Here to escape war, award-winning artist works to smile

Abraham Tesfelaise, with his painting "Beautiful Dream" at the Downtown YMCA. (Photo by Colleen McDevitt)

For Eritrean refugee Abraham Tesfelaise the two things most teenagers dread, high school and going to the dentist, are the stuff of dreams. 

The gleaming spires of a futuristic Seattle rise against a giant sun while a tiny turquoise boat — with the curved sail of an East African dhow — bobs alone in a liquid orange Elliott Bay.

The sun is so big, because my dreams are so big,” says Abraham Tesfelaise, the 20-year-old artist of “Beautiful Dream,” a painting currently on display at the Metrocenter YMCA.

“I am the little boat. It’s a big city and I’m just a little kid.”

Tesfelaise arrived in Seattle just over a year ago. His family is originally from Eritrea, where they owned bicycle shops in the capital, Asmara. But Tesfelaise says the Eritrean-Ethiopian War of the late ’90s “changed everything.”

In the decade that followed that conflict, he says, the country’s economy suffered and the government closed one of the family bicycle shops. Even worse, Tesfelaise faced compulsory military service — something he dreaded.

So his family decided to leave and, after a few years living as refugees in Cairo and Khartoum, ended up in Seattle.

Tesfelaise was 19 when he arrived, and says he felt pressure to immediately get a job to help support his mom and four younger siblings. But instead he fought to attend at least one year of high school, wanting to practice his English and get a diploma.

“It was my dream to do a little high school.” He says shyly, “I wanted to experience living in the U.S.”

Tesfelaise's self portrait, which won the Congressional Art Competition, and is now on display at the US Capital in Washington DC. (Photo by Colleen McDevitt)
Tesfelaise’s self portrait, which won the Congressional Art Competition, and is now on display at the US Capital in Washington DC. (Photo by Colleen McDevitt)

That’s how Tesfelaise ended up in Carolyn Autenrieth’s art class at Chief Sealth International High School in West Seattle.

Right away, with his first couple of drawings, I could tell this kid’s got a talent,” says Autenrieth.

And she wasn’t the only one.

A self-portrait Tesfelaise painted for his senior project recently was selected as a winner in the Congressional Art Competition, which honors talent from each congressional district in the country. The painting will be displayed for a year in the U.S. Capitol, and next week he and his brother will be flown to D.C. to see it there.

“He paints things that are relevant to him as a young man coming to the U.S. and trying to find hope,” says Autenrieth.

That sense of struggle is evident in Tesfelaise’s paintings. His cityscape depicts a shining Seattle full of possibility, but he is a tiny sailboat alone and far from the city’s borders.

Similarly, his self-portrait shows his young and serious face half in light and half cast in shadow.

His teacher encouraged him to smile in the photo that inspired the winning painting but he refused, saying he didn’t want a portrait that revealed whether he was happy or sad.

But there might have been another reason why he didn’t want to smile.

Tesfelaise faces many of the challenges of a new immigrant — learning the language, navigating a foreign system, supporting his family — but it’s his need for extensive dental work that frustrates him most.

He suffers bleeding gums and chronic headaches as a result of irregular dental care during those years as a refugee. He’s also lost a number of back molars and can chew only on one side of his mouth.

But those are just the physical symptoms.

Your teeth are very important. … If you want to talk to people if you want to smile and have a good life,” he says, his long fingers gesturing across a high cheekbone. “It’s kind of hard to talk when your gums are bleeding.”

Dentists have told Tesfelaise that he needs braces, implants and regular cleanings to relieve his pain and correct his teeth, treatment that would cost almost $10,000 — an overwhelming amount for a young man just trying to gain his footing in a new country.

But Tesfelaise hopes that art again might come to the rescue. He’s raising money for dental procedures through an online campaign sponsored by the YMCA and selling his paintings, now showing at the downtown Y’s “Immigration Art Gallery.” So far, he’s raised about $600.

Most of the paintings have gone for between $20 and $100.

But “Beautiful Dream” remains unsold. It took him months to make and he loves it, though he says he’s willing to part with it, for the sake of his teeth, at the right price.

Abraham Tesfelaise’s art is currently for sale at the Metrocenter YMCA. His online fundraising campaign can be found at:

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at
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