Backstory: In Houston, a father to hundreds

Kidane Araya, a genial geophysicist, opens his heart and home to children fleeing the strife of East Africa.

Geophysicist Kidane Araya grew up in East Africa's war-torn culture and knows the stories of its people – the ones who've been tortured, killed, the ones who've disappeared. But he's not thinking of those dark times tonight. At the Blue Nile Restaurant, he's in a celebratory mood, ordering huge platters of Ethiopian specialties – kitfo, tibs, doro wot – to please his dinner companions. He's preparing to say goodbye to yet another person he's helped to establish a new life in the United States.

Although he has only two children of his own – sons in their 20s – Dr. Araya says most days he feels like a "father to hundreds." In a way, he is. He emigrated to the US 23 years ago from Eritrea, and has spent the past three years opening his heart, his pocketbook, and his home to scores of other young men and women fleeing religious and political persecution from Eritrea and Ethiopia, which have been embroiled in conflict for more than four decades, attracting world attention for their human rights violations.

When he's not toiling as a research scientist at an oil exploration firm, Araya is driving his battered Toyota through Texas, bringing comfort, advice, and friendship to detainees awaiting asylum hearings. More than 5,000 Ethiopians and Eritreans live in the Houston area. Araya stays in constant touch with pastors, lawyers, and members of the community who work on their behalf.

Ethiopian émigré Kebede Gebray, resettlement services director for the YMCA's International Services in Houston, says Araya stands out for his humanitarian work. Several years ago, Mr. Gebray asked Araya whether he would be willing to help lawyers translate documents. "From that day on, he just got more and more involved," says Gebray. "He took it as his personal responsibility to help."

Serving the oppressed has been a lifelong priority, says Araya. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in physics from Ethiopia's Addis Ababa University in 1978 during the "Red Terror," when the government systematically removed perceived opponents by intimidation, imprisonment, and execution. In the mid-1970s, he helped Eritreans escape persecution in Ethiopia by escorting them to villages that would shelter them. "Even now, I'm trying to help those who flee," he says.

Some of those he helps arrive in Houston as stowaways, climbing the anchors of Houston-bound ships docked in the Eritrean ports of Massawa or Assab. Others arrive by plane or car with bogus passports. Still others enter the country on foot, working their way up through Latin America.

***

One Wednesday during lunch, while taking a break from designing algorithms to aid in the hunt for oil, Araya drove from his office to the Houston Processing Center, a federal detention facility 30 miles away. His goal: to visit four newly arrived Ethiopian stowaways. But first he had to get there – always an uncertain proposition in his Toyota Camry, which has close to 250,000 miles on it. The car sputtered and stalled each time it stopped at a light. "Life's too busy, between work and helping people, to shop for a car," Araya said with a shrug.

At the center, Araya arranged calling cards for the men, then waited almost an hour to see them. Finally, he was seated across from Samson, a young Ethiopian in prison garb who stared through the glass at the unfamiliar man before him. He brightened as Araya greeted him in Amharic and eagerly recounted his story. Araya promised to call his relatives and visit again. Through Araya's efforts, Samson obtained legal representation for his asylum hearing.

Visiting detainees became a priority for Araya after several told him what a difference it made. Now he visits once or twice a week and encourages other Eritreans and Ethiopians in Houston to do so as well. In addition, Araya helps attorneys translate depositions. He assists detainees in locating relatives and gathering documents from home to support their asylum cases. His correspondence with lawyers and influential people in the Eritrean and Ethiopian communities could fill tomes.

"He always comes up with information, ideas, [and is] willing and ready to help," says Pastor Moges Tadesse of Houston's Ethiopian Evangelical Church. "He doesn't give up."

After asylum is granted, Araya helps former detainees obtain work permits, jobs, and learn "American ways," inviting them into his home when necessary.

"I think so many of these people will do well here because they have been through so much in life," says Araya, noting that many of those he helps were imprisoned and tortured before they fled. "I tell them: 'Work to your abilities. Don't be lazy.' "

***

Araya came to the US in 1983 on a World Bank and United Nations fellowship. In 1986, he earned his master's in geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo., following up with a PhD in 1993. Given the turmoil at home in 1993, Araya decided to stay in America.

Influenced by middle school teachers who were Peace Corps volunteers and an illustrated language textbook filled with anecdotes about American life, Araya had dreamed of living in the US since childhood. "Imagine being a young boy in Africa ... reading about the subways of New York," he says, laughing. He was profoundly moved by the beauty of this country, having crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, visted the Empire State Building, and seen the Grand Canyon.

Sons Aaron, 22, and Mussie, 25, joined Araya in Houston 10 years ago. Inspired by his dad's example, Aaron, a mathematics major at the University of Houston, now works with asylum seekers himself, taking them to get their drivers licenses, helping with job searches and what he calls "simple stuff." "I feel extremely proud of my dad, doing what he does, coming where we came from," Aaron says. "It makes you want to do the same thing."

Araya's guest of honor at the Blue Nile tonight, 18-year-old Rahwa, is grateful. Petite and pretty, she talks about her long journey. Seized by the Ethiopian government at 15, Rahwa was accused of being a spy because her late father was Eritrean.

Upon release, she fled the country, traveling through Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico before walking across the border at Hidalgo, Texas. Apprehended by by US officials, Rahwa was placed in a child-welfare organization in Galveston.

Shortly thereafter, Araya visited, making the 50-mile drive to see her, bringing a CD and DVD player, along with a selection of Eritrean and Ethiopian movies and music. He treated her to dinner, consulted with her English teacher about her studies, and took her to Starbucks for chai tea. All little things, but they made a difference.

Now, on her last night in Houston, Rahwa looks around the table at the people who befriended her. Galveston anesthesiologist Asle Aarsland, who helped with Amharic translations, prays aloud for her bright future as everyone bows their heads. The meal ends with spiced tea and popcorn, a traditional Ethiopian treat. Everyone partakes as the oversized bowl is passed around the table – a final act of sharing before the party disperses into the night.

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