Abede Yimenu, a former major in the Ethiopian army, said he is also thinking of going home after having been away for 17 years.
The 57-year-old from Dallas was in the District of Columbia with three friends from his days in the Ethiopian military, all clad in army uniforms, complete with black sunglasses. After fighting together in the Eritrean-Ethiopian War of 1998 to 2000, they left
for the United States, unhappy with the oppression imposed by their government, Yimenu said.
"This uniform," he said, tapping his red beret. "It shows that we believe in this prime minister, and that we still love our country, and that we still need to serve our country."
Inside the convention center, the crowd spent the hours before Abiy's arrival dancing, waving Ethiopian and Eritrean flags, and engaging in ululation, called ililta. For many, this is the first time they are seeing so many Ethiopians in a single place, save
for being in the country itself.
About 2:45 p.m., Abiy walked onto stage in a white, glossy suit with gold accents, and the room exploded in cheers. Nearly everyone stood on their chairs, and many stayed there until they were told to sit.
Religious leaders began the rally with prayers, praising Abiy and celebrating the future of the country. District Mayor Muriel Bowser also addressed the crowd, declaring July 28 "Ethiopia Day" to rapturous applause.
Abiy spoke primarily about unity, telling the audience that "our ancestors were wrong about having division." He called on members of the diaspora to invest in Ethiopia and to return home - a message that seemed especially resonant for older members of the
Saba Gizau, a 58-year-old grandmother from Maryland, said that after two decades away from Ethiopia, she is ready to go back. Gizau, who had been at the convention center since 4 a.m. with her 56-year-old sister, works in sales at a Nordstrom department store
and said she wants to impart what she knows about business to Ethiopians back home.
"He invited us to come back to Ethiopia and help the country," she said after Abiy's speech, her eyes welling with tears. "He invited us, and I will be there."