Nikki Tesfai: Providing Critical Aid to African Refugees

Nikki Tesfai grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where anti-Semitism forced her family to keep their religion a secret. Her parents taught her to live by the Ten Commandments, and her childhood hero was Golda Meir. Today, Tesfai runs the African Community Resource Center (ACRC), a refugee facility in Los Angeles, according to Jewish values and Meir’s teachings. “Golda Meir saw the humanity and integrity of all people,” she explains. “Not just Jews.”

Soft-spoken but charismatic, Tesfai, 47, is fluent in five languages and has a Ph.D. in humanities. “My father taught me that if you have money, it can be taken away from you,” she recalls, “but no one can take away your knowledge.”

At 17, she won a scholarship to Union University in Tennessee. She admits that at first she understood little about America- including why her white classmates wiped off her chair before they would sit in it. A Jewish professor clued her in.

“‘They do it because they have not changed,’ Dr. Neele told me, ‘but to grow, you must be willing to change on a daily basis.'”? Tesfai lives by his advice. “I am always open to learning from others.”

She returned to Africa to fight for Eritrean independence in the early ’70s, but the liberation forces were abusive to women. When Tesfai spoke out for women’s rights, she was thrown into prison. She is still trying to forget the nightmare of the next four years.

Eventually, Tesfai married a fellow Eritrean refugee and made her way back to the United States. They settled in Houston and had two sons. But when Tesfai’s husband became cruel, she fled with the children to Los Angeles, where the Jewish Federation helped find her a job.

Tesfai discovered that refugee agencies in L.A. County catered to Latin-American and Asian immigrants, providing assistance with legal issues, English skills, and job training. But there was no agency for the 500,000 refugees from African countries. So in 1984 she started one. “I knew from the time I was a little girl that I wanted to help people, that I wanted to make a difference.”

Finding that a majority of the refugee women who came to ACRC were victims of domestic violence, in 2001 Tesfai established Refugee Safe Haven, the first shelter for victims of domestic violence that caters to refugee women. “They were accustomed to being subjugated,” she says. “I told them that in America, women don’t have to take it.”? She faced opposition in the refugee community. “Some men accused me of breaking up their families,”? she recalls, “but I told them that if they treated their women well, they’d come home.”

Since September 11, Tesfai has had to scramble to find financial support for ACRC and Refugee Safe Haven. She finds solace from stress by reading the Torah and preparing Shabbat dinner for her family and friends. Along with challah, Tesfai serves Ethiopian injera bread, a reminder of her roots and of just how far she has come. -Sharon Boorstin

Sharon Boorstin is the author of Let Us Eat Cake: Adventures in Food and Friendship (ReganBooks/HarperCollins).

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