The Progress of Family

By Stuart Harris


The man I only know as Zach is waiting just outside the front porch when I approach his semi-detached house. He wears the outfit of someone involved in athletic training: a grey hoodie and matching sweatpants, a half-zipped blue windbreaker, and a pair of sneakers.

“You came on time.” He smiles as we greet each other with a handshake. I am invited through his front door. He tells me not to worry about taking my shoes off as we make our way past his kitchen and dining room table to the living room. I find my place on the edge of the sofa closest to the curtained window, a Bible emblazoned with gold Amharic text lying next to me on the armrest. He grabs a chair and sits on the other side of the coffee table that separates us. Behind him is a contemporary flat-screen TV with a detached antenna, and a PS3 console that likely belongs to his son Ammanuel, who is off at elementary school. As we settle in, his wife, Meseret, descends from the second story to greet us before disappearing into the kitchen.

I thank Zach in advance for his time, and for the care he has provided for my grandfather, Tony. His work means a great deal for our family.

A simple “you’re welcome,” and then he begins.

Zeleke Guduru was 50 years old when he, his wife, and his son arrived in Canada in 2007. His English was not in the greatest of shape. The language was a teaching staple in his home country of Ethiopia, but in this new land it only served as a barrier to continuing in his profession of accounting. If his family were to settle down in Ottawa, he would have to find a means of support. On recommendations from friends, he set his sights on a career as a personal support worker. After seven months of training at Algonquin College, he found a new means to help others and himself. This was all he wanted.

He became a regular staff member at Robertson House, a nursing institution on Richmond Road serving the Bells Corners area. It is the final living quarters for many, a six-floor house where the walls are painted a light tan and the plumbing protrudes from them, the floors are carpeted, and the air is a pungent mix of sanitizer, perfume, and urine. The second floor, the wing for residents with Alzheimer’s or dementia, requires a code for access. He routinely helps these residents, showers them, dresses them, toilets them, shaves them, clips their nails, usually without thanks, sometimes with the bitterness an ailing senior cannot control. With enough repetition, however, some do recognize his work.

Zeleke has a full-time position on the third floor of Robertson House as well. Tony Antonello, my grandfather, is a resident who has always stood out in his eyes. A 92-year-old WWII veteran, he is surprisingly cogniscent, even though he suffers a mild dementia. He is rarely seen without a smile on his face, or his trademark RCAF jacket and baseball cap.

Zeleke loves Tony. Whenever he offers him assistance, Tony is more than willing to cooperate. The two share a similar big heart, and are quick to help each other as well as others who need it. Zeleke enjoys every moment he can spend with Tony, taking him for a walk or reading to him.

On one of his visits, Tony asks, “How did you get here, Zach?”

Soon, Zeleke and Tony are deep in conversation about pre-WWII Italian forces and the Horn of Africa.

In the late 1800s, the Italian invasion of Eritrea, a country bordering the north side of Ethiopia, marked a new age of war and civil unrest for both African countries. Prior to WWII, starting in 1935, Italian forces made their push into Ethiopian territory. The Ethiopian military fought back and took up arms with them in the Eritrean stronghold, now a province of Italian East Africa. After the Italians were finally expelled by Commonwealth armed forces in 1941, the fate of Eritrea was left in the balance. The British administered the territory until 1951, and one year later it was annexed by Ethiopia under the forceful rule of Haile Selassie I. Ethiopia’s disregard for the Eritrean population led to the formation of an Eritrean independence movement, which sparked a 30-year-long conflict with a succession of Ethiopian governments.

When Zeleke was still a student, living with his family in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa, the monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie I was uprooted by a military junta known as the Derg in 1974. This marked the beginning of an Ethiopian civil war, and the largest centre of the resistance was the province of Eritrea.

It was a period of utter turmoil for Ethiopia. From 1977 to 1978, the Derg’s Red Terror purged an estimated 30,000 to 500,000 people, many suspected as enemies of the new rule. Brutal resettlement of the Ethiopian people began in the 1980s. Shortly after, a hard period of drought and famine affected roughly eight million civilians, killing one million and forcing many more to relocate to surrounding Somalia or Sudan. The clash of Eritrean forces for independence continued against the junta.

In 1981, Zeleke was 25 years old, working as a junior accountant on UN government state farmland. He decided to quit Ethiopia for the sake of his own survival. It was disheartening for him to leave his parents and seven siblings behind, a family that he would have to pay travel money to see again today, setting out into an uncertain future, alone. In the unity of other strangers, deportees, and emigrants, he travelled by bus beyond the border of neighbouring Somalia.

He was greeted with another turbulent power struggle. Numerous tribes, many with physical arms and each with their own ideas of how to rule Somalia, fought tirelessly in a futile battle for supremacy.

Zeleke only stayed in Somalia for seven months. The refugee camp that the UN tried to maintain was disorganized and broken in the conflict that took place. When he had nowhere else to go for shelter, he stayed at a corner teashop he frequented some nights, a small establishment constructed from chip wood and a simple tarp for a roof. He would lay down a bed of cartons to sleep on. He did not know the owner well, but he was allowed to stay at the shop so long as he cleaned up after himself, which he always made sure to do.

Life could not continue like this, and Zeleke had one other option. He had heard stories of emigrants who had made their way to Yemen via the Gulf of Aden. It would be a risky proposition, but he had saved enough money to pay the illegal ferry to get him there.

Between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean lies the wide, connecting channel of the Gulf of Aden (when Zach tells me this, it sounds like “Eden”). On the other side of the channel lies Yemen, where the southern border is on high alert, keeping their eyes open for smugglers of illegal immigrants who might boat across. A person who wanted to go unnoticed would have to make the journey across under the veil of night.

At the northern border of Somalia, Zeleke paid the ferryman 100 American dollars.

The boats they used were old and rather small, certainly not big enough to cram 200 men, women, and children bound to settle in a more peaceful land. Each and every person who could hold a bucket was given one.

The night of Zeleke’s first venture across the channel, the waters churned and rocked without remorse. Waves higher than two-story rooftops, veritable walls of water, smashed and heaved against the tiny boat where so many were bundled together, cold and seasick. Many began to vomit. Women were in tears, huddling to protect their children. The tiny vessel was perpetually on the verge of capsizing or sinking from the constant influx of water, and passengers had no time to rest in bailing out as much as they could with their buckets.

The ride only lasted an hour. The ferryman realized that it was too dangerous to continue trying to make headway, and the boat was forced to turn back to the shores of Somalia to cross on another night.

It would be another 15 days in Somalia before Zeleke would get another opportunity to cross. The second attempt was nothing like the first. The water was much more calm and welcoming, and the night was still. Within twenty-four hours, he had reached the southern shores of Yemen. From there, he would settle in Aden.

Compared to the hostilities in Ethiopia and Somalia at the time, Aden was a relatively peaceful city on the southern border of Yemen. It was an established British colony, and there was much less violence.

Zeleke was finally able to find a steady home there, sharing a small apartment space with  roommates. To keep up his rent, however, he still had to work tirelessly. He worked days and nights as a hotel receptionist, earning about 50 dollars every month. This was only just enough money to pay his rent.

When he entered Aden, he was broke. He had spent whatever money he had on the ferry. Thankfully, the UN was able to supplement his resources every month with a litre of oil and 50 kilograms of flour, but it still wasn’t very much.

Zeleke joined the Anglican Church after arriving in Aden. There, he met the woman who would be his wife, Meseret, who had flown into Yemen directly from Ethiopia. The two were married in the church, and their son, Ammanuel, was born soon after. (As he explains this to me, Meseret goes to fetch the wedding photos that preserved this point in their lives. She discovers that not the whole album survived the move into their new home, but she did salvage a small stack of the colour prints that were left. A number of them depicted the common image of the bride and groom, he in black suit and she in white wedding gown, hand in hand, smiling. They stood against a backdrop of exotic floral greens.)

Zeleke’s new family lived a total of 13 years in Yemen. Meseret’s sister, a member of their church in Canada, would sponsor them to immigrate to Canada.

The job of a personal support worker is difficult and tiring. Often there is a disconnect between the person who provides care and the resident who is being cared for, each unaware of the experiences of the other. But Zeleke respects these residents. He understands that, someday, he may find himself in their place.

Under his care, Tony is alert and aware, traits that Zeleke has always admired about the man. During their reading sessions, Tony is able to read without the aid of glasses and retain what he has picked up from the page. Whenever Zeleke asks if he is feeling tired, he typically responds “no”.  Zeleke does his best to reflect this simple statement of will, and in this way the two help each other.

On one of his visits, in 2011, Tony asks, “When was the last time you saw your mother, Zach?” And Zeleke tells him that he hasn’t seen his family since he left Ethiopia, when his pilgrimage began.

Just as Zeleke wants nothing more than to help Tony, Tony wants nothing more than to help Zach. He provides Zach with funding to travel. After our family finalizes the arrangements, Zach receives the opportunity to reunite with the family he left behind in Ethiopia, something he is forever grateful for.

It is the first time he has seen his family in 17 years. 

When Zach finishes his story, I thank him again for his time. He insists that I stay for a bite to eat. I tell him that I appreciate the gesture, but that I had already eaten before I came to visit. Still, he wishes for me to stay. He is just like Tony; if it means he can provide help or hospitality, he won’t take no for an answer.

He gestures for me to take a seat at the dining room table, and I oblige without another thought. Meseret emerges from the kitchen with our meal and joins us. She puts a small salad bowl on the table, which is then dwarfed by a spaghetti casserole with a toasted cheese layer, baked in an oven pan the size of a large drum. This is followed by a saucer of butter, and a loaf of bread so thick that it could be used as a weapon once it goes stale.

Zach and Meseret bow their heads to say grace, and I join in. The words that come out of Zach’s mouth are completely alien to me. I realize he must be speaking in Amharic, his mother tongue. When he is finished, we pick up our forks to eat, and for a short time, we are silent. I inquire about the prayer.

“I am thanking God for the food on this table,” he says to me. “And that I might have this opportunity to meet my family.”

When he says this, he is looking directly at me.