In the race to represent New York’s 16th Congressional District, 34-year-old Andom Ghebreghiorgis is one of the candidates challenging incumbent Eliot Engel, hoping to win the Democratic primary on June 23, 2020. Currently, in his 31st year in Congress, Engel has been in power for nearly the entirety of Ghebreghiorgis’ life, voting for costly wars.
Ghebreghiorgis tells ESSENCE this is detrimental to the people of the 16th District, as well as people all over the world. “We’re spending trillions of dollars on war instead of directing those resources towards working people, particularly people of color, who’ve been underserved and disinvested for a long time,” he says.
President Donald Trump seems to itch with want for an unnecessary and dangerous war with Iran, but so many Americans have a vision of peace and creation, not one of endless conflict and destruction.
And Ghebreghiorgis, aYale graduate, former special education teacher, and son of revolutionary Eritrean immigrants, has this vision for the 16th District, for New York, and for the nation.
Ghebreghiorgis doesn’t come from generational wealth, he isn’t backed by special interest groups, and he hasn’t yet attained the kinds of endorsements that result in a flood of resources towards his campaign.
But he has an overwhelming amount of support from his community, particularly his former students, who often canvass with Ghebreghiorgis.
Their support makes him emotional, Ghebreghiorgis tells ESSENCE, partly because his students are what inspired him to run in the first place.
“I ended up becoming a special education teacher because I wanted to work in my community, in a school system which was lacking teachers of color, particularly men of color,” Ghebreghiorgis says. As a teacher, he saw how much the system was failing, creating dehumanizing and “punitive” environments for young children.
“I saw myself being an educator and activist for most of my professional career,” Ghebreghiorgis tells ESSENCE. “But seeing the reality of what was at stake in the district and re-imagining the possibility of what our district would look like if we had more resources — that really helped me make the leap.”
After his former students help out with canvassing, they’ll all go out for pizza and sometimes, they’ll play a game of flag football, where Ghebreghiorgis always covers his hair with a durag, a scarf that’s inextricably linked with Blackness and therefore demonized. He laughs and says, “I have a goal of becoming the first politician to demystify the durag.”
During these periods of rest and fun, Ghebreghiorgis often talks with his former students about their lives and their hopes for college and the future. For many of them, this will be their first time voting in an election.
There is joy and hope in this grassroots campaign, but there’s also grave concern about the future of this country and the impact that the upcoming elections have on that future.
Ghebreghiorgis understands the stakes particularly well, as he was raised by who he lovingly calls “bad-ass, revolutionary parents,” who immigrated from Eritrea (Ethiopia at the time) to the United States in the early 1970s.
Both his parents were 13 years old when Eritrea was annexed by the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. They became politically active in the fight for independence as college students in America, organizing with ENASA (Eritreans in North America Students Association). Eritrea is now independent from Ethiopia, but ruled by the dictator President Isaias Afewerki, the people have yet to gain their freedom.
Ghebreghiorgis remains rooted in the Eritrean and Ethiopian community. “Saying community is important, I mean, that’s an understatement,” Ghebreghiorgis tells ESSENCE. “Community is survival. It was for my parents as young immigrants to a new land, and it is for me.”
Growing up, Ghebreghiorgis was “surrounded by talks about revolution, liberation, and freedom,” causing his own political philosophy to be firmly anti-war and anti-imperialist.
As a candidate, Ghebreghiorgis’ foreign policy proposals are a far cry from Engel’s own hawkish record. Ghebreghiorgis has said he will work to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and end the U.S. airstrikes on Somalia that have killed civilians. He’s vowed to join the fight to close extralegal detention camps like Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners are held without trial and were often tortured. He wants to support the closure of most military bases abroad (there are currently about 800 military bases in 80 countries) and cut $450 billion from our bloated defense budget.
“This spending is not helping poor people around the world and it’s certainly not helping us,” Ghebreghiorgis says.
And he’s committed to rejoining the Iran Nuclear Deal (which Engel opposed in 2015) and helping to stop any further escalation.
And while Engel’s Israel-Palestine record has consistently undermined the rights of the Palestinian people, Andom is a supporter of the controversial BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Movement. The BDS Movement calls for the immediate end to the Israeli Occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people, and urges countries and individuals to cease engaging with Israel until Palestinians get their freedom and their rights.
Ghebreghiorgis’ commitment to the BDS Movement stems from the lessons he learned from his parents, lessons which urge him to stand in solidarity with oppressed people all over the world, no matter how controversial or inconvenient.
For Ghebreghiorgis, focusing on ending American imperialism is critical to both the nation’s survival and the survival of people around the globe. His climate policy, which his website describes as “ecosocialist, democratic, and anti-militaristic” is predicated on support for The Green New Deal. He advocates for “a platform that looks at the Green New Deal from a global perspective and international solidarity — not only with countries which are not industrialized — but also with workers around the world.”
Ghebreghiorgis isn’t the only candidate challenging Engel. There’s also Jamaal Bowman, a progressive educator endorsed by the Justice Democrats. Engel has held the district for three decades, but these challenges are an example of the changing tide, a tide many credit with the rise of politicians like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
This race is about resisting uncontested, unceded power in Congress. It’s about opening the door to allow candidates with fresh perspectives, incisive analysis, and radical compassion to make the changes they know must occur.
So many Americans want an end to wars. They want investment in education, they want healthcare, they want foreign policy that is shaped by those who lived it. They want diverse candidates like Ghebreghiorgis, who show up as their authentic selves, resisting a white, imperialist gaze.