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Some in the media never inquired beyond Tesfai’s inner circle. Freelance writer Sharon Boorstin profiled Tesfai for the Los Angeles Times in 2002 and wrote a personalized version for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles the same year, in addition to a story for Jewish Woman International. “Suddenly, instead of being journalist and subject, we are two Jews sharing our fears about anti-Semitism and the fate of the world,” Boorstin wrote in The Jewish Journal. “Nikki is the real thing,” Boorstin says when contacted. “If anyone has anything bad to say about her, it’s news to me.” Judith Stone, editor of O, adds, “Allegations of mismanagement among nonprofits don’t surprise me, but questions of Nikki’s character? I find it hard to believe.”
Somewhere in between Tesfai’s fans and detractors are those who see an enigmatic woman with a story — but not necessarily the one who has been published in newspapers and magazines, later to be mythologized in song. “Nikki comes to work at 6 a.m. and doesn’t come out of her office until 10 p.m.,” a former employee says. “But nobody knows what she does. Is she a lousy businesswoman or a befuddled refugee? Or is she an international woman of mystery? I’m just dying to know the truth.”
With such questions hovering and ACRC’s future in jeopardy, Tesfai agreed to an interview at her office one Saturday in March, along with her lawyer, semiretired real estate attorney Martin Perel, an ACRC board member. She limited her discussion to ACRC’s financial problems, however, explaining that they stem from diminished federal funding for refugee services, aggravated by stiff immigration policies. “If they would allow more African refugees into the country, we would have more money as a program to serve the community,” she says.
Despite her pleas of hardship, questions regarding both Tesfai’s life and her management of ACRC have persisted in the refugee community. “There are a lot of myths about me,” she says by telephone one day in April. “I am a very private person.” After resisting requests for further comment, Tesfai last Saturday took questions, again with Perel by her side. But her willingness to speak is hindered by lack of memory and reticence to discuss what she regards as traumatic moments from her past. Charming and attractive, she is defensive at times and remains grimly determined to face the turmoil in the agency she founded 20 years ago.
“The last eight months have been so hard,” she says of the debt and controversy that hang like a dark cloud. “I could just close this place and go. But this is in my heart, helping people.” Tesfai is calm in her conviction that she has done nothing and no one wrong. “Maybe people want me to stop, but I’m not going to,” she says. “I will do this until the day I die.”
So just who is Nikki Tesfai, or Nigisti Tesfai, or Nigiistiazeb Tesfai — and why all the memory loss? Answers seem to be a matter of perception, with the details as elusive as Tesfai herself.
According to various and at times conflicting accounts, she was born in Eritrea in 1953 and raised in Ethiopia by Jews who attended the Coptic Christian Church but privately celebrated Yom Kippur. She attended the University of Frebourg, a Catholic school in Switzerland, and graduated from Union University, a Baptist college in Tennessee, in 1976, with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. In the late 1970s she returned to Africa to fight for Eritrean independence, but Eritrean freedom fighters imprisoned and tortured her for speaking out about women’s rights. Then there is her legendary escape from prison to a refugee camp in Sudan, where she suffered further abuse. Another escape, and she eventually made it to the United States with a fellow Eritrean, whom she married, and the couple’s two sons. After several years in Houston, during which Tesfai claims her husband became abusive, she left him and came to Los Angeles, in 1984.
“When I write a book about my life, it will be called Escape,” Tesfai told O in 2002. “In my life there have been so many escapes.” On this Saturday, however, Tesfai wears a blank expression as her biography is read to her. “Let me bury my past,” she says. “I am just a poor refugee person.”
Such larger-than-life stories have a powerful effect on people. For recording artist Danielle Lo Presti, who was reading O while using the Stairmaster at the gym one day in 2002, it was an epiphany. “I needed an inspiration for my next album that was absolutely undeniably representative of the power of human perseverance,” Lo Presti says by telephone recently. In May 2002, Lo Presti released “22 Mountains” as the title track to her second album and dedicated it to Tesfai — her journey becoming a metaphor for undying courage. When she plays the song live, Lo Presti introduces it by telling audiences that, “Due to accepted practices in her native African village, and her family’s desperate need for money, Tesfai was arranged into marriage without her consent at the age of 14.”