Jack Obali: Humanitarian Refugee

In late 2016, as many Americans were reeling from the recent presidential election, Jack Obali was running for his life, and he didn’t stop until he got to Colorado. Obali is an Ethiopian living in Aurora as he pursues his claim for asylum.

Obali was born in Gambella, Ethiopia, in 1984. He is a member of the indigenous Anuak tribe, who have historically been oppressed by the Ethiopian government. Obali’s childhood was marked with genocide, instability, and peril. His tribe’s oil-rich land was coveted by the government, and by the time Obali finished elementary school, the government was actively seizing the Anuak’s property and weapons, killing the local farmers, and jailing the tribal elders, including Obali’s father.

Obali was fourteen when his father died and, though not the oldest of his nine siblings, he assumed his father’s role in the family, managing the family’s property and seeing to the well-being of his mother and siblings.

The terrorization of the Anuak in recent history might be best illustrated by the December 13, 2003, massacre when the military led an attack on the Anuak, killing hundreds and raping and terrorizing others. Following the murders of his tribesmen, Obali determined it was time to move his family out of Gambella and joined 20,000 Anuak seeking refuge in South Sudan. (Gambella comprises a region in the western part of Ethiopia near the South Sudan and Sudan borders.)

Obali and his family traveled by foot to South Sudan in an attempt to escape the brutality of life in Gambella; however, the trek to South Sudan only served to worsen the family’s plight. Along the way, his niece and his youngest brother were kidnapped by a South Sudanese tribe, the Murle. (Obali never stopped searching for his baby brother and ultimately found him in 2016, shortly before seeking asylum in the United States. To date, Obali’s niece has not been found nor returned home to her family.)

Conditions worsened when the family reached South Sudan; food was scarce and a false accusation by a neighbor landed Obali in jail for a week during which time he was beaten and mistreated. Eventually, at the urging of his mother who told him she would rather the family die at home in Ethiopia than be killed in South Sudan, Obali led his family back to Gambella.

For a period of time, life seemed to improve once home. Obali focused his efforts on working to provide for his family. When Doctors Without Borders (MSF) began working near Gambella, Obali discovered that his command of several languages, including English, as well as his charm, was a good fit for humanitarian efforts. During his late teen years and early 20s, Obali worked with MSF, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and UNICEF, helping to resettle and offer care to migrants seeking refuge in countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

Even while inundated with humanitarian work and travel, Obali studied and attended nursing school, eager to earn his Certificate and eventually become a Registered Nurse. Through it all, he continued to send money home to his mother and siblings and continued to oversee their care.

But, as Obali’s position as a humanitarian health care professional grew, so did his name and reputation with the Ethiopian government who still had a very real vendetta against the Anuak.

The humanitarian organizations, for which Obali worked and volunteered in Ethiopia, were not blind to the atrocities being committed by the government against its own people. Human rights abuses were reported, and the government retaliated. When MSF provided aid to the Anuak, the Ethiopian government pushed the group out of the country. And as Obali’s position with IOM escalated, the government began following and targeting him.

It is believed that an informant, someone close to Obali, provided the government with his whereabouts and activities. At that time, the government was run by a regime so committed to eradicating Ethiopia of the Anuak that it placed Sudanese refugees in local Ethiopian government offices and untrained workers in hospitals, lest the positions should fall to eager Anuak office seekers and healthcare professionals. The ruling regime would not tolerate an Anuak in a position of power to report human rights abuses.

In 2015, while driving in Gambella, Obali was captured and imprisoned by government officials. Obali’s years of networking yielded some helpful friendships with folks involved with the United Nations. His UN friends worked to free him, and upon his release from prison, they informed him that his life remained in danger.

The situation was so dire, Obali didn’t even have time to retrieve his hard-earned savings or properly prepare for his voyage. He also could not divulge his plans to his family for fear of retaliation; he left behind his young son in his hasty pursuit of safety. With assistance from his coworkers and friends, Obali traveled from Gambella to Dubai to Seattle to Denver. When asked why he chose to seek asylum in the US, his answer was direct and a lot less exciting than our current political climate might lead one to believe – Obali’s one-year visa, which he had as a result of his humanitarian work abroad, had not yet expired.

So here he is. A humanitarian. A nurse. A father. And a man fearing for his life. Skeptics might question whether Obali’s inability to return to Ethiopia is contrived. But this is a man who left it all behind, including a family who relied upon his income and support, and a young son who is growing, learning, and turning five years old without his father.

One only needs to meet Obali, shake his hand, and ask to see a picture of his son to believe the pain he feels over having left his home and family. But that pain is tempered with fear. And that fear is enough to displace him across the world in Denver.

Obali’s harrowing story should be enough to secure his asylum status. But it’s not enough; not yet anyway. Even so, his story is more than enough to secure his place as our neighbor and friend.

Even now, by sharing his story and shedding light on the dire situation so many immigrants and refugees seeking asylum face today, Obali continues his humanitarian efforts.

Jack Obali will be attending our upcoming event (GoodCinema Presents: Immigrant Detention Short Films) on September 11, which happens to be the Ethiopian New Year! Come meet Jack, other audience members, and panelists impacted by and working to reform immigration policy in our country.

- Laura Fischer