Volume 6, Number 4, 1997

From Dekemhare to Delaware

For the past 18 years, Prof. Araya Debessay has begun every class he's taught at UD with the same question. A correct answer will win a free lunch, but "no one has ever been able to tell me where my native land is," Debessay says. "So, I've never lost on that bet!"

The map on the wall in his office clearly shows that Eritrea, the newest member of the United Nations and a country about the size of Pennsylvania, is bordered by the Red Sea, Sudan and Ethiopia, from which it gained independence in 1993.

Next to the map, tourist posters proclaiming "Eritrea, Three seasons in two hours" are nestled among an excellence-in-teaching award, a certificate of appreciation from the Democratic Party signed by Bill Clinton and a banner that reads "University of Asmara" in English, Arabic and Tigrinya-his native tongue.

For Debessay, an accounting professor in the College of Business and Economics, two passions-his love of teaching and his fierce loyalty to his motherland-dominate his life.

"I had nightmares before I started my first teaching position," he recalls. It was 1964 and he had just finished his junior year as a business student at Haile Selassie I University. He was assigned to spend a year of national service teaching math to 9th and 10th graders in Dekemhare, a small rural town in what was then an Eritrean province in northern Ethiopia. But, the experience inspired him. "That's when I decided that, if this is teaching, I really would like to be a teacher. It was the most enjoyable year of my life."

The 1960s were years of political unrest and student activism in Ethiopia. Student leaders were hard-core Marxists. Even though business students were called "capitalist stooges," Debessay participated in the student movement because he wanted a more democratic government.

Upon graduation, he was forced by family obligations to turn down a scholarship for further studies in the United States and to accept a position with Ethiopian Air Lines. He managed to teach a few university classes at night during the time, until a new opportunity arose to further his education, and he jumped at the chance.

"My friends asked me, 'Why would you go abroad and come back as a university lecturer making 50 percent of what you are making now?' But, the satisfaction I was getting from my teaching was more important than the high salary I was making at the airlines."

It was in the United States that Debessay became an Eritrean nationalist.

"In Ethiopia, we were not conscious of the Eritrean struggle," he recalls. Through the Ethiopian Student Association at Syracuse University, where he earned his doctorate, he learned the history of his country, how it had been deprived of independence and unilaterally annexed by Ethiopia. He and five other students, including his wife, Semret Asfaha, established a chapter of the Eritrean Student Association there.

Debessay accepted a position at UD in 1979 because, he says, of the University's location near Eritrean student associations in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York.

It was a big challenge for him to excel in his academic performance while helping the independence movement, he says. When he came to Delaware, he became head of the Philadelphia chapter of the Eritrean Students Association and served on the board of the Eritrean Relief Committee. This meant traveling to Philadelphia two or three times during the week and every weekend.

"We were fund-raising, collecting medical supplies from all the hospitals in the area to send to Eritrea, developing political education programs, getting information from the EPLF (Eritrean Peoples' Liberation Front) office in Washington, deciding which faction to support." In 1984-85, when he was chairperson, the Relief Committee raised $15 million for famine relief in Eritrea.

In addition, Debessay's wife, a member of the constitutional committee that drafted Eritrea's new constitution, was on the executive committee of the Eritrean Women's Association in North America. This meant frequent trips to that office in New York City. "This was all at our own expense," he says, "which meant not only transportation, but also, since we were usually the only ones with jobs, taking everyone in the office out to lunch on our visits to New York."

In 1989, Debessay helped found Eritreans for Peace and Democracy (EPD), a nonpolitical, nonpartisan group whose objective was to work with the U.S. Congress and executive branch. The group published booklets on the history of Eritrea, lobbied members of Congress, conducted letter-writing campaigns and participated in hearings.

EPD members also met with Isais Afewerki, then leader of the EPLF and now president of Eritrea, whenever he visited the United States. At Afewerki's request, Debessay and his colleagues at EPD helped organize a conference of scholars in 1991 to plan the kind of economic system Eritrea should adopt upon liberation.

But, the country was still at war, and the conference would have to take place in a liberated zone, literally underground.

"I was getting calls. 'Will there be an overhead projector? May I bring slides?'" he recalls, laughing. "I had to tell them that the conference was going to be in a cave, that we were going to have to travel through Sudan, at night, to get there."

The conference was scheduled for July. Eritrea was liberated in May. The scholars were able to fly directly to Asmara, the capital.

"We were on the first flight to Asmara after the liberation," he says. Debessay's paper on the securities market in Eritrea was published along with others presented at the conference in Emergent Eritrea, Challenges of Economic Development. That book, according to comments on the cover, represents a paradigm shift on the part of government officials "from a belief in the state being the key player in economic activities to a reliance on market forces as the basis of economic policy."

Since then, Debessay has returned five times to Eritrea, including a sabbatical leave in 1993 during which he taught one semester at the University of Asmara, the country's only university. It was a "rude awakening," he says.

The 50 copies of two books he took with him represented the first time students there had their own textbooks, he says. He taught the students accounting, word processing and spread sheets.

"When I told them I would meet them at 6 in the morning, they said, 'We'll be there at 5.' I have never seen such an enthusiastic group of students."

Debessay, who says his greatest satisfaction is being "an agent of some positive change," advises Asmara University on curriculum and is working to introduce a uniform accounting and financial reporting system in Eritrea. He also has helped found an association of Eritrean scholars in North America and has hosted a group of Eritrean officials on a visit to Delaware.

One of his former students, now the director of the business licensing office in Eritrea, heard him speak about Delaware's efficient incorporation policies. He told him, "We want to come and see for ourselves."

The five-member delegation met with Wilmington Mayor James Sills and visited the state offices in Dover. "It was an eye-opener for them," he says.

Eritrea has now modeled its process on Delaware's. "It may be the only place in Africa," he says, "where you can get a business license in 30 minutes."

He cites a Wall Street Journal article that calls Eritrea a "beacon of hope" in Africa. He pulls out another from Newsweek that asks, "Can this be an African nation that works?"

"It's in America's best interest to see a country that can support itself," he explains.

-Barbara Morris