DENVER—Standing white-coated and bespectacled behind the counter of the supermarket pharmacy he manages, you wouldn’t guess Kahsay Abraha Bisrat spent his teenage years as a Marxist revolutionary in Ethiopia.
Bisrat’s journey to America may seem all the more extraordinary because of the mundane setting where it ended. But he describes himself as a typical refugee, driven by concerns and pursuing dreams anyone could understand.
“Nobody wants to leave home unless you are forced to,” he said in an interview on a chilly day over a warming meal of spicy mutton stew and spongy bread.
Lunch was in one of a string of Ethiopian restaurants along Denver’s main drag, Colfax Avenue. An Ethiopian Orthodox Church around the corner was another indication of the vibrancy of the community that newcomers from the Horn of Africa have built in the middle of America.
Bisrat is a writer as well as a pharmacist. Last year, his memoirs of his years as a fighter were published in his still-fractious homeland. The book has made him something of a celebrity among Ethiopians in Africa and elsewhere who are united by a network of online newsletters and radio programs.
Bisrat, born in 1957 in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray state, began his journey as the eldest son in a family with some status. One grandfather was a priest and the other a village leader. But they were poor.
“You go to school without eating anything, maybe you have a glass of water. And when you come home, you don’t know whether you’ll eat,” Bisrat told The Daily Beast. “Your parents give you anything they have. But they don’t have anything.”
As a boy, Bisrat thought he would grow up to be a farmer like his father. Or maybe an elementary school teacher. He received religious instruction from his grandfather and was sent to secular school, the only one among seven siblings to get that opportunity. While attending a regional high school, Bisrat listened to visiting university students discuss politics. Their views on the roots of poverty and inequality in Ethiopia resonated with his own observations, including of his father struggling to hold on to land coveted by richer and more powerful neighbors.
His high-school years were a time of idealism and anger in Ethiopia. In 1974, the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie’s feudal regime led not, as many hoped, to democracy but to a brutal military dictatorship known as the Derg. Tens of thousands of people who resisted the Derg were detained, tortured, and killed in what was called the Red Terror.
At 16, Bisrat joined the armed wing of the anti-Derg, pro-democracy Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party. It was a hard-scrabble army. Bisrat described being outfitted with little more than a simple uniform, a Kalashnikov rifle he affectionately called a “Klash,” and a length of cloth known as a kushk, which was used as shade from the sun or a wrap against the cold, as a bandage when necessary—and “in death served as a shroud.”
He writes of marches that lasted for hours through craggy terrain and battles with the enemy, disease, and hunger. But he also recounts camaraderie, as on the night his unit met another that had seized cattle from “bandits.” Bulls were slaughtered and the meat roasted. Fighters gathered to sing a folk song about workers uniting around the world in Amharic, Oromo, and his own native Tigrinya.
Black-and-white photographs from those days show Bisrat with piercing dark eyes in a thin face under an impressive Afro. His face is fuller these days. His hair is tamed and graying at the temples. His eyes are just as arresting though.
“Politically I wasn’t very conscious, because I was very young,” he told The Daily Beast of his teenage years. “The party was following a Marxist ideology at the time. All I knew was that the Derg, the fascist government, had to be destroyed.”
Bisrat had left Ethiopia as a refugee a decade before Derg leader Mengistu Haile Mariam fled to Zimbabwe in 1991. A new constitution and political reorganization followed, but democratic institutions have remained weak and rulers’ tendency to autocracy strong in multiethnic Ethiopia. The Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, began protesting last year, first over a land dispute with the national government, then to demand more rights and the release of detained activists. The protests and sometimes deadly confrontations with security forces spread beyond Oromo areas. In October, the government declared a six-month state of emergency.
Bisrat’s book is set in hard but idealistic times. He said he still admires the EPRP, his old party, for its commitment to democracy and equality. His book’s title is Love of Assimba—Assimba was a storied EPRP stronghold. But he no longer believes that what he calls the “right politics” can be achieved by violence.
“There has to be reconciliation. There has to be dialogue. People shouldn’t have to kill each other because of political ideology,” he said. “And once there has been a peaceful political solution, the sides have to come together to resolve the people’s problems.
Abay Yimere, a public-policy expert who divides his time between Ethiopia and the United States, said he regretted missing a chance to meet Bisrat when the pharmacist was in Addis Ababa on a book tour this past summer. Yimere said in a telephone interview from the Ethiopian capital that he admires Love of Assimba because it is a departure from the more typical books he has read about Ethiopia in the 1970s: prominent politicians’ polemics thinly disguised as autobiography.
Bisrat’s is “the story of the ordinary people who did extraordinary work,” Yimere said. “We rarely hear about their stories, the ordinary people’s stories.
“Maybe the culture doesn’t encourage us to write about ordinary people.”
Bisrat became a U.S. citizen several years after arriving as a refugee in 1980. He said America’s more democratic approach to literature—here, talk-show hosts, doctors, business people, and athletes as well as politicians publish autobiographies—may have influenced his decision to write his memoirs.
But mostly, Bisrat said, he wrote to pay tribute to comrades who died. Among them was his first love, whom he portrayed with both tenderness and admiration for her leadership on the battlefield and her commitment to the cause—a commitment that kept them from going beyond kissing because anything more would have been a violation of discipline. He was drawn to her combination of strength and vulnerability and jokes that as gangly teenagers the two probably looked alike in their uniforms. He knew her only by her nom de guerre of Dillay until he began interviewing men and women who had fought with him for his book. He learned her real name was Simegn Minale.
During the three years he fought, Bisrat grew increasingly disillusioned with what he saw as inept military strategy and political infighting. He agonized over leaving fellow fighters he had come to see as his family. When he did, it meant leaving the country as well. He would not simply return to life in his village, for fear he would be handed over to the Derg. Bisrat fled first to neighboring Eritrea and then to Sudan.
He regrets he did not have the opportunity to tell Dillay of his plans to abandon the fight. In Sudan, he learned from fellow emigrants of her death in an ambush. The news made him feel “as if part of my body had been cut off,” he wrote.
In his book, Bisrat empathizes with ordinary people caught up in the drama of war. He described poorly equipped resistance fighters turning to local farmers for food and shelter, even as the Derg dealt harshly with villagers seen as opposition sympathizers. In the opening passages of his memoirs, Bisrat said his life was saved by a farmer who hid him from the Derg despite the risks. In 2004, he visited the farmer’s village. The farmer had survived the Derg, but died in a car accident shortly before Bisrat returned to thank him.
In Sudan, UN refugee officials helped Bisrat get to Puerto Rico, where an uncle had settled.
In Ethiopia, he had felt that educated urban members of his party looked down on less sophisticated people from rural areas. Bisrat left Puerto Rico after only a few months because he saw a chance to further his education in the Washington, D.C. area, where he settled into an Ethiopian community that included other former fighters. Later, when friends persuaded him to try Colorado, he did some research and found a Colorado Springs school that impressed him. That institution turned out to be too expensive, so he enrolled in a community college in Denver and later the University of Colorado.
Bisrat initially studied engineering because he had excelled at math and science during his too-short stint in high school in Ethiopia. But he had no clear career plan. When a friend got a job in a pharmacy before graduating, Bisrat switched majors. He, too, secured work with a supermarket chain before graduating.
Denver has mountain views that remind Bisrat of northern Ethiopia. In this setting, he got the education he had dreamed of in Ethiopia and started a career. He also found love again, marrying a fellow Ethiopian American. The couple has three children.
One of Bisrat’s sons, Kaleb, has ordered an Uber car in Denver and found more than once that the driver is Ethiopian, recognizes his family name and knows his father because of the memoirs.
The younger Bisrat, a pianist studying music at his father’s alma mater, doesn’t read the languages of Amharic or Tigrinya in which the book has been published in Ethiopia and has not yet found the time to explore the English translation his father had done at his own expense earlier this year. But Kaleb Bisrat watched and learned as his father spent any spare moment writing the book in longhand. Pages and notes were scattered everywhere, even in his father’s car.
“My father’s just always been a hard-working guy. He never expressed his creative side,” the son said. “But he had to express his creative side to tell his story. To do that after he had got his education, after he started working, after he had his kids—I really appreciated that.”
In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic, Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat spoke of immigrant parents who tell their children with artistic ambitions: “We didn’t sacrifice all this for you to take up a precarious profession.”
But she went on to credit another writer from an immigrant family, Patricia Engel, with showing her that the act of migrating is itself art.
“You begin with nothing, but stroke by stroke you build a life,” Danticat said, and she could have been describing Bisrat. “This process requires everything great art requires—risk-tasking, hope, a great deal of imagination, all the qualities that are the building blocks of art. You must be able to dream something nearly impossible and toil to bring it into existence.”
Long before he came to Colorado, Bisrat left “home to fight for the people and to die,” he said.
“But everyone has his or her own destiny. You never know where your journey will take you.”