Hagos Tsadik, center, participates in a protest about the situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia at the Beach to Beacon award ceremony on Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For the last two years Tsegaye Ghirmay has worried constantly about his wife, Grmanesh, and their daughter Saba, stuck in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where civil war has cut off transportation, communication and banking and wrought widespread famine and violence.

“I just haven’t lived for a couple years,” said Ghirmay, 34, of Westbrook. “I used to hang out with friends, now I don’t see them unless we have an event. I never go anywhere or hang out with them. I just go work.”

Ghirmay is from Tigray, the northernmost regional state of Ethiopia, where the civil war has raged since 2020. Researchers have estimated as many as 500,000 people have died from war-related causes since the conflict began.

Maine’s Ethiopian population is small. For those with ties to the Tigray region, the war has been devastating to watch from afar, without many others around who understand. They rarely hear from family and loved ones, they can offer them little assistance, and they wish the U.S. government could do more to help.

“We’re just so frustrated. Even if you want to help out your own family, you can’t even do that,” said Misrak Adane of Portland, who is from Tigray and has family there. “Imagine not having food and water and medicine and the ability to access your own money from the bank.”



The conflict began in November 2020, when Ethiopian federal forces led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, along with the Amhara Regional State Militia and the army of neighboring Eritrea, attacked the Tigray region in an effort to oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the region’s prevailing political party.

Rebel fighters from Tigray fought back, and the government declared a state of emergency last fall as the rebels made their way to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

Tsegaye Ghirmay and his father Solomon Teklu in the park near Ghirmay’s home on Wednesday, August 3, 2022. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Representatives from the European Union and the U.S. Special Envoys for the Horn of Africa visited Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, last week to encourage peace talks between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

The envoys pushed to restore essential services including electricity, telecom and banking in Tigray and called for unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray and the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions, along with the lifting of restrictions on cash, fuel and fertilizers and improved coordination to help ensure effective aid distribution.


Not knowing if your family is safe is one of the hardest things for Ghirmay and other Ethiopians from Tigray, both in Maine and around the country.


Telecommunication and electricity are “largely unavailable” in the Tigray region and other areas affected by the civil war, according to a recent State Department travel advisory that tells people not to travel to the area.

Hagos Tsadik, a native of Tigray who now lives in Cape Elizabeth, said he hasn’t been able to talk to several of his brothers and sisters since the war started, though he has learned something about conditions in Ethiopia from nonprofits operating on the ground there.

“They devastated the region,” Tsadik, 61, said of Ethiopia’s government. “They looted. They destroyed all infrastructure. They broke down all the agriculture. … They looted all their grains – and when they left, they dumped it on the ground, leaving them without food or anything.”

Tsegaye Ghirmay at his home in Westbrook last week. Girmay has not been able to get his wife and 2-year-old daughter, who he has never met, out of the Tigray region of Ethiopia where there is an ongoing civil war. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The advisory also notes that these problems make it difficult for the U.S. Embassy to offer services to U.S. citizens.

Ghirmay is a U.S. citizen who came to the country in his early 20s, hoping for better opportunities and because he had a cousin in Maine. He now works in parking at Maine Medical Center and lives in a modest house in Westbrook with his father, Solomon Teklu, 74, who is also from Tigray. Ghirmay would like to return despite its troubles, but has been unable to because of COVID-19 and then the war.

Ghirmay’s wife, whom he met on a visit to Ethiopia in 2018, is not a U.S. citizen and she has been trying to obtain a visa and the necessary documents to get to America with their daughter.


COVID-19 first slowed down processing of the paperwork, and then the war hit and caused further delays, Ghirmay said.

Ghirmay doesn’t get to hear from his wife often, but he did get the news recently that she had finally obtained an appointment at the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa that he hopes will allow her to get the visa. But first, she had to get to the appointment.

“There’s no transportation. There’s no flights,” Ghirmay said.


Tsadik, Adane and others have tried to raise awareness about the war and have been involved in public protests since it began. But they feel the world isn’t paying much attention. The telecommunications blackout and the federal government’s sharp crackdown on journalists haven’t helped.

“I feel like nobody’s helping. It’s as if we don’t exist. …” said Adane, 38. “I feel like the world could be doing more to help out and stop the war. We just want to stop the war so people can function again.”


Some of Adane’s relatives have been able to escape to neighboring Sudan, but she has no idea how others are doing. She wants to send money to help, but it’s not possible. “We don’t have any contact because the phone is not working over there and the bank system is not working either,” she said.

Ghirmay said he has contacted members of Maine’s congressional delegation seeking help with getting his wife and daughter out of Tigray.

Tsegaye Ghirmay holds a photo of his daughter, Saba, as a newborn at his home on Wednesday, August 3, 2022. Girmay has never met his now two-year-old daughter, still in the Tigray region of Ethiopia where there is an ongoing civil war. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

On Friday, staff at the offices of U.S. Sen. Angus King and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said they’ve been in touch with him and were working toward a resolution.

“The conflict in Ethiopia between the Abiy Ahmed-led government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front is deeply troubling,” King said in a statement.

The statement said he supports the Biden administration’s work to restrict economic and security assistance to Ethiopia, with exceptions for humanitarian aid so vulnerable people can access healthcare, education and food – and that as of September, $600 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance had been allocated to address the conflict in Tigray.

King supported a resolution that passed unanimously in the Senate last year calling on all parties involved in the conflict to cease hostilities, protect human rights and allow unfettered humanitarian access.


Sen. Susan Collins, a co-sponsor of the resolution, said Friday that she is continuing to urge all sides in the conflict to commit to peace talks and to take necessary actions to ensure humanitarian assistance and basic services are able to reach people in Tigray.

“The violence in Ethiopia has tragically led to the displacement of millions of people and exacerbated the food insecurity faced by many across Ethiopia,” Collins said in a statement, adding that her office is providing assistance to U.S. citizens with Ethiopian ties who are helping relatives leave the region.

A spokesperson for Pingree’s office said she also has supported humanitarian assistance and funding for efforts to facilitate a political dialogue to end the conflict, uphold civil society, protect human rights and ensure unimpeded access to humanitarian assistance.

At Ghirmay’s home in Westbrook, he has photos of an infant Saba in her mother’s arms and snuggled into a mess of blankets on display in the dining and family rooms.

That is the closest he can get to spending time with her. He has never met her. Ghirmay and his wife married in Ethiopia in 2019 and he returned to the United States before Saba was born.

He worries all the time about how she’s doing, if she’s healthy, if she has enough food to eat.

“It’s stressful,” Ghirmay said. “Plus COVID. Everything just makes you unhappy. I just work and come back home. I never think to go outside or to do something. I just come home and try to sleep, but I’m not sleeping.”

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