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Is the Saint of South L.A. for Real? 

Jeffrey Anderson investigates the turbulent world of L.A.'s flagship refugee agency and its mysterious director, Nikki Tesfai

Thursday, May 20 2004
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Photos by Anthony Allen

As hundreds of thousands of refugees fled famine and oppression in East Africa, Nikki Tesfai arrived in Los Angeles on a righteous mission: to help those who had been tortured and abused, and who, like her, escaped to the United States.

From the beginning Tesfai’s story of suffering distinguished her as much as her mission. It was a testament to an indomitable human spirit: raised by Jews in fear of persecution in Ethiopia; forced into wedlock and abused at 13; a soldier in the Eritrean struggle for independence; imprisoned and tortured by Eritrean rebels for voicing feminist views; abused yet again in a refugee camp in Sudan.

Tesfai arrived in Los Angeles in 1984, a single mother with two children. A survivor, she had managed to learn five languages and earn two master’s degrees along the way. With the help of a loan from USA for Africa, the organizers of the “We Are the World” campaign, she established the African Community Resource Center, known as ACRC, the first resettlement agency for African refugees in Los Angeles. With seemingly boundless energy, she added a third master’s degree, and later a doctorate in humanities, before founding the first battered women’s shelter for Africans in Los Angeles, and helping propel the Women’s Commission for Refugees, Women and Children in New York.

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Just two years ago Tesfai appeared destined for sainthood, capturing the eye of Oprah Winfrey, who named her “Phenomenal Woman of the Month” in January 2002. “It’s difficult for me to remember that this elegant and serene woman was once a prisoner of war and a desperate refugee herself,” wrote Irene Borger, a freelance writer who profiled Tesfai for O, the Oprah Magazine that same month. Borger was moved. “Nikki has this extraordinary ability to make friends with everyone she meets,” she recalls fondly. “It’s as if she’s a Holocaust survivor who is just so grateful to be alive.”

Yet something has happened of late. Tesfai has been looking less like Mother Teresa and more like the nonprofit sector’s worst enemy. Government audits, termination of contracts and staff attrition have gnawed at her, as happens with small nonprofits. But questions about her background have eroded confidence in Tesfai.

Since 1984, Tesfai claims that ACRC has served 52,000 refugees from 52 countries. But she is known to exaggerate. From 1990 to 2000, ACRC’s main source of referrals, the Ethiopian Community Development Council, resettled only 6,600 refugees in the entire country. The goal of resettlement is to provide refugees with transitional housing, food, clothing and health care, with an eye toward job training, education and assimilation. It requires a nose for grant opportunities and an ability to manage human and financial resources. ACRC has taken in about $4 million in mostly public funds since 1997. Yet in the last year, with few active contracts and less than a half-dozen employees who often go without pay, ACRC’s expenses have exceeded its revenue, which is just under $1 million. Whereas once Tesfai hosted workshops and community development programs, now she sees an average of 10 clients a day, most of whom come for food handouts. Her board of directors has shrunk from 15 to four. To keep the lights on, and to stave off creditors, Tesfai has said she is willing to forgo her annual salary of $85,000.

Outside of her struggling little agency on Los Angeles’ gritty South Vermont Avenue, however, Tesfai is a South-Central landlord who drives a Mercedes-Benz and lives on a shady street in Beverly Hills. Her ambitions go beyond Los Angeles. While known as a seat-of-the-pants local advocate, Tesfai turns up in Beijing or Burundi — where she is an honorary counselor to the state — or at a German castle, dining with nobility, as well as at community meetings. Yet despite her worldly aspirations, ACRC is usually broke or owes money. Some employees quit after a short time and leave feeling used and disappointed. Audits reveal gaps in service to refugees and patterns of mismanagement.

Holding her résumé up to the light and finding holes, some doubt her incredible story of suffering. They suspect she is far less a saint and more concerned with her own means and acceptance in elite circles than she is with running an effective program in Los Angeles. Several former board members and advisers have distanced themselves. “People are so angry,” says one who claims she is not alone in wondering whether they know the real Nikki Tesfai. “It’s amazing when you think about Nikki getting up in a roomful of women at the refugee conference and making us cry with her story.”

Such revelations come as a shock to Tesfai’s friends and patrons, who know her as a selfless community leader. “Everything refugees need, she provides,” Dorothy Huebel, former president of the National Council for Jewish Women and an ACRC board member, says. “If Nikki were not a woman, an immigrant and an African, people would not have withdrawn their support,” state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, a dependable advocate for the African community, says. “She ought to be getting a peace prize. She is being persecuted.”

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