed the issue further and brought more attention to the concerns of the Oromo people.
“Feyisa Lilesa’s gesture not only helped galvanize Oromo people, but he helped galvanize the different communities in Ethiopia and around the world.”
Oromo rights activist Najat Hamza still treasures the exhilarating moment when Lilesa raised his arms for the first time in Rio.
“When Feyisa did it, I lost it,“ Hamza said. “I got up, I sat down. I don’t know what I was doing particularly, it was just one of those surreal moments… We understood what he was doing before the world did.”
Like Lilesa, Hamza is an Oromo, one of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Despite making up nearly a third of the country’s population, Hamza and tens of thousands of Oromo have fled their home country and continued cultural persecution by the government. She ended up in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“Feyisa Lilesa’s gesture not only helped galvanize Oromo people, but he helped galvanize the different communities in Ethiopia and around the world,” Hamza said. “He did it for anyone and everyone who is suffering injustice at the hands of the Ethiopian government.”
Feyisa Lilesa talks about the the Oromo people during an interview at Minnesota Public Radio
Najat Hamza displays the Oromo sign of protest
The Oromo are trying to end more than a century of abuse in Ethiopia at the hands of the ruling minority Tigray ethnic group.
“They control the economic sector, the military power, the legislature, basically the whole thing,” Hamza said. “You can’t navigate any system in Ethiopia without the Tigrayans being on top. So, that is the situation that is boiling right now.”
Hamza recalls a number of painful moments from her early childhood, including the death of her cousin and mysterious disappearance of a family friend. According to Hamza, many Oromo have stories filled with memories of beatings, abductions, rape, and killings.
“You can talk to any one of us and I guarantee, they have one horror story upon the other to tell you,” Hamza said.
Hamza moved to Minnesota in 2000, as a teenager. Her family was part of a larger exodus of Oromo refugees searching for asylum and safety.
The state is home to the largest Oromo population outside of Ethiopia. The Minnesota Demographic Center says about 18,000 Oromo people live in the state, while the Oromo Cultural Institute of Minnesota estimates about 40,000 people.
“We have a nickname, ‘Little Oromia’, for Minnesota,” Hamza said. “Even our senators and representatives know about it!”
Hamza attended high school and college in Minnesota. She’s spent most of her adult life in the U.S., but the transition continues to be a challenge for her.
“I never really left home because I never understood why I had to leave in the first place,” she said. “For me, it’s like a back and forth thing. I’m here, but i’m really not here… it’s living in the space between two places.”
Hamza has made it her mission to serve as many Oromos as she can. On any given weekday, you can find her working out of a small back office at the Oromo Community Center of Minnesota, where she holds impromptu meetings for those who need help with translation, filling out essential documents, or finding a place to live.
Hamza admits her role in bringing Lilesa safely to the U.S. was limited, but that did not stop her from contributing. She assisted elderly Oromo who wanted to make donations to Lilesa’s Go Fund Me page. She also worked diligently on social media to share Oromo stories as part of a national “grassroots effort.”
Sunday, the Oromo Community Center of Minnesota organized an event featuring a keynote speech by Feyisa Lilesa. About one-thousand Oromos attended the event and got a chance to meet and hear Lilesa speak about his protest. Hamza was blown away by the reception.
“The event on Sunday was crazy,” she said. “It goes to show how hungry we are for the world to hear our cries… this is a collective 130 years of being made invisible on a world stage. For the Oromo, Feyisa signifies a voice.”
Now that Lilesa has harnessed his celebrity for the cause, Hamza believes that it is time for the U.S. to spearhead change.
Hamza calls out President Barack Obama for praising the current Ethiopian government as a positive example of democracy.
She wants the U.S. to acknowledge Ethiopia’s persecution of Oromo people and cut off all aid until an independent third-party investigation takes place.
In the meantime, Hamza and her fellow Oromo activists are trying to gather support for congressional bills that would recognize the Ethiopian government’s persecution of the Oromo and other ethnic groups.
“The United States needs to know that the Oromo people are tired of being sacrificed on their own land for what is right,” she said. “We believe in the same principles, humanity, equality, human rights, democracy … we deserve those things as well.