Teklemichael Sahlemariam’s journey to becoming a lawyer started almost 17 years ago. Next week, after advocacy efforts that landed him in big trouble back home, his journey will end as he becomes a legal advocate at his call to the bar ceremony in Toronto.
The years since 1997, when Sahlemariam joined law school at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, have unfolded across two continents, a crowded refugee camp in Kenya, and some time spent in hiding.
A bright student with plans to become a lawyer, Sahlemariam says he had no intention of leaving his country when, in 2000, he became president of his university’s student union.
The union was “weak” when he joined it, he says, and it didn’t have the support of students who suspected there was heavy influence by university officials and the Ethiopian government.
“The unions are influenced by the government. You have to support the government to survive or at least you cannot oppose the government. You can’t do anything that annoys the government,” he says.
So when Sahlemariam and his peers started to advocate for academic freedom and freedom of expression through a campus newspaper, the authorities began to look askance. The university soon banned the newspaper for inciting illegal protests.
The move sparked outrage among students. A meeting with the Ethiopian Human Rights Council added courage to the students’ fury, says Sahlemariam, and that’s when the protests, which started at the university, spread through local high schools and universities in other parts of the country.
“Students protested the lack of academic freedom, the presence of police in university, the corruption of the administration, the incompetence of the administration, and the lack of freedom of expression,” he says.
“No assembly, no gatherings are allowed.”
But the police responded brutally, he says, as they killed 41 students in one day. They also arrested thousands of students.
“I had to escape one Tuesday night. The whole city was in chaos,” says Sahlemariam.
A concerned professor hid Sahlemariam and his friend in his car and took them to the outskirts of the city. “I heard the next day that things were out of control, people were killed. So I went to the rural area to my father’s birthplace,” Sahlemariam continues. Days went by, but “things weren’t becoming calm and I feared for my life,” he says.
But Sahlemariam says he didn’t fully appreciate the gravity of the situation until police surrounded his mother’s house in his hometown and arrested her and his brother.
“[The authorities] asked for me, but my family didn’t know where I was and they told them that but then they insisted they knew where I was.”
Police later released his family, but to Sahlemariam, their arrest was a sign of greater danger to come. “Before that, I didn’t notice how serious the crackdown was,” he says. “I decided to flee.”
With the help of smugglers, he headed south to Moyale, a border town between Ethiopia and Kenya. He would end up in a refugee camp and stay in Kenya for four years.
In April 2005, the Dunbar Heights United Church in Vancouver sponsored Sahlemariam to come to Canada. With no credit for his time at the Ethiopian university, he had to start from scratch. While attending university, he worked as a janitor and later as a security guard.
He completed his bachelor of arts degree at Royal Roads University in British Columbia and later attended the University of British Columbia’s law school. For a year and a half, he volunteered for the Ethiopian Satellite Television Service in Washington.
Sahlemariam, 37, has since obtained a master of laws degree from the University of Ottawa and, after completing his articles with a law firm in Mississauga, Ont., he’s now closing in on a dream he has had since high school.
Two of the members of the Vancouver church that sponsored Sahlemariam — he calls them “my Canadian mothers” — will travel to Toronto to attend his call to the bar ceremony on Sept. 19.
Advocacy may have gotten him in much trouble, but for Sahlemariam, advocacy through the law is “the best remedy to the wrong you see in the world.”
Sahlemariam’s articling principal, Jaswant Mangat of Mangat Law PC, says he was impressed by his student’s commitment to the legal profession despite the many hurdles he has faced. “He realized at some stage in life that there was some important role he can play to improve conditions for himself and the people around him and that led to a commitment to improve himself, though gradually,” he says.
“He was able to overcome insurmountable hurdles in his path and, eventually, he has achieved his goal.”
Lawyer Peter Smilsky, who worked alongside Sahlemariam during his articles, describes him as someone with “a very strong sense of right and wrong.”
“He’s extremely hardworking, very enthusiastic,” says Smilsky, adding Sahlemariam also knows how to crack a good joke.
“It’s not only a pleasure to work with him because of his intelligence and his integrity, but he’s fun to be around as well,” he says.
He was struck by Sahlemariam’s story. “He told me all about his four years in Kenya, and sharing a room with others and running a pool table in the street,” he says.
Now that he’s about to join the bar, Sahlemariam says he’s mostly grateful he doesn’t have to say he’s a student anymore. There’s a “social recognition” that comes with calling yourself a lawyer, he says.
“Money-making isn’t my main concern. It’s more the social recognition.”
Once he joins the bar, Sahlemariam says he wants to practise in the areas of family law, human rights, immigration, and criminal matters.
“What I noticed is that there are so many domestic violence cases in our community and almost all of the people I help do not know their rights,” he says.
In the future, he hopes to specialize in international criminal law with a mission rooted in his experiences back home.
“There are many people who commit crimes against humanity in Ethiopia. But again, they [themselves] become refugees. They come here and try to use the system, which was designed to protect their victims. The culprits are coming here and getting shelter, getting a sanctuary; they are living here with us and I want to hunt down those kinds of people.”