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

By Erica Lehrer GoldmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 6, 2006 | Go to article overview

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


Erica Lehrer GoldmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 emigre 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. …

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