Dear distinguished guests, TASSC staff and TASSC members. My name is Tensay Kelile. I am a torture survivor from Ethiopia. Today I would like to share my personal story about why I was forced to flee Ethiopia, and how much I have suffered as an Affirmative Asylum seeker because of the current policies of USCIS, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Like over 380,000 people who have entered the United States with a visa, I am part of what is called the Affirmative Asylum Backlog.
After I applied for asylum in 2015, I waited five years before I finally got an asylum interview in 2020. I have waited one year and four months and still have not gotten an answer from USCIS. I am participating in TASSC’s campaign, where we are asking USCIS, the US asylum office, to commit to a more humane, fair and efficient system for Affirmative Asylum Seekers.
I always cared about making Ethiopia a prosperous, peaceful and exemplary land for neighboring countries. I got this wisdom from my family, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and from my own moral and ethical beliefs. When I was just 14 years old, I was against the military dictatorship in Ethiopia called the Derg. Then I opposed the EPRDF, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which took control of Ethiopia in 1991. EPRDF divided Ethiopia into regions based on ethnicity. The largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia are the Oromo and the Amhara, I am from the Oromo and my wife is Amhara. I have always been against dividing people according to their ethnicity.
I was detained for the first time in 2007, in a terrible jail called Maekilawi which is known for all the torture that took place there. Then they transferred me to another jail called Kalite for three months. After I was released, I kept working to make my country better no matter what the government did to me. This is why I joined an opposition party in Ethiopia called the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party. We wanted to unify Ethiopia, with equal justice and democracy for all, and implement liberal economy. We also wanted the government to stay out of religious issues. About two-thirds of Ethiopians are Christians, and one-third are Muslim.
I had an excellent job working as a procurement agent for major Ethiopian and international companies. I also became a leader on economic affairs for the UDJ Party. I paid a high price for my political activism and engagement. I was detained repeatedly and tortured and finally had to leave Ethiopia in 2014 to save my life. I came to the United States and applied for asylum on January 8, 2015. After waiting five long years without an interview, I decided to apply for an expedited interview with the U.S. Asylum Office.
After Dr. Abiy Ahmed became prime minister of Ethiopia in 2018, many people thought the situation in Ethiopia would improve. Abiy released thousands of political prisoners, made peace with Eritrea, and allowed opposition political parties to operate in the country. But then conflict among the ethnic groups escalated and it is even worse now. My own son became a victim of this ethnic extremism. He was studying at a university in southern Ethiopia. One day he was unwilling to join a protest organized by ethnic extremist students. So they entered his dorm room and beat him so severely he had to go to the hospital. When they were beating him, student spies sent by the government also told my son: “We know you and your father—he left Ethiopia because he opposes and agitates against ethnic politics.”
Waiting so many years for an asylum interview and then for a response from USCIS has been the most challenging long years in my entire life. The inhumane asylum system has caused me to have sleepless nights and troubling and emotionally draining days. This is mainly due to living without getting an answer from USCIS to my very important asylum application, and being separated from my family for six years and not knowing when this will end. Will USCIS ever give me an answer to my request for asylum?
What is wrong with the asylum system, that they do not interview torture survivors like me for years and years? Why is it taking so long and why did some people I know get their interviews immediately, based on the Last In-First Out system? I know three Ethiopians who applied for asylum after me and were already interviewed and granted asylum. I am happy for them. But the process is not fair. Why did USCIS make me to wait five years for an interview? And after I got an expedited interview in March 2020, why won’t they tell me if I have been granted or not? What is the meaning of an expedited interview when I don’t get an answer for 18 months?
My wife is so worried, we have been separated so long. She asked me if it is better for her to go to Sudan, Yemen or Somalia. I told her to be patient. But really, I don’t know when the US asylum office will render a decision. I wrote to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton from Washington DC. Her office contacted the US Asylum Office two times but they just said I had to wait. I was grateful to the Congresswoman but not the US Asylum Office. We need help from Members of Congress who care about immigrants and human rights to ask the asylum office to change its system and help us. Thousands of torture survivors and affirmative asylum seekers like me entered the United States legally with visas and followed all the rules. But we have been forgotten.
USCIS needs to have policies and procedures that operate in fair, efficient and transparent way, in a humane manner that reflects America’s heritage as a country that protects people who have been persecuted by because of their political opinion. Thank you for listening to my story.