Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Celebrating 2000 with Mixed Emotions

Chicago Tribune -- Sisay Abebe doesn't mind being more than seven years behind the rest of the world in celebrating the dawn of the third millennium.

"There's no Y2K scare on this one," said Abebe, who like many Ethiopian immigrants has grown accustomed to juggling the dueling holidays that arise from differences between the commonly used Gregorian calendar and the ancient Coptic-based calendar of his homeland.

"We have always celebrated two New Years and two Christmases," Abebe said. But ringing in the 21st century at the stroke of midnight on Tuesday "makes my heart pump," he said.

Abebe, 49, marked the occasion with a banquet and bash at his Rogers Park restaurant alongside other Ethiopian immigrants who gathered to savor lamb stew, clink champagne glasses and dance to traditional music.

Felasfaw Gebriel was there, too. But like many in the community, Gebriel said it was hard for him to celebrate when his country is racked with poverty, ethnic divisions and border skirmishes.

More than 20 years after images of starving children with bloated bellies captured the world's attention, Ethiopians still suffer from chronic food shortages. Ethiopia ranks 170th out of 177 on the U.N. Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy and education for countries worldwide. Border disputes with neighboring Eritrea and rebel uprisings are challenging security in the country.

"You celebrate when you achieve something. What are we going to celebrate for?" asked Gebriel, 44, who left Ethiopia 24 years ago and returned in April to see his relatives in the capital city of Addis Ababa. "I have seen new roads, I have seen buildings, but I measure development if the government can provide the basic necessities for the people. That's what I call growth."

In Addis Ababa, where streets were decorated with streamers and lights, the privileged few who could afford the $170 tickets -- about two months' salary for an average Ethiopian -- attended a concert headlined by the band The Black Eyed Peas. Others watched for free on a big screen in a stadium where the concert was broadcast live.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi touted Tuesday's festivities as "the beginning of the end of the dark ages in Ethiopia."

But Gebriel, who left his homeland a few years after his brother was killed during a military coup in the 1970s, balked at the government's efforts to encourage thousands of emigres to return to Ethiopia for the celebration.

Like some in the community who have called for Ethiopians abroad to boycott festivities, Gebriel felt the government was manipulating the millennium to divert attention from the country's troubles.

"To go there to Ethiopia as if we have accomplished something, that's not right," said Gebriel, who works as a parking lot manager in Chicago. "It's an insult to the poor Ethiopians there."

Assefa Delil, a minister counselor at the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, said millennium celebrations are a symbol of Ethiopia's culture and should not be marred by political divisions.

"It's a big event. It's a nation entering from one millennium to another," Delil said. "You can't pass it. You have to mark it."

Delil said he did not know how much his government spent on the millennium parties, but he said many events were sponsored by private donors.

According to U.S. census estimates for 2006, there are about 2,500 Ethiopians in Cook County, though community organizers say the figure is vastly undercounted. The Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago hosted a symposium about the nation's arts and culture last weekend. But organizer Erku Yimer admitted he had mixed feelings about the millennium celebrations in his homeland.

"Part of me thinks it should be celebrated; part of me thinks it shouldn't," said Yimer, the association's executive director. He hopes the festivities provide a time for reflection about Ethiopia's proud history and possibilities for the future.

"In Ethiopia, the New Year comes immediately after the rainy season, when the flowers are blooming and there is a new space of hope and excitement," Yimer said. "People expect things to get better than before."

Yimer, who is in his 60s, left Ethiopia 30 years ago to study at the University of Chicago and has not returned to his homeland because he fears retribution for criticizing the government.

"There is so much economic hardship in the country. People are deprived of their necessities and many people are not in the mood to celebrate," he said.

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