Getchew Garad seems an unlikely candidate to become a resident of St. Louis. But that is where he's headed in several months, although he doesn't know it yet.
Getchew is illiterate even in his own Amharic language. He is a seasonal farm worker turned nickel-and-dime trader and lives with his wife, Enanu, their baby and assorted chickens in a traditional Ethiopian tukal, a round thatched hut with a dirt floor.
America is as far away as the moon from the life he has known eking out a meager existence in the rugged and often drought-plagued Ethiopian highlands.
But Getchew, 27, has one thing going for him. He is a "political refugee" from the revolutionary turmoil in Ethiopia, and that has earned him a ticket to the United States--thanks to a new resettlement program for a few Africans under the 1980 Refugee Act.
Ethiopians reportedly account for two-thirds of all those now being chosen for the 3,000 to 3,500 annual quota of refugees from Africa. Some come from centers in Sudan, others from Somalia, Djibouti and Kenya or simply as individual applicants at U.S. embassies.
This is because the revolution in Ethiopia, which toppled the late emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, has created close to a million refugees--the largest group from any African country. Of this number, 440,000 are here in eastern Sudan and most of the others in Somalia.
So far, about 2,000 Ethiopians have been resettled in U.S. communities and another 2,000 are waiting to go, according to Kevin Noonan, who heads the Joint Voluntary Agency in Khartoum, the group in charge of registering candidates to be interviewed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The agency, funded by the State Department, works on behalf of 16 U.S. voluntary organizations involved in helping refugees get settled.
Many of the Ethiopians who are chosen speak English, are well educated and are highly skilled. But to avoid accusations of bias or contributing to the "brain drain" of Africa, the immigration service also is taking some Ethiopians like Getchew, who have no skills and neither read nor write.
Noonan and others here in Gedaref administering a four-month course in basic English and "cultural orientation" for the Ethiopian immigrants say those with skills and language expertise make out fine once they arrive in the United States. But they say no study has been done yet on those who have neither.
Although no one says so for the record, there are serious reservations among program administrators here about the wisdom of sending illiterate Ethiopian peasants to fend for themselves in the United States.
Getchew seems to have no reservations, however, even though he still hasn't been told where he is going in the United States. He hears from two friends who went last year that life in America is good, "if you work," although one of them, he says, is still without a job.
"Everything will be okay if I can find a job and learn to speak and write," Getchew said through an interpreter.
"I leave Sudan for security," he said. "I don't care about the difficulties so long as I'm secure."
Getchew has forgotten most of the English he learned a few months ago, but he remembers he has to add eight days to the Ethiopian calendar to get the right date in the Gregorian one. His wife is just starting to speak her first words in English.
When she finishes the orientation course in April, they will be off to the United States. Upon arrival, they will be aided at first by the American Council for Nationalities Services in settling in, finding a job and getting into a school.
Then they will be on their own, like millions of other immigrants before them.