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Fighting for Ethiopia at Endicott

As part of Endicott College’s 2023–24 academic theme, Share Your Story, we recently sat down with Associate Professor of International Studies Semahagn Abebe, a Scholar at Risk who is speaking up against crimes against humanity in Ethiopia.
As part of this year’s academic theme, Share Your Story, we recently sat down with Associate Professor of International Studies Semahagn Abebe, a Scholar at Risk who is speaking up against crimes against humanity in Ethiopia.
By: Danna Lorch

Semahagn Abebe hasn’t been able to set foot in Ethiopia since 2007 when he was forced to seek political asylum. 

For nearly two decades, the Associate Professor of International Studies has tirelessly advocated for Ethiopian human rights from abroad while giving undergraduates the opportunity to gain real perspectives on international law, advocacy, and African politics. 

“I teach my students to advocate for whatever cause is important to them, too. They learn how to write op-eds, and use their social media presence to make change,” he said. 

Abebe is equally dedicated to advocacy work on X (formerly Twitter), where he doesn’t hold back on calling out the Ethiopian government for “the ongoing atrocious war” it is inflicting on the people of his home country’s Amhara region. 

Abebe was raised by his grandmother in rural northwestern Ethiopia during the country’s 17-year civil war in which more than 1.4 million Ethiopians died from drought, famine, and violence. 

As a kid, Abebe loved reading but didn’t have the resources to own books. Now, surrounded by shelves of them in his Endicott office, he said, “I grew up in poverty, but I didn’t really see myself as poor. In Africa, there is strong social support and community is everything. I spent my childhood with other kids, relatives, and neighbors in the village and they pushed me to overcome economic hardship.” 

Abebe took school seriously and scored in the top 10 percent of the national college entrance exams, landing a place at a prestigious state university where he studied law and went on to become a public prosecutor. 

He shook his head. “I worked there for three years. I thought I could make a difference.” 

However, the legal system under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front regime was inherently unjust. “The government started to use the court system to arrest political leaders and falsely charge them of trying to overthrow the administration.” 

Because he refused to accept bribes or tamper with evidence to help police officers, Abebe stepped down from the law and taught at the Ethiopian Civil Service University, where he lectured on criminal and administrative law. There, he felt morally compelled to speak to his students about the unlawful imprisonment, torture, and widespread corruption that he was witnessing.

After receiving a warning from the University’s president, Abebe was placed under police surveillance and ordered to stop criticizing the regime. 

Forced to go into hiding in 2006 during a government crackdown, as many colleagues and friends were being arrested, he urgently sought political asylum abroad by contacting a German professor who had recently visited his classroom. The good Samaritan immediately found Abebe a Ph.D. program offer and accompanying visa in Germany. 

 “I couldn’t tell any of my friends or family that I was leaving,” he said. “Even as the plane took off, I was expecting that airport security would take me off the aircraft and carry me to prison.” 

Abebe started life over in Europe, learning German, and earning a LLM and a doctorate while colleagues were jailed, tortured, or killed back home. 

“Those years were very challenging for me,” he said. 

In 2012, again without a visa, he applied for help from Scholars at Risk, an academic network that provides sanctuary and assistance to threatened academics who aren’t able to safely speak up, teach, or write in their countries of origin. 

Within a few days, Abebe was accepted into the program and offered a first posting at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the University of Galway. Ultimately, the program brought him to Endicott College, a proud member of the Scholars at Risk network. Slowly, Abebe adjusted to New England—getting married, becoming a father, and putting down roots in the welcoming local Ethiopian community. 

At Endicott, Abebe brings his whole self into the classroom freely. “I intentionally relate my experiences to what I’m teaching. Endicott students are curious to learn more about Africa,” he said.  

Last year, that included co-teaching an honors seminar on Scholars at Risk together with Professor of Political Science Michael Kilburn. Students became deeply involved in raising awareness about imprisoned scholars in Iran, Egypt, and Belarus by composing advocacy letters and op-eds, conducting interviews, and leading social media campaigns.

Abebe said that if he spoke out in Ethiopia he would inevitably disappear; but at Endicott, he can use his academic power to make noise and push the U.S. government to exert pressure on Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed before it’s too late. 

He summarized what is happening on the ground now: “The Amhara people, the second largest ethnic population in Ethiopia, have been subjected to killing, imprisonment, and displacement. Crimes against humanity and war crimes are being committed by Ahmed, with tens of thousands of Amhara imprisoned in detention camps.” 

He continued: “My concern is that in a country with a population of 120 million people, where more than 20 million are in need of food assistance, and over four million are internally displaced, the risk of a state collapse becomes increasingly alarming. If that happens, it would be the largest refugee crisis in the world and threaten regional security. We are on the verge of a horrifying genocide.” 

On X, Abebe calls for an internationally-mandated negotiation between Ethiopia’s major political factions, and a roadmap that gives peace and reinstatement of basic human rights like freedom of speech a chance to take root. 

He’s going to keep calling attention to the imminent danger because, he cautioned, “If the international community doesn’t intervene, we are looking at one of the most devastating civil wars in the history of the world.” 

Have an interesting story to share? Get involved in Endicott’s social media with the Gull Creator Program or submit your own unique story here. Are you an alum? We also want to hear your story! You could be contacted for a follow-up feature.