On an early July morning in Awwadaay, Ethiopia, senior Emma McCormick was sick and contemplating the cancellation of her morning’s English class. As she lay on her bed in the eastern part of the country where she and six other GW students were volunteering for the summer, she heard a knock at the gate.
Knowing that her host mother was an important figure in the town and often received visitors, McCormick never paused to wonder who might have knocked.
Greeting her at the door were men with assault rifles.
Three Ethiopian military police officers stood in front of her, commanding McCormick to gather all her belongings – she was being detained.
Outside, a military bus decked with more soldiers waited, and other volunteers that McCormick had come to Ethiopia to teach English with were there as well. A 10-hour journey to the country’s capital, three days of detainment, and, finally, a return flight, lay ahead.
McCormick and the other GW students were among 15 Americans detained in and deported from Ethiopia this summer, after volunteering as part of Learning Enterprises – a nonprofit, U.S.-based and student-run organization dedicated to sending college students to teach English to children in developing areas around the world.
Field, jail, or hotel
After rounding up the volunteers in McCormick’s town, the soldiers continued to round up the volunteers stationed in the towns of Haramaya, Gobboo, Chelenqo and Deder, all in eastern Ethiopia, and not far from the Somalian border.
Having spent the night in a village next to that of his host family, sophomore Tim Savoy woke up to a call demanding he return to his original place of stay, Chelenqo – where the Ethiopian police were already waiting.
Savoy remembers no one having “any idea, none whatsoever” as to the reason of their arrest. That includes the LE staff member that was detained along with the volunteers.
Stripped of their cell phones, their bags searched, and escorted by Ethiopian soldiers, the volunteers spent the next 10 hours traveling to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where they were questioned at the city’s main immigration center.
“(The soldiers) declined to tell us anything,” McCormick said. “It’s like they couldn’t say anything, or like they didn’t know of anything to say.”
Sophomore Chelsea Millar had already been in detainment for six hours at a local police station in her town before joining the others for the 10-hour ride.
“The whole (drive) we were under police observation with guns, AK-47s, we weren’t fed,” Millar said.
For the next two days, the students were given the option of sleeping in fields or jail for the night, or paying for their own hotels.
While in custody, the volunteers were prohibited from calling their families or even the U.S. Embassy.
“I tried to sneak away and call home, tell them to call the embassy,” Savoy said, but an officer followed him without his knowledge, “ripped the phone out of the wall,” and told him that outside communication was not allowed.
Once in Addis Ababa, their passports were confiscated and the volunteers were each questioned separately, and as the list of volunteers to be interrogated grew shorter, the inventory of the possible reasons for their detainment grew longer.
According to the students interviewed, reasons for their detainment ranged from, at first, being a possible security threat to having the wrong visa.
“By the time they got around to me, they had formed this idea that… we weren’t there to start a revolution, weren’t teaching political propaganda. They decided to deport us on a technicality regarding our visas,” Millar said.
The students said Ethiopian government officials informed them that their tourist visas were illegal because they were teaching English, a service, which, under a tourist visa, was not permissible. Despite the fact that some of the students did have business visas, the Ethiopian officials were deaf to the claims that no money was being exchanged.
Having had their visas revoked, the government officials ushered them to the airport, where the volunteers remained without their passports.
Finally, only hours before some of their flights were set to take off, the volunteers spied the sight that McCormick called “the best moment of my life.”
U.S. Embassy officials finally appeared at the scene, carrying with them the volunteers’ passports.
“I don’t think anyone in that room had been so overjoyed, so overwhelmed and over-enthusiastic over anything as when we saw the people from the embassy,” Millar said. After being under police supervision for 60 hours, “it was just an awesome feeling to be able to have some freedom back.”
What the embassy never knew
The embassy and the participants’ parents had been aware of the situation from the day they were first detained. The students would later learn that part of their problems stemmed from the fact that LE never required them to register with the U.S. Embassy before they traveled to Ethiopia.
The organization recommends students register with the U.S. Embassy before entering the country, but does not require it, Director of Programming Katrina Shankland said.
“This is completely unprecedented,” Shankland said. “The prior two summers of our involvement (in Ethiopia) had absolutely no problem. Of course we’re baffled and a little bit shocked but we’re happy the participants are home.”
Millar said that when embassy officials came to their aid, they told the participants that if they had informed the U.S. officials of where they were planning on working, they would have been warned about going there.
“The area we were in was closer to the Somalian side, it was just an area of the country we weren’t necessarily supposed to be in,” Millar said. “That was something that we didn’t even realize when we had left.”
Specific information about the incident cannot be divulged because of privacy laws, State Department spokesperson Laura Tischler said. Information and travel warnings about the region are on the State Department’s Web site, she said.
The site reminds American citizens that the U.S. Embassy strongly discourages travel to Ethiopia’s Somali region. The students were in the Oromiya region, where the Web site states that armed insurgent groups operate.
“Now after coming back I’ve looked in books that talk about traveling to Ethiopia and in those books they say making sure you have the right visa,” Millar said.
Masked by speculation and confusion, the true nature of the July arrest still remains without official Ethiopian explanation. Neither Ethiopian Embassy in D.C. nor the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia returned multiple requests for comment.
After being told that they had been followed for an extended period of time without their knowledge – a surprise that would shock them over a month after the arrest – Savoy and McCormick both suspected the true motive of their arrest was political.
Millar said that LE’s country coordinator in Ethiopia, Mahdi Ibrahim, is a member of the Oromo, a minority group. In the past, she said, he had been a political activist and speaker for the Oromo people, who live in the villages where the volunteers were working. Shankland said she could not confirm whether or not Ibrahim had worked as an activist.
“It makes sense,” Savoy said. “They said it was a security threat, then a wrong visa… but they would not have brought guns if it was something that minor.”
Although absolutely frustrated, the students said their experience, while shorter than intended, was worth the distress.
“I don’t necessarily hold LE accountable,” Millar said. “It’s a new organization and it’s student-run. They weren’t really ready to handle it. It’s a learning experience for them. Now they know.”