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New American Voices: Former Ethiopian Physician Brings Caring To Columbus Immigrants

Sam Hendren
89.7 NPR News
Seleshi Asfaw

  Thousands of immigrants call Columbus home.  In conjunction with WOSU-TV’s documentary Columbus Neighborhoods – New Americans, 89.7 is profiling immigrants who have settled here.  In the final installment of 89.7’s New American Voices series, a profile of an Ethiopian physician who brought his passion for caring to Columbus.


Back in his homeland of Ethiopia Seleshi Asfaw practiced medicine and saw dozens of patients a day.  

“I was really enjoying every day.  You see about 50 or 60 patients and cure them and deal with them and you see the impact. Malaria and tuberculosis and all those preventable diseases are so rampant.  It’s really the most rewarding and satisfying job on earth, is being a medical practitioner,” Asfaw says.

Asfaw became one of Ethiopia’s regional health directors.  But a new regime came to power and the outspoken Asfaw found himself and his family facing persecution.

“Every morning when I wake up there are two or three military people, accompanying you and following you and harassing you and they come to your family [and say] ‘He’s going to be in prison, he’s going to be in jail.’  And they even accused me in the court for nothing that we did not do.  And then I just run away and save my life and my family,” he says.

Asfaw fled to Belgium before seeking asylum in the United States. 

“Generously the US ambassador gave me the approval to come here as a traveler – a tourist visa.  And I came here and I request my asylum and prove my fear of persecution.  It took me two years actually to even get approved and then after that to become members of society,” Asfaw says.

With his education, Asfaw says he thought adjusting to American life would be relatively easy.  But once he arrived in Columbus, he says he encountered barrier after barrier.

“When we started to navigate the system it was really the most challenging place.  It was very, very hard in Columbus to get information; to access all the services that you have, even to ask for asylum I had to go to Washington, D.C.,” he says.

Imagine, Asfaw says, if an immigrant or refugee does not know English. 

“If it is challenging for us, then imagine for people who never touch pencils or paper or not speaking a single word of English, how it will be?  It will be challenging.”

That’s where Asfaw’s passion for helping others came into play.  11 years ago, he and a few others founded Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services; also known as ETSS.

“ETSS is a new, emerging organization, which embraces new Americans and serves as a catalyst to facilitate integration for new Americans in Central Ohio,” Asfaw says.

Asfaw is the organization’s executive director.  He says the Ethiopian word Tewahedo means “coming together as one.”  And that, he says, is the mission of ETSS. 

“The immigrant community, there was a gap of services that we have seen.  So we want to fill that gap.  So that people are helped and supported and then they become self-sufficient and live a good life.  I think we are really now bringing those communities together for the betterment of our city.”

ETSS serves not just Ethiopians but all sorts of refugees and immigrants from many countries.  The organization focuses on education, training and other support services.

“Because education is key for success in life; and employment is the foundation for integration, so once educated and employed, the next step is to buy cars, buy houses and become more integrated,” he says.

The organization has about 70 employees with offices located in the Columbus area’s immigrant communities.  While he may not practice medicine now, Asfaw says he’s found a way to help.

“I really feel so happy because my value and my heart, my passion, is to help.  When I came here I found that love, that passion that I was looking for to help.  Before I was treating people, now I’m healing social challenges and social issues,” Asfaw says.

Support for New American Voices comes from Ohio Humanities.