Changing Places 3: Mahdi Abdulbasit from Ethiopia to Egypt

Many are the reasons we change countries in the course of our lives. For the majority of us, those reasons are innocuous enough – we are drawn to different cultures, or climates, or lured by romance. And yet such life choices are sometimes far harder, as we’ll see in the case of translator and interpreter Mahdi Abdulbasit, who fled Ethiopia for Egypt in 2016.

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Up until then, Mahdi had been living in his native Adama, where he taught English at an elementary school. In his free time he hung out with friends, walking through the streets of the city at night, chewing khat and discussing personal and political affairs.


But following the central government’s imposition of a masterplan the entire surrounding Oromia region became a hotbed of unrest. The plan set out to expand the capital city, and was interpreted as a threat to Oromo farmers and culture. Protests grew, with news spreading via social media, and the situation rapidly deteriorated. Arbitrary arrests, disappearances and even politically motivated killing squads were reported.

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Now perhaps elementary school teachers aren’t the first group you’d identify when seeking sources of political agitation, but the authorities targeted the profession, believing that they were organising anti-government activities. Mahdi began to receive threatening phone calls from the police, including death threats. The sudden arrest of a colleague proved the last straw, and he decided to leave the country.


Armed with nothing but the name of a contact and 25,000 Ethiopian birr (around €500) from his bank account, Mahdi headed for the capital Addis Ababa. After a brief overnight stay, he made his way to the bus station. Two journeys later, he reached Metemma, on the Sudanese border, where he was to meet his “contact” – a smuggler. The man charged him 8,000 birr to cross the border.


With no residence permit for Sudan, Mahdi was at the mercy of the smugglers, who demanded the remaining 17,000 birr to get him across the Egyptian border into Aswan. But that was far from the end of his troubles. Chased in the street by a group of Egyptians, he and his fellow Ethiopian refugees fled to the train station, only to have his bag confiscated at gunpoint by two police officers there.


Among the bag’s contents, alongside his smartphone, was a translation into Oromo of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” that Mahdi had been working on – finishing over half the book. His pleas to keep it fell on deaf ears, and he lost his text forever. The police gave him a mere 30 Egyptian pounds (around €2) and told them to get out of there immediately and head for Cairo. Once there, they were finally able to contact another member of the smuggling ring.


Like refugees the world over, Mahdi drew on a mix of resilience and resourcefulness to begin his new life in Egypt. His Arabic isn’t perfect, but he is of course fluent in English. Besides, there is a substantial Oromo community in Cairo, and it was there that his work opportunities began to appear. He began by seeking out a teaching role, but came to know of a request for interpreters for refugees. He was called for interview, and accepted. He now works alongside legal advisers and volunteers, interpreting for the very many Ethiopians who know nothing but Oromo or Amharic.

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Smartly dressed in a spotless shirt and tie, Mahdi has settled into his professional role. Having started out doing part-time work for Saint Andrew’s refugee service (STARS), he attended a course in interpretation and translation at the American University of Cairo and now works for a variety of clients, including telephone interpreting, and makes enough money to survive. Rates are unsurprisingly low in Egypt.


It’s not an easy life, but amidst the struggle and hardship, a glimmer of light was provided by Facebook, which is where Mahdi met his wife – also a refugee – in 2018. He heard about her via a friend, made contact, and six months later they moved in together.


Under the current Ethiopian regime, Mahdi sees little chance of returning home, where his family still live. His hopes are rather set on opportunities abroad, whether in North America or Europe – a future that will depend to a large extent on the decisions of UNHCR. Rather than accepting lifelong refugee status, he dreams of living a normal life and earning a regular living. Just like the rest of us…

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This series, entitled Changing Places, is about translators who end up living in cultures very different from where they were born. This can be for a variety of reasons: sometimes they're drawn by the attractiveness of foreign climes, sometimes forced into exile. But all of them give us pause for thought on what it is to be a nomad in the 21st century...

Read more Changing Places 

Mahdi's profile is :

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Topics: freelancer, translator,, changing places

Andrew Morris

Written by Andrew Morris

Coordinator, ProZ Pro Bono

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