By Pete Carey: MercuryNews.com: San Jose may seem like an out-of-the-way place for an international friendship conference. But on Saturday, Ethiopians and Eritreans from as far away as Europe and South Africa met to find ways to bring the two peoples together.
The occasion was the third annual Ethiopian and Eritrean Friendship Conference, held this year at the Masonic Center in South San Jose. About 100 participants pledged to set aside their differences and forge a movement they hope will catch on in their bitterly divided, once warring homelands.
There were a few tears, plenty of laughter and many open hearts and minds — all necessary ingredients for the reconciliation movement the conference represents.
“Ethiopians and Eritreans are exhausted and want to live in peace — for themselves and for their children,” said Berhane Ghebre-Negus, a board member of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Friendship Forum, which sponsored the event.
He called on “those of us in the diaspora who escaped, and who now are enjoying the fruits of peace,” to work together to bring harmony and development to their two countries.
Eritrea, a country of 5 million, was once the northwest region of Ethiopia, which has a population of about 76 million. But Eritrea gained independence in 1993.
The split was followed by a war with Ethiopia in which an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 perished on both sides. A treaty was signed in 2000.
Divisions and suspicion and occasional border
conflicts persist in the region. Immigrants to the United States often bring those divisions with them, sticking to their own groups in the Bay Area, said Abebe Gelagay and Hagos Tekle, board members who helped launch the friendship forum in 2008.
Gelagay said it’s the first group to bring Ethiopians and Eritreans together since the war.
Gelagay, a teacher, and Tekle, a contractor, founded the friendship forum as a grass-roots effort to bring the two immigrant communities together. The group facilitates conferences on peace and reconciliation and encourages collaboration among Ethiopian and Eritrean community agencies and organizations that represent the 20,000 Ethiopians and Eritreans who live in the San Jose area and another 20,000 who are scattered throughout the Bay Area.
New chapters have been formed in other cities, including Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Denver and Los Angeles. Baltimore and Toronto may soon have their own chapters.
Gelagay, who is Ethiopian, and Tekle, an Eritrean, said the organization’s goal is to help the two peoples break free of the emotional and geographic prisons of the past.
Gelagay said he grew up in an area that is now the border between the two countries. At the time, he said, there was a free exchange of commerce, culture and friendship, but that has been replaced with bitter division.
“Those people don’t even share a market, don’t even pray together now,” he said.
The idea behind the forum is that uniting the two immigrant communities here will encourage emulation in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
“We said let’s have this grass-roots movement so we can find a solution, live peacefully side by side as two nations and have economic, political and cultural relations,” Tekle said.
The movement is the only way to empower people to “demand better relationships between those two countries,” Tekle said. “We understand it may not happen right away. But when peace comes, we want people to be ready.”
Added Gelagay: “Politics have divided us. But come on, the world is getting smaller.”