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Ethiopians Brave Violence to Return Home

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An increasing number of Ethiopian expatriots have been returning to their native land, citing investment opportunities as reason to make the move back overseas. Others seek positions in the new government. Some Ethiopians, however, warn these returning hopefuls of the country's violence and corruption.

ED GORDON, host:

After years of civil conflicts and border wars, Ethiopia is experiencing a brain gain. Hundreds of expatriates who lived in the United States are returning to start businesses or to work for development nonprofits. From Washington, DC, home of one of the country's largest Ethiopian communities, Nancy Marshall-Genzer reports.

NANCY MARSHALL-GENZER reporting:

Thirty-two-year-old Wateb Abata(ph) is determined to return to her native country no matter what. Her sister is throwing her a going-away party. Abata is busy answering questions from her friends and relatives: Where will she live? How much are rents in the capital, Addis Ababa? How long is the plane ride to Ethiopia? And why in the world would she want to go back? Abata's reply is simple and idealistic.

Ms. WATEB ABATA: Because I really want to give back to Ethiopia and (unintelligible) so that start, you know, burning in my heart. You know, slowly by slowly I start ...(unintelligible) idea start to consume me and, you know, I decided to move back, you know?

MARSHALL-GENZER: Abata, who holds a master's degree in urban planning, will be working with a German nonprofit in Addis Ababa. She left Ethiopia with her family when she was 17. Her parents, sister and brother all live in the United States. They're worried about her safety. During violent demonstrations after elections last spring, police killed at least 26 people.

One guest at the party is Yaka Pilimerium(ph). He's also moving back to Ethiopia. Pilimerium is a retired law professor in his 60s. A few months ago, he won an opposition seat in Ethiopia's parliament. During his campaign, he received death threats, but he insists he's not afraid.

Mr. YAKA PILIMERIUM: I don't think the government will resort to that kind of barbarism. And even if it does, you know, I'm living my life. This is something that I want to do, and if it costs me my life, so be it.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Like Pilimerium, Analum Chechal(ph) is a member of the opposition party. He hosts a weekly Amharic-language radio program in the Washington area. Chechal says expats would be crazy to return to Ethiopia right now. He blames the government for the death of one opposition member of parliament. He warns would-be entrepreneurs that government officials are corrupt.

Mr. ANALUM CHECHAL: They are greedy. They want to take anything. From small shop to big industry, they own it because they want to control Ethiopia in every aspect of sector.

MARSHALL-GENZER: That's nonsense, says Mesfin Endrias, head of community affairs at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington. He says more than 1,500 expatriates have returned to Ethiopia this year.

Mr. MESFIN ENDRIAS (Ethiopian Embassy in Washington): Especially young Ethiopians, they're now going back home for investing in, you know, different areas like the construction area, education, hotel, and service areas.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Endrias says a new law allows Ethiopian expatriates to start businesses on an equal footing with Ethiopians who never left. Still, those who return will have to contend with all of the instability of life in a developing nation, says Yaka Pilimerium, the opposition legislator moving back to Ethiopia.

Mr. PILIMERIUM: So it's incumbent on the government to democratize the country, the system. And then all the rest, I think, would follow.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Including investors who will join the idealists who always feel the pull of home.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Marshall-Genzer in Washington.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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