With a repressive communist regime running his country, he never returned. Instead, he settled in the Washington suburbs and remained there as the decades passed and the old dictatorship was replaced by a new one. He raised a family in Virginia and lost contact with relatives at home.
Then in February, after three years of mounting unrest, Ethiopia’s prime minister resigned. Abiy Ahmed, an outspoken 42-year-old reformer, took office. Since then, there has been a wave of stunning change.
Abiy has lifted a long-standing state of emergency, ended a decades-old conflict with neighboring Eritrea and called for Ethiopia to transition into a multiparty democracy. For the many Ethiopians who fled the country during the long years of autocracy, the reforms have revived a dream they once thought impossible: going home.
It was particularly unlikely for people like Zeleke, a leader in a resistance movement who agitated for change from abroad. In 2013, he was branded a terrorist by Ethiopia's ruling party and sentenced in absentia to 18 years in prison. He decided that even calling his mother was too dangerous for her; they haven’t spoken in six years.
But now Zeleke is dreaming. In August, he bought a plane ticket to Ethiopia, planning to surprise his mother, celebrate the Ethiopian New Year on Sept. 11 and visit relatives he hasn't seen since he was a child. But after years as an activist, he is also clear-eyed about the challenges that lie ahead.
Moves meant to expand political freedoms have also allowed old ethnic grievances to flare up, leading to a new spate of violence. The institutions that propped up the previous administration have been working to undermine Abiy's reforms. "Even though they have lost power, we know they have money and guns,” Zeleke said.
But Zeleke is still eager to go back. "There’s much to be done," he said. "We have a new nation to build.”
That eagerness is common in the area around Washington, which is home to the largest Ethiopian community in the world outside Africa — and some of the fiercest critics of Ethiopia's rulers.
Whenever news of a brutal government crackdown emerged, groups of Ethiopians staged protests outside the State Department or the Ethiopian Embassy. In recent years, Washington-area Ethiopians led a growing movement to provide accurate information about what was going on in the country, launching blogs and online television stations.
“We were so mad for so long,” said Kenfe Bellay, a 61-year-old who lives in Silver Spring, Md.,
Bellay fled Ethiopia in 1976 after the communist regime confiscated his father’s farm and family home. He eventually settled in the United States and has regularly attended protests and candlelight vigils in Washington, hoping to raise awareness of human rights violations in Ethiopia.
On a humid evening in July, Bellay shuddered as he recalled the stories he had heard over the years — dissidents jailed by the regime, opponents tortured and unarmed protesters massacred.
“It hurts, of course,” he said. “It hurts no matter where you are.”
Zeleke, as a member of a resistance group called Patriotic Ginbot 7, traveled throughout the United States and Europe to meet exiled political leaders and lobby international organizations to exert pressure on the Ethiopian government. He spoke regularly to PG7 members operating clandestinely in Ethiopia. When the group's secretary general, Andargachew Tsege, was abducted in Yemen in 2014, Zeleke flew to Eritrea for weeks and months at a time to mobilize armed resistance units.
Andargachew is now a free man — he and hundreds of other political prisoners were released by Abiy in May. Zeleke watched on television as his old friend was welcomed by rapturous crowds in the streets of Addis Ababa.
“I’ve invested so much time, energy and money on this," he said. "Now I feel, finally, I feel that part of what I’ve struggled and sacrificed for is in the process of materializing.”
The optimism is deeply tied to the figure of Abiy, whose charisma and reforms have captivated many Ethiopians abroad. "You know, I used to watch movies after work. Now I just watch YouTube videos of Dr. Abiy,” said Tibebu Hailemariam, 50, the vice president of the Ethiopian Community Center of Maryland.
Bellay admitted that he is also prone to flipping through news items about Abiy while he mans the counter at Sidamo Coffee & Tea, the coffee shop he owns in Northeast Washington. Everyone he knows, he said, has been talking about the new prime minister for months.
So when Abiy announced in July that he would tour the United States, his visit quickly dominated the attention of the community here. Ethiopians from as far away as Florida and Colorado booked tickets to Washington, where Abiy was scheduled to speak at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on July 28. Hailemariam visited the embassy multiple times in the hope of finding a way to participate.
The excitement swelled during the week of Abiy’s “grand rally.” Groups crowded into the lobby of the Watergate Hotel, where Abiy was staying, hoping to get an early glimpse of the new prime minister. Dozens of Ethiopian restaurants in the region prepared their kitchens to host parties scheduled for Saturday night, while those at home pored over road maps to determine the best routes into the city.
When the morning of July 28 finally arrived, the line to see Abiy wrapped several times around the block. Families driving in from North Carolina and New Jersey honked their car horns and rolled down windows to high-five performers swaying their hips along Mount Vernon Place; those waiting in line cracked open plastic containers of curries and injera bread to share with neighbors.
“It’s just like back home,” said Fekadu Amanu, 46, who was standing near the front of the line with his three young children.
Abiy's speech, delivered that afternoon in a packed and raucous hall, called for unity and the support of the diaspora in rebuilding Ethiopia. But the words were seemingly less important than his presence and what it signified.
Bellay, stuck behind the counter at his shop, was not part of the jubilant crowd at the rally. But even at work, he said, the atmosphere felt different. Ethiopians streamed into the shop all afternoon to share stories of the speech and sip coffee; when Bellay traveled home to Silver Spring — the Washington area's "Little Ethiopia" — there were large groups of people celebrating in the streets.
“It was really exciting," Hailemariam said. "I’m 50 years old, and I’ve never seen people like this. It’s pure love."
Even Zeleke's remaining doubts were erased after a two-hour meeting between Abiy and PG7 leaders in the evening following the rally. “The candor, the openness with which he shared details about the transition was astounding," Zeleke said.
"We’re very happy with what they’ve managed to do in this 100 days. There’s much to be done, but the progress has been very impressive.”
For Washington’s Ethiopian community, the rally weekend in July was an unbridled celebration. But in the days and weeks that have followed, many in the diaspora have been left wondering how they will fit into this new era of Ethiopian history.
Even with Abiy’s open invitation, the path home is not straightforward. Zeleke hopes to return permanently someday. But with three school-age children who speak little Amharic, a visit of a few weeks is all he manage for now. Bellay, who has two daughters in college, is excited for his own trip back, but he believes there’s nothing left for him in Ethiopia.
“I don’t have a home anymore. It was taken. I don’t have anywhere to go, and my family, we dispersed years ago,” he said.
Hailemariam is more seriously considering the move back, but he also has worries. “Moving to Ethiopia is very exciting, but I have to find my place first,” he said. “I can’t go there and be a burden, so I need to see where can I contribute, what place and in what capacity.”
As Ethiopians abroad plan their next steps, they will probably look to those who have already dared to leave the United States for good. One of them is 36-year-old Mohammed Ademo, who until recently was one of the most prominent government critics in the diaspora.
After spending 16 years in exile, Ademo saw Abiy’s rise to power as an opportunity he couldn’t miss. In June, just three months after Abiy took office, the journalist relinquished his status as an asylum seeker in the United States and booked a one-way ticket to Addis Ababa, leaving his wife and their 2-year-old son in Washington.
“The irony of it is I’ve been away from my immediate family for 16 years, and the only family I had in the U.S. was my wife and my son. Now I’m with my family, but my son and my wife are away,” Ademo said by telephone from Addis Ababa. “It’s hard, but this requires some level of sacrifice. If we want this country to change, we have to make these tough decisions.”
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, Ademo admitted. But at least for now, he’s taking a moment to relish being back.
"It feels finally like this is mine,” he said, the sounds of rain and conversation humming in the background. “I enjoyed living in the U.S. … but I never really felt quite at home. Now I feel liberated. I truly, truly feel at home."