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A long road to justice

August 27, 2014
Teklemichael Sahlemariam

Teklemichael Sahlemariam is a wanted man in his homeland of Ethiopia, but in Canada he’s about to be called to the bar.

His incredible journey started in 1997 and took him from Addis Ababa University, to a refugee camp in Kenya and then to Canada, where he completed three university degrees and all of the requirements to become a lawyer. On Sept. 19, he will be called to the bar in Toronto, 17 years after starting his studies.

“When you are young, you have this feeling of changing the world,” says Sahlemariam, a BA in Justice Studies grad. “It is later you realize what you want the world to be is different from what it is. If the environment is not convenient, the only option you have is to fight to change the environment and that is why I went to law school.”

Fighting for change is precisely what Sahlemariam was doing when he was elected student council president at Addis Ababa University, the oldest and largest university in Ethiopia, in 2000. When Sahlemariam was elected, the student government was very weak and highly influenced by government. The ambitious president and his congress were determined to change that.

“We were elected on the platform that we would make the student union independent and free from any influence and it will protect the students’ interests, it would try to make the university a free environment where students can express their views without any fear or intimidation,” Sahlemariam says.

To that end, the student union started publishing a newspaper and gathering students and encouraging them to stand up for their rights. Those moves got the attention of the university administration, which laid charges against the student leaders for inciting illegal protests and illegal riots. “We were unable to function properly,” Sahlemariam recalls. “They cancelled our meetings. They peeled off our posters. They dragged us into interrogations. They harassed us.”

In response, the student union organized a meeting with the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, at which professors and activists spoke and students became inspired to stand up for their rights. The meeting played a role in triggering student protests, which led to a violent response by Ethiopian authorities resulting in the deaths of 41 students and a crackdown on all government critics.

“The government’s heavy-handed tactics have enflamed what began as a peaceful local student protest into a violent national crisis,” Saman Zia-Zarifi, Human Rights Watch’s academic freedom director, said at the time. “The attacks on academic freedom have now degenerated into a wholesale assault on civil society in Ethiopia.”

The protests spread throughout the country and to other universities. Sahlemariam had to go into hiding; the heavily armed members of the Special Forces branch of the security forces were looking for him and other student leaders. When they failed to find Sahlemariam, they went to his hometown and arrested his mother and brother. His family, however, didn’t know his whereabouts and were later released. Meanwhile, Sahlemariam fled Ethiopia for fear of prosecution and ended up in Kenya, where he lived in a refugee camp for four years.

In 2005, he was sponsored by Vancouver’s Dunbar Heights United Church to come to Canada. In Vancouver, he worked as a janitor and studied at Langara College, before transferring to RRU’s Justice Studies program. He was attracted to the intensity of the one-year-program; his credits from Addis Ababa University were not applicable in Canada and after sitting idle at a refugee camp for four years, he didn’t want to waste any more time. At Royal Roads, Sahlemariam discovered how different an education can be.

“At Royal Roads, you have direct contact with your professor. They come from the professional life so they have direct knowledge. Here, you can be friends with your professor,” he says. “You’re secure here. Whatever comment you make in class on whichever topic – it can be terrorism, sexual relationship, or politics – you can say whatever you want, which is not the case in Ethiopia. If you say something bad about the government, there will be consequences. It’s a totally different environment. There’s no academic freedom. It’s repressive.”

Sahlemariam says his RRU experience is still fresh in his mind and he referred many friends to the university.

“I had a very wonderful time. One of the things I like about Royal Roads is you are like a family,” he says. “The class size is small, so by the end of the program you know everybody. There’s this close relationship.”

“Teklemichael is an outstanding person. I remember him as a person with great humility working as a security guard whilst working towards his BA in Justice Studies,” says Prof. Erich Schellhammer. “Progress in the program looked so easy observing Teklemichael’s attitude towards study and his amazing success in the program. He also was very close to his community always ready to take a call and to provide assistance where needed. I believe that with Canadians such as Teklemichael we can continue our success story as a caring society embracing multiculturalism.” 

After completing his BA in Justice Studies, Sahlemariam went on to law school at the University of B.C. and later completed a Master of Law in International Humanitarian Law and Security from the University of Ottawa. Throughout his journey in Canada, Sahlemariam has stayed closely connected to the Ethiopian community and has also supported other marginalized communities here. While studying at UBC, he worked as a residential attendant at a Downtown Eastside shelter for people living with mental illness and addiction. He also co-hosted two Ethiopia radio shows and, following his studies at U of O, volunteered at Ethiopian Satellite Television Service (ESAT) in Washington, D.C. for a year and a half.

 “In Ethiopia, there is no freedom of expression,” he says. “Almost all the media is controlled by the government. Ethiopia is the country with the second largest number of journalists in jail. It’s a country when journalists are accused of terrorism because they’re reporting on terrorism. ESAT is necessary for independent free media.”

Following his stint in Washington, Sahlemariam returned to Toronto to article with a leading immigration lawyer and study for his bar exam. While preparing for his exam over the past year, he has been serving as a freelance court interpreter, helping Ethiopians who don’t speak English understand the legal system. Sahlemariam says the experience has been rewarding; while helping his fellow Ethiopians, he also had the opportunity to observe lawyers in action and gain a better understanding of the main legal issues in his community: domestic violence, impaired driving and immigration.

“The whole culture, the whole legal system is new to most Ethiopians,” he says. “You don’t see justice being done in Ethiopia. In Canada, it might take time and it might be costly, but you can go to court and get justice, which is not the case in Ethiopia.”

Helping members of marginalized communities navigate the legal system is just one of many options Sahlemariam is considering for the next chapter in his life. As he prepares to move forward, he’s also looking back and thinking of all the people who have helped him along the way.

“Many people have contributed to my success. I did not make it on my own,” he says. “Many people on my journey helped me, gave me encouragement, and I would like to thank all of them. If it were not for their support, I would have had a hard time to pursue my studies and achieve what I achieved. I want to emphasize that.”