Neither Here Nor There: Perspectives on Identity by the Young Eritrean and Ethiopian Diaspora in America

March 17, 2010

Receiving By Giving First

I (Mahlet) regularly contribute articles to Dinq Magazine and just submitted this piece.  Considering what is going on in Haiti right now I want there to be a wider readership, though, so I am posting this here as well.  So in light of all you see on tv – think about what you could do whether there or here to help someone somehow:

When it comes to help, it seems we do not notice people need it until it is one of our own.  Then, if we are so busy with our own concerns, it seems we still do not notice.  A week ago 3 female friends and I were driving a half hour for a birthday dinner in an area none of us were familiar with.   On the way we got a flat tire. Luckily one of the friends and I have changed flats before (thanks Daddy for teaching me and thanks to my sister for practicing with me with prior flats) so she and I begin to handle business without even pausing to think about what needed to be done.  It was a dark night around 7:30pm, it was 25 degrees, and we were in a well lit gas station. There were people coming and going some looking as they pass. With teamwork among the 4 of us we got the tire taken care of fairly easily and with humor. We get back in the car to enter the restaurant address back into the GPS and there is a knock at the window. This Caucasian man was standing outside the passenger window.  I had noticed him parked near us and had noted he never had gotten out of his car.  He knocks on the window again and asks us to roll down the window.  When we do he says….not “are you ok”, not “do you need help”, but “are you done? If so could you move so I can use the air tire thing?”  Apparently we were blocking his ability to fill his tires while we were changing our tire and he was patiently waiting for us to finish working in the cold so we could move and he could take care of what he needed.  Do you notice any irritation in my tone here?  If not I am hiding it well.  I know how to change a tire but just having one person stop to check on us would have been nice. Three out of 4 of those in the car that night had stopped at one point (most on several occasions) to help someone who was stuck on the side of the road. As we discussed the lack of help we received that night we recalled how all other times someone had stopped to help us it was either an African American or another immigrant like us (we were all Ethiopian.)  The place we had broken down was a more affluent “white” part of town.  I wonder what role the color of our skin, the language we were speaking, or any features in our faces played in the fact that not a single person stopped to check on us in a gas station where people were walking back and forth the entire time we were working on the tire in our good clothes and heels.

Psychology says it is actually healthy for you to help someone else.  Psychology researchers have studied the benefits of giving for years and according to one recent study of church goers found that those “who offer love, caring, and support to others have better mental health than those who only receive help from others.”  The research found that those who give just for the sake of giving (rather than in hopes of getting something in return) gain “mental-health benefits that can help counter the negative effects of stressful life events.”  It has even been found that people with depression or anxiety problems feel at least a little better by volunteering to help others.  There could be several reasons for this.

–           Volunteering/giving implies you see others who might be suffering worse than you so you realize maybe your problems are not as bad as you thought they were

–          Part of depression and anxiety involves people becoming isolated and volunteering to help others connects you to people especially if you do a volunteer activity (instead of just giving money)

–          Depression/Anxiety often results in people being less active and volunteering to do something for others forces you to get more active and in interaction with others

–          Especially for people who are not working (retired people, etc.) giving and volunteering can help create a sense of usefulness and purpose in your life

–          According to the WebMD article depression and anxiety feeds on you thinking about yourself and your problems but volunteering and giving forces you to think about other things for a change

So here is my question to you?  Could you benefit from giving to others?  Within our community, there are so many who could use your skills and abilities.  You speak the language, you understand the culture, you understand your people’s needs – so who better is there to help your own people.  Do you like children?  Maybe you can volunteer your time at your local place of worship to teach kids our language/culture or help them with their school work.  Are you an artist?  Maybe you can donate some of your work to be auctioned off for good causes.  Do you like parties?  Maybe you can volunteer during a fundraiser where for an hour or two of collecting tickets at the door you could eat and drink for free once your shift is done.  Are you good at planning or organizing?  Maybe you should organize one of these fundraisers for a worthy cause.  Are you good with graphic design?  Maybe you could help design posters and fliers about worthy organizations or events.  Do you like chitchatting and drinking coffee?  I imagine there are a lot of elderly people in our community who would enjoy a visit from someone.  Yes – this actually counts as helping someone!  Are you proficient in more than one language?  You would be such an asset at different medical clinics who are in search of translators when working with people from our community.  Do you have some free time?  You could help a newly arrived person or family by showing them how to enroll their child in school or where to go grocery shopping.  I could go on and on and on because there are so many ways that one person can help another.  Many times the only tools you need are a willing heart, a smile on your face, open hands, and someone who can show you where to start.  From my situation with the flat tire I learned that unless we help ourselves and each other those within our community who need help might not have anyone else reaching out to them.

Volunteering your time, energy, and money works best when done within an existing organization that has already identified the needs in the community.  There are tons of such organizations that are trying to make life better for Habesha (and other groups) both here and abroad.   I did a search and found the following opportunities though there are hundreds if not thousands out there:

Serve Your World:  Here is a site that has listed several ways to volunteer your time in different capacities in Eritrea

Artists for Charity :  According to their website “Artists for Charity is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization devoted to raising awareness and securing funds for humanitarian causes. We are made up of artists and individuals from all over the world who not only volunteer time, but also donate their precious artwork for the sake of change.”  All funds for ARC go to an orphanage they have established in Ethiopia for HIV positive children who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS.  Volunteering for this organization can be done here in the U.S. (especially California, New York, DC, and Atlanta) and back home at the actual orphanage.

International Rescue Committee: According to its website IRC is “a critical global network of first responders, humanitarian relief workers, healthcare providers, educators, community leaders, activists, and volunteers. Working together, we provide access to safety, sanctuary, and sustainable change for millions of people whose lives have been shattered by violence and oppression.”  IRC literally has stations around the globe.  Here in the US they have refugee relocation centers where they help refugees from all over the world get settled and establish a new life.  Volunteers in America help with translation, donating clothing and home items, transporting refugees when they first arrive, teaching English, teaching skills (ex: computer skills) to help people get jobs, and helping newly arrived refugees figure out shopping/schools/etc.

Eritrean American Community In DFW:  Eritrean American Community of DFW is a non-profit charitable organization established to provide a form for members to find solution to the challenges they face in the USA and advocate for justice, human right and constitutional government in Eritrea
Our goal is to enrich the lives of our members and our community through cultural, educational, recreational and social services

Ethiopian Americans for Change :  Ethiopian Americans for Change is a not-for-profit Organization that relies on a volunteer based network of individuals, businesses and organizations that contribute various resources at their own capacity to the implementation of specified programs and community oriented initiatives. Through strategic building of alliances, resource allocation and grass roots community organizing, Ethiopian Americas for change facilitates effective targeting and impact optimization of community development initiatives.

Ethiopian Community Association in Atlanta :  According to their website the ECA aims to, “To bring together Ethiopians and Ethio-Americans residing in the Atlanta area and to enable them to promote their common culture and heritage. To create an organizational power that encompass all Ethiopians and Ethio-Americans, who accept the bylaws of the association, without regard for their religion, sex, ethnicity, age, political view, and etc., and to empower them with an ability to act as one community to protect their rights.  To provide counseling and support to community members in a time of death, illness, accident, disability, unemployment, and etc. To establish a multi use community center that can be used to provide services, such as education, training, physical fitness training, entertainment, to community members and their family. To protect community’s youth from bad culture, criminal tendency, and substance abuse, and to provide them with counseling, training, and rehabilitation. To provide new community members with counseling that will enable them to transition to American culture and lifestyle.  To protect community members from human rights violations and injustice, and to forge common front when such transgression occurs.  To organize and empower community members to seek political, economic, higher education, and vocational training benefits.   To provide community youth with scholarship opportunities and to promote their efforts in seeking other scholarship opportunities and social services.”

These are just a few organizations I know of or found through a web search that provide help to Habeshotch/Habesha-Americans in different ways.  The thing about volunteering is that it is not a glamorous process.  It takes time, effort, sweat, dedication, commitment, and sometimes tears.  According to the study mentioned in the WebMD article, there are limitations to the mental health gains of helping others as well.  First, you have to make sure you have the help to give.  This goes across all forms of help whether you give your time, your energy, or your money.  They found that those who gave more than they could afford ended up having worse mental health.  I imagine because then you are over burdening yourself and adding to the stress in your life.  However, when done well your gain will outweigh what it cost to help.  So, what are you going to do to help?



  1. Perfect article,

    We love you Mahlet. We always read your articles on Dinq magazine.

    Keep it up sis !

    Comment by Johnny — January 9, 2012 @ 10:41 am | Reply

  2. Thank you Johnny, I appreciate the love. If you ever think of an important topic I should write about let me know, ok?

    Comment by Habesha Diaspora — January 12, 2012 @ 9:36 am | Reply

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