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Family, friends mourn Austin, Minn., community leader killed in Ethiopia

Chol Okey Opiew was killed Nov. 24 in Ethiopia. A GoFundMe page has been started by his children to help cover funeral expenses.

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Ochain Okey Opiew left, and his siblings Okey, 18, Cham, 17, Opiew, Awillie, 13, and Mary, 8, stand for a portrait Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Austin. Their father Chol Okey Opiew was murdered Wednesday, November 24th in Pinyudo, Ethiopia. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott
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AUSTIN, Minn. -- The Austin, Minnesota, community is mourning one of its members who was killed Wednesday in Ethiopia.

Chol Okey Opiew, 42, is remembered as a caring father of six who was full of joy and always had a big smile on his face.

Okey Opiew came to the U.S. as a 20-year-old refugee more than two decades ago. He built a life in southern Minnesota, caring for his family and earning a college degree while helping fellow East Africans and other refugees in Austin and abroad.

The family patriarch had been in Ethiopia caring for his own father when he was “brutally murdered” on Wednesday, Nov. 24, according to a GoFundMe page started by the family to cover funeral costs.

The motive for the murder is unknown, but the government in Pinyudo, Ethiopia, is investigating, and a suspect is in custody, the GoFundMe page states.

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Chol and Mary
Chol Okey Opiew and his daughter Mary help pack food for Real Hope for the Hungry in this undated photo. (Dan Mueller, Submitted Photo)

"Chol was an overwhelmingly passionate person that was so dedicated to the things that he believed in and helping empower others to be successful in the community," said Dan Mueller, a friend and executive director of African Asian Refugee Services Agency (ARSA). "He was the one that when he got excited about something, 'Let’s get something done. What can we do? We need to go help people.' We spent a lot of time going to the people; not a lot of people came to us."

On Friday, Nov. 26, Okey Opiew’s six children gathered in their home's dining room to reflect on their father.

The oldest twin boys are 21 years old and finishing their last year of college, while the youngest daughter is a second-grader. The twins, Opiew and Ochain, said they were in disbelief and devastated by the news, which they learned through social media.

Ochain was on his way to the Twin Cities from college in Iowa when he received a message from a cousin in the United Kingdom with a screenshot of a news article saying an American had been killed. When he called his father’s cellphone number, a woman picked up, and Ochain said he could hear people screaming in the background.

The twin brothers said they will remember their father as a man who wanted to help people. It was his welcoming spirit and big smile that many of his friends and fellow community members remember.

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Chol with Santa
In an undated photo, Chol Okey Opiew poses with a Santa while at work at Walmart. (Dan Mueller, Submitted photo)

"When you meet Chol, you will see, your first impression is 'This is a welcoming guy. This is a person to come talk to,'" said Ojoye Akane, a friend and founding member of ARSA. "You can feel at home talking to him. He will always greet you with a smile. It doesn't matter how tired he is, even the latest part of the day, still a smile."

Akane, Santino Deng and Chol Okey Opiew, along with a number of refugees from Asia, started ARSA in 2015.

Okey Opiew was also involved in the Sudan People Liberation Movement, and was named the first chairperson of the Austin chapter in 2006. In that role, he advocated for peace in Sudan and supported the referendum that created an independent South Sudan in 2011.

"He was a refugee. When he came here, like other refugees, the resettlement process was not easy," Akane said. "The culture shock -- you come to the place, you don't speak the language, no one would help you to find things -- so that was what we wanted, that is what Chol also wanted, so that when people come here, they can be helped by the people who have gone through the same experience.

"As a refugee, you can help other refugees," he added. "What we were doing was to make things easier and have a better experience than what we had."

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Ojoye Akane Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Austin. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

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Friends recalled Okey Opiew as a man of action. When someone had an idea, he was there to encourage them to move ahead and would rally behind them, Akane said.

"I just wanted people to know that he’s a good man," Akane said. "He’s a family man, and I ask for prayers for his family and his children, that he wished the best, and I want the whole community -- not only my community, the whole community -- to see his children, wherever they meet them, acknowledge them and support them any way they can. That is my prayer and my request."

Emily Cutts is the Post Bulletin's public safety reporter. She joined the Post Bulletin in July 2018 after stints in Vermont and Western Massachusetts.
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