Tefere Gebre came to the United States in 1984 as a teenager. He and four friends had left their home in war-torn Ethiopia and walked nearly 500 miles across the desert to a refugee camp in Sudan. He was eventually granted asylum as a political refugee and came to the United States by himself, without parents. He settled in Los Angeles, where he learned English and became an advocate for workers' rights.
In 2008, Gebre was elected executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation. In 2013, he became the first immigrant and the first black American to serve as executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor union in the United States, representing more than twelve million workers. In 2017, he was honored as "Roving Ambassador for Peace" by the World Peace Prize Awarding Council. We spoke by telephone in early March.
Q: Please tell us about being an immigrant to the United States.
Tefere Gebre: I came like everybody else, looking for opportunity, looking for safety, looking for protection. Every one of us, as little children, fantasized about being here someday and being a part of the fabric of it--helping ourselves while helping the fabric of this country. So my story is an original immigrant story going back to the founding of this country, really.
Q: How was the process for you then, and how is it different for immigrants coming to the United States today?
Gebre: Well, in the current day, with this administration, things are scary. I came as a refugee, but now, the term refugee in this country is poisonous. People don't realize that people like Madeleine Albright and Albert Einstein were refugees. But somehow today, we have poisoned that name associating it with terrorists.
There is this notion that one immigrant is different from another immigrant. We immigrants know better, that we are all immigrants. We all came into this country looking for something. We all came into this country, not to mooch from it, but to be part of it, and to build it, and to help it, and to be an American.
To me, by definition, that's what being an American means. When I hear our national anthem, "the land of the free, the home of the brave," I don't see bombs bursting in air. I don't see war. What I see is the brave people who wanted to be free who came here and built this country, because it takes bravery to pack it up and leave. And I don't think this country can afford to not have these people here, because they are the most driven people...