When Barack Obama was named president elect, members of the D.C. chapter of Ethiopians for Obama finally threw down their campaigning towels. Mike Endale, co-founder of the D.C. chapter, said that he will be going through “canvassing withdrawal ” for weeks and months to come. He isn’t sure if he can to walk through a neighborhood without asking, “Hey, are you voting for Obama?” or if he can stop knocking on doors. For more than a year, getting Obama into the White House has been his life. Endale, who immigrated to the United States eight years ago and isn’t even eligible to vote, said he “teared up a bit,” because it really dawned on him that the day Obama became president had finally arrived. “I think that the people who were involved in the Obama campaign have changed for the better,” Endale said.
Now that their mission has been accomplished, Endale and the other 100 members are focused on making sure that the momentum of the campaign carries on into Obama’s presidency. “We have to make sure that people continue to support him the way have been for the past two-years,” Theodore Thikre, another co-founder, said. Over the course of the campaign, the group’s main focus was the battleground state of Virginia. When the state of Virginia was called in Obama’s favor, chapter members who gathered for a viewing party knew that it was over Sen. John McCain, D-Ariz. For first time since the election in 1964, Virginia became a blue state. This is something that makes the Ethiopians for Obama extremely proud. Although the number of Ethiopians who went to the polls in Virginia isn’t known, the organization believes the community’s support aided the Obama victory. For many Ethiopians, a vote for Obama, whose father came to the United States from Kenya to attend college, was a vote for someone who shares a similar immigrant story.
Ethiopians are the largest of the African immigrants who have come to the capital area. The U.S. Ethiopian Embassy estimates that nearly 100,000 Ethiopians live in the region.
In addition to Obama’s personal ties to Africa, Endale said the president-elect’s policies on immigration, health care and education are the reasons Ethiopians for Obama support him.
Members of the chapter have traveled from Virginia to South Carolina, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. On Election Day, they found themselves back where they started, back on foot canvassing in the neighborhoods of Alexandria, Va.
In addition, they were able to organize more than 60 Ethiopian cab drivers to take people to polls and members manned voting precincts. Endale, Thikre and chapter member Emebet Bekele reflected on how the campaign impacted their lives and those in the Ethiopian community. “When is the last time our generation has been inspired by a historical moment?” Thikre asked.
Endale said that when Obama declared his run for presidency in May 2007, he knew it was time for him to apply to become a naturalized citizen and it made him want to participate in the election. Bekele said that she has always loved the United States but that she now feels as if she belongs to her country because of this campaign and her involvement in it. The power of the vote is something she said that she would die for. “This election was a chance for people who were never involved in the political process to be inspired to help make change,” Bekele said. “As a community, Ethiopians have come out of the shadows.”
She is hoping the momentum and the involvement of Ethiopians in the greater community does not cease after this election.
“We will continue to work together to get our community involved,” Bekele said. “We want to get the numbers because with numbers you are able to prove the impact you have.” Although their shirts read “Ethiopians for Obama,” members realize that the election was bigger than their community and Obama. They all agree that it was about the people whose lives his campaign touched. “We didn’t even know each other before this,” Endale said. “That is the beauty of it.” Thikre noted Americans who come from countries that have feuded, have been able to stand side by side for the same cause.
“When you are really involved, you get to talk to a lot of different people and you realize we are all the same and share common goals in life no matter what background or cultures we come from.”