Tigray students form a group to support each other amidst war crisis

The Tigray Student Association, a newly formed group on Minnesota State University, Mankato’s campus, aims to educate and bring awareness to a forgotten war happening in a region of Ethiopia called Tigray.

TSA was formed in March by about 30 international students at MSU who are either from or have family in Tigray. They have gathered to support each other while their homeland is torn apart by war. 

Yafet Gebregziahber, President of the TSA, is a junior at MSU. His parents, who are currently in Ethiopia, said the conditions they’re dealing with are brutal. 

“The situation is the most severe that it’s ever been,” said Gebregziahber. “To get cut off from the world. No communication, no banking, no humanitarian aid going on. A lot of people are facing famine conditions.”

TSA members have felt ignored as recent conflicts in Ukraine have been in the spotlight for the past several months.

While the conflict in Ukraine — and the support Ukraine has seen around the world — has grabbed news headlines, TSA members say they’ve felt the war in their country has been neglected and forgotten by the media.

“This war has been going for almost a year and a half and no one notices what we are going through,” said Makda Tesfaye, a member of the TSA and senior at MSU shared. “Most people are really focused on the Ukrainian region.”

Starting in Nov. 2020 Tigray, located in northern Ethiopia, has been isolated from the rest of the country due to a conflict between the federal government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This has resulted in widespread abuse against Tigray civilians. The groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say they’ve documented war crimes and crimes against humanity, recorded by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have charged in a new report. 

“More than 90% of Tigray’s 6 million people require humanitarian assistance including 115,000 children who are severely malnourished,” according to U.N figures. 

Ethiopian federal authorities have refuted allegations they have intentionally targeted Tigrayans for violent attacks. They say their objective was to disarm Tigray’s rebellious leaders. Banking services, phone lines and road networks have been severed and the United Nations has described the situation as a “de facto blockade” imposed by Ethiopia’s federal government. 

Freshman Kidus Asgedom, and member of the TSA, recalled when the war first started in 2020. 

“We heard gunshots, no one is telling us what is going on. The radio was working so turned on the radio tried to listen what happened. All the news kept telling us that we have been invaded. There, the war has begun. Within one week heavy airstrikes began. Jets came in, you can feel it flying over your head, not knowing which direction it’s coming, maybe hitting spots where civilians are located. Those situations make you question why is this happening?”

Many TSA students say they’re scared for their loved ones back in Ethiopia as they are left in the dark when it comes to the status and well-being of family members.

“My father has been in prison twice within the first two months of the war. Our house has been raided five times in which they didn’t find anything, but they kept on coming back and raiding it without any lawful procedure,” Gebregziahber said. “My mother has also been in prison for a day. She works an hour outside of the capital [of Ethiopia], she owns a pharmacy there, but business rivals are using this chance to pressure her. They’re threatening to kill her.”

With the communication “blackout” many of the students are unable to connect with their family to see how they are doing. 

“I don’t know if they’re going to be OK in the next week, two weeks, a month. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Gebregziahber said.

Other members of the TSA have had similar experiences. 

“I had a cousin that was in prison for about three months. Not because he did anything, just because of his identity. They kept him in prison for almost three months. Families couldn’t visit him, he wasn’t allowed to talk on the phone. So we did not know if he was alive,” Tesfaye said. “He’s our age, so you can imagine how difficult it must be for him to be in jail and be experiencing all those things.”

The students say that, mentally, this has been a strenuous time. In addition to juggling classes and work, they’re thinking about the unknown.

“It gives you anxiety thinking what your family is going through, if they’re alive, if they’re getting food or they’re being tortured,” Tesfaye said. “We don’t know anything, because there is a communication blackout. It’s been over 500 days and we don’t know if we’re going to be seeing them or even talking to them in the next few months.”

On the other hand, some TSA students were lucky enough to leave the country before the conflict erupted. Sophonias Aregawi, a freshman seeking his second bachelor’s degree in computer science, said he was lucky his family was able to flee before the war broke out. 

“My family had the chance to leave Ethiopia two weeks before the war. We had the chance to go to another country and they’re actually still living there. But that itself is an impact. You don’t have the freedom to go back to your own country to live in your own house,” Aregawi said. 

International students are only allowed to work a maximum of 20 hours per week on campus while being a full-time student. With the minimum wage at MSU being $12 it can be implied that having able to pay for housing, groceries and tuition is unattainable. 

Meklit Naizgi, a biomedical major has struggled with having to pay to stay. 

“For someone who is Tigrayan, learning is a luxury. I think about what if I cannot pay for school and then I am supposed to go back home? That is what I am scared of,” Naizgi stated.

Multiple of the TSA members voiced how MSU could improve raising awareness around campus about this issue. 

“I would love for the school to raise awareness about the situation and provide resources to help students get through this tough time. I’d say and for the students, I would love for them to educate themselves more about the situation understand more about it,”  Gebregziahber stated. “I would also love for the counseling center on campus to work with our organization, to help students that are being emotionally affected by this situation. I know they do counseling in general, but like specifically about what’s going on, I would love for them to work with our organization and help our students.”

The TSA aims to establish themselves as a group first, and then reach out to the counseling center as well as raise awareness on campus, although the group hasn’t done so yet.

Header Photo: Members of the Tigray Student Association stand together holding the Tigray flag. These students all have ties to Tigray with family or friends who live there experiencing the unimaginable. TSA hopes to conduct outreaches around campus to increase their presence. (Mansoor Ahmad/The Reporter)

Write to Julia Barton at Julia.Barton@mnsu.edu

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