VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – From surviving the violence of Ethiopia’s civil war, to dealing drugs on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, he has spent a lifetime trying to outrun his past.
NEWS 1130’s series of Courage To Come Back profiles continues with a look at the recipient in the Addiction category.
Jemal Demtawe was born in Ethiopia in 1969. Five years later, came the start of a 17-year civil war that would leave more than a million people in his country dead.
His life changed forever one day while he and some friends were walking to school.
“We [were] surprised by military. [They] just come, surround us, and then, [a] few guys, they tried to run, and then they just shot them,” he recalls.
He was just 15 when he was forced into becoming a child soldier.
Young Jemal witnessed untold horrors that left permanent scars.
“Emotional and physical,” he says.
“I cried for a while but then I stopped because… you have to be strong… and survive.”
He and he fellow child soldiers decided to swim to make their escape.
“Seeing [the] killing [of] people, [to] see this war is just like, ‘We need to get out of here. We need to do something.'”
He tried to help two of them swim across a waterway, but not everyone would make it.
“So, I watched those two guys [die] in front of me. I [didn’t] have any choice.”
He eventually broke free, and after a couple of attempts to stowaway to North America, he found himself in Montreal.
Suddenly, he had a wife, a baby girl, and was running his own restaurant.
However, keeping the demons away wouldn’t be so easy. Soon he would take to drinking, until he couldn’t stop.
“I can’t stop. I don’t know how. I just choose alcohol. And then, the more I [stayed] there, the more I be in danger for my daughter, especially.”
He would leave Montreal, find himself dealing drugs in Portland, Oregon, and then would wind up on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where his drinking, drugging, and dealing continued.
“Because I’m good at it! I’m good at hustling. I’m good at dealing. And then I start sleeping outside and I start doing business what I used to. That’s what I’m good at!”
The overdose of a friend shook him to his core and would lead him to the Union Gospel Mission and its recovery programs.
“I was outside and was crying and I was like, ‘I need this program, otherwise I’m going to die,” he admits.
Ten years sober as of last Christmas, Jemal is now an outreach worker at the UGM as well as an ordained minister.
He hopes his Courage To Come Back Award will inspire others to find the strength to transform their lives.
“A lot of people are still struggling, like I used to struggle. They need to hear that story. We can help you come out from that darkness, where I used to be before. That’s the message I want to give to the people [who] listen to my story.”
“There is hope. If you’re willing to be changed.”
NEWS 1130 is a proud sponsor of the Courage To Come Back Awards, which will be handed out Thursday May 5th at the Vancouver Convention Centre.