Family, friends mourning after Austin community leader is killed in Ethiopia

Chol Okey Opiew (left) and his children
Chol Okey Opiew (left) was a father of six who in addition to working several jobs, helped form the African Asian Refugee Services Agency several years ago to assist refugees when they arrive in Austin, Minn. Opiew was killed on Wednesday while visiting his sick father in Ethiopia.
Courtesy of Dan Mueller

Family and friends are mourning the death of a community leader in Austin, Minn., who was killed this week while visiting his father in Ethiopia.

Chol Okey Opiew, 42, was a father of six who in addition to working several jobs, helped form the African Asian Refugee Services Agency several years ago to assist refugees when they arrive in Austin.

Opiew was born in South Sudan and at age 20 immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia. He was an interpreter for families in Austin schools, and in 2018 he earned a political science degree from Winona State University.

"My dad was a really hard-working person. He did everything he could to provide and help people," his son Ochain Okey, 21, told MPR News on Friday. "I'm in disbelief as to why this would even happen. ... He wouldn't even hurt a person, ever. He wouldn't dare think about it."

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Opiew died on Wednesday. A suspect is in custody in connection his death, the family said. It's not connected to the ongoing conflict elsewhere in Ethiopia.

Okey said that he wants people to remember his father "for his hard work, his love for his family and his smile."

Ojoye Akane and Pastor Dan Mueller were friends with Opiew, and worked with him through the African Asian Refugee Services Agency to help meet the needs of refugees in the Austin area.

"It has been a shock," Akane said of learning of his friend's death. "I've never shed tears, in so many years. But this time, I could not control myself. It was personal to me."

Chol Okey Opiew (center)
Chol Okey Opiew (center) was a longtime resident of Austin, Minn., who visited local congregations and worked to improve the lives of refugees in the community.
Courtesy of Dan Mueller

Akane said he, Opiew and others involved with the group wanted to “make the resettlement process a little bit easier. It's like refugees trying to help refugees, that's what we were trying to do, as it is done in other cities, in Minneapolis and other places. … We continued to work to improve our community, so that newcomers will not ... have the cultural shock that we experienced when we came to the U.S.”

Mueller recalled Opiew as "one of those people that just brought joy to other people. Because he was easy to be seen. He was very tall and had the biggest smile on his face all the time, even when life was difficult. He had a smile, he said, because you can change the world with a smile, you can unite people with a smile."

"And that was, as he went home to care for his dad, the goal — of making life better back at home and then empowering people to ... get people back farming, get people back working, back to their villages, out of the refugee camps, and to make a better future."

Ochain Okey remembered how his father “would always stress the importance of education, and learning and giving back.” And Mueller said Opiew wanted all kids in the community to be as successful as his own children, and to be able to access resources to improve their futures.

"Chol was one of those people leading the way, guiding and empowering people in that direction. And so it's a big loss in our community here. And also, you know, throughout the U.S. and in back in Africa," Mueller said.

"There's very few people in our community, or even in the world, (who) can dedicate his life, leaving his comfort, leaving his family, going out of his way to help his community, help his family back home," Akane said. "To face this is just — it's unbelievable."

"It's challenging, but I hope people get inspired by his life and do greater things, greater good, beyond their own personal family needs," Akane said. "Always believe that, like Chol, that we are here in the U.S., not only to serve our own families, but also to be a blessing to communities back home."

Services for Opiew are pending. A GoFundMe page is raising money for the family, to help cover funeral expenses.

“He was a great example of uniting cultures and saying, 'We all want to be better together.' And so he lived that,” Mueller said of his friend. “And that's what we need more of in today's world. So it's hard to lose someone that did that so well."