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

January 22, 2010

Who Is Responsible For Us?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 1:27 pm
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The recently released movie Avatar is a fantastic escape from realism however you leave contemplating the dilemmas people face:  the “war on terrorism”, how we treat the environment, the clash between majority and minority cultures, colonization and colonialism, spirituality and religion, gender roles, and these were just the ones it brought up for me.  A recent New York Times article discusses how many people have their buttons pushed by this movie.   According to the author David Itzkoff:

That so many groups have projected their issues onto “Avatar” suggests that it has burrowed into the cultural consciousness in a way that even its immodest director could not have anticipated. Its detractors agree that it is more than a humans-in-space odyssey — even if they do not agree on why that is so.

“Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron’s intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about,” said Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”

So, for today let me bring you into my “personal interests and anxieties”:

As engrossing, entertaining, visually stunning, and ground breaking (technologically) as this movie has been one piece that stands out for me as an Ethiopian born and west raised individual is how it continues to perpetuate the age old colonization story.  Rich white man has messed up his own, finds an unsuspecting group of “[savage]…blue monkeys”, plays nice to see if they can be tricked into giving up their goods, and then decides to obliterate in order to get what he wants.  The slight twist here is one of the colonizers has a change of heart after getting to know the natives and then plays a leading role to rescue them from the dangers in the end.  If it wasn’t for this white man the “savages” would likely be displaced at the least and destroyed in the worst case scenario. 

Yes this is “just a movie” but don’t estimate what subtle messages (intended or not) do to people.  In graduate school I worked with the Empowered Youth Programs which was an enrichment program for minority kids.  I led discussion groups for mostly African American kidsto get them thinking about ways they can take control of their life to ensure a happier more fulfilling future.  As I think of this movie I am reminded of one such group discussion.  At the time I had read how for African American men especially there are limited role models to relate to.  When you hear of a black man in the media he is usually a rapper, an athlete, or a criminal.  In the article it mentioned how a black man had significantly higher chance of becoming a succesful physician (statistically speaking) than a rapper or athlete yet many black men continually believe their place is in music or sports (even when they do not have the talent).  As a result, they misdirect their time and energy for an industry they are not likely to succeed in.  According to the article if these kids saw more teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc. then they could open their minds more when defining what it means to be a succesful black man.  More importantly, time and energy growing up can be used towards activities that could help them in these other pursuits (school, internships, etc.)  Despite the data, despite the stats, despite my heartfelt explanation the message fell on blank stares in that group.  The one 11 or 12 year old boy courageous enough to voice the common thought of the group basically stated my numbers were a bunch of crap and that he plans to pursue a career in the NFL no matter what I said.  When I asked if he has played in youth leaggues or at his middle school to prepare the answer was no.  What this child was telling me was that without training to play college ball nor the grades to get into college he expected to one day play for the NFL.  I backed down when I realized I was dangerously close to killing the only dream this child held.  One he felt the need to defend against this authority figure because without this dream he had nothing else to hold on to. 

In the summer of 2009 President Obama visited Ghana and gave a speech that was discussed on NPR a few days ago.  According to one Ghanaian listener Obama’s message at the time was that the future of Africa was in the hands of Africans.  The gentleman mentioned that prior to this speech Ghanaians and Africans depended on foreign aid to make significant changes in their world.  According to the gentleman this one man making this one statement has led Ghana to look internally more than ever to fix its own woes. 

After seeing Avatar I had a long conversation with a Jewish nearly retired coworker who initially disagreed with the argument that Cameron did a disservice by having the final hero be a white male.  This white man and I struggled through a difficult conversation on “micro aggressions” (a psychological term meaning “actions or inactions by individuals that perpetuate the status quo of racism, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia”, overt discrimination, discrimination across other demographics, social responsibility), the role of media in perpetuating beliefs, and on and on.  In the end we were able to connect through a “minor” media bit he had a reaction about.  Larry King is Jewish and his real name is Lawrence Harvey Zeiger.  He changed his name early in his career at the request of his boss and then built his career.  According to my co-worker, this small change of a name, that to many in and out of the community meant nothing, was feeding into the status quo belief that identifying as Jewish even ethnically (without practicing) is not ok.  He wished King would have stood up for himself as a message to Jews everywhere that they do not have to change who they are to be accepted by mainstream America. 

As the New York Times article states, we each react to the world around us based on the lens that developed from our personal experiences.  As my co-worker pointed out, asking an affluent (some say arrogant) white director to make a movie that is sensitive to all the criticisms (including mine) that are brought against the movie is a tall order.  I understand this and yet still wonder how much more powerful a message it could have been had he been able to make a small  (in my view) adjustment of giving the Na’Vi a larger role in their own salvation (please do not read any religious context in that word – I am talking about something completely different.)  However, what I do appreciate about this movie is that it has opened up an opportunity for dialogue between people who see and think differently.  Were it not for Avatar, this conversation between my co-worker and I would never have happened and I am grateful for the opportunity to better connect and understand a man who comes from such a different background than I. 

In closing I want to bring this conversation to the Eritrean and Ethiopian diaspora.  Similar to African Americans, if we see our faces in the media it is usually around famine, war, or some other chalamity.  The message, especially for young Eritreans/Ethiopians who do not have their own memories of that land and people, is that we are victims, can’t help ourselves, and we are not as good as the west.  I pray for more positive representations of our people to build the moralle and initiative in us.  That is one of the biggest reasons that Liya and I are working on this book project.  We want to show the wide varieties of options for kids who look like us.  Liya recently wrote a piece for Ethiopian Americans for Change discussing how our people are good at following the status quo of what is put before us.  (How many of you have taxi drivers, doctors, and small store owners in your family? How many of your parents want you to follow in these footsteps?)  Part of this project is showcasing the diversity of the diaspora so people who are so inclined may be encouraged to get off the beaten path and pusue their passions and talents – to encourage people to be true to who they are.  As my co-worker said, I might be expecting too much of the majority culture to ask them to focus on my people, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t.   Half African Obama has done tons for the morale of Africans and African Americans, what could succesful Ethiopians and Eritreans do for our people?  To see what succesful Eris and Ethios are doing go to our facebook group and scroll through the wall.  I regularly showcase our people there. 

Are you doing something unique and doing it well?  Are you following the usual path but are enjoying it?  Get in touch with us at – I would love to showcase you as well.


September 3, 2009

Hair – another component of identity

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 6:31 pm
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Hair – It seems like such a minor thing. However, how many of you have seen someone in a stylist’s chair ready to have their hair altered in a significant manner? Whether it’s a minor change (first video) or a major one (look at the second video around 7minutes 50 seconds) it significantly affects a person’s sense of self and identity.


When a hairstyle change is done well it does wonders for a person’s confidence. When it’s done badly it can be devastating. As I write this I remember a girl in my high school whose mother pulled her out of class for an emergency hair appointment when after coloring her hair blond her hair began to turn green.

When you go to “black” hair the intricacies get…well…even more intricate. Do you perm or are you natural? Do you straighten or wear your curls. How do you balance the professional look for work versus the wilder fun side for fun. Go to Habesha hair and you ask do you do it yourself or go for your weekly appointments? (While living in Baltimore I would frequent an Ethiopian salon in DC as frequently as I could!)

Let me get to the point of this piece, though. My transition in hairstyles has mirrored my connection to my culture and community. I have my mother’s hair, somewhat soft, not as tightly curled, and generally easy to manage. My sister’s…let’s just say hers always took a bit more work to manage. So when I was 11 our mother lost her tolerance with our hair and permed us both. I remember crying at the synthetic feel my hair attained at that first perm.  For the next 16 years I kept it permed. I learned to do it myself and generally maintained it well because it was easy for me to manage.

Once I passed 20 and got closer to our community I would see “natural” Habesha girls who had the diversity of straight versus curly and secretly wondered what that would be like. I began talking of going “natural” myself but didn’t quite have the guts to do it. First, this permed me became a part of who I was. Changing my hair would mean changing how people perceived me and who knows what that change would bring. Secondly, I had my routine down. Curl and set every Sunday and a perm every 3 months or so. I am a creature of habit and find comfort in knowing exactly what to expect. Going “natural” would mean having to learn new ways to do it – meaning it will take longer without guaranteed results of what it will look like. Plus being in school – especially graduate school – meant I did not have time to disrupt my schedule with something that could significantly impact my self confidence.

I finally graduated and thought – now I have the time to dedicate the energy and research to do this. My last perm was in December of 2007. I have a friend who says girls make drastic changes in their life only when they are going through something big and he was right. This was a point in my life that marked significant changes. I was finally comfortable in my role as a professional after 28 years of school. This was the one year anniversary of the break up of a very powerful (almost) 4 year relationship. I was more connected to the Habesha community than ever. This was a point where I finally felt like I was finding myself. My confidence in who I am as just me was stronger than ever. I was happier than I had been in a long time. I was comfortable facing the struggles that existed (life is never without struggles.) I finally got to a point where I could accept myself – I didn’t need to hide behind a permed do.

The transition has been interesting. I’m still learning how to do this “natural” thing. It doesn’t look as “good” as regularly as it did when permed. I still have days where I’m tired and briefly consider just perming it. I realize how much of the positive feedback I got was due to my hair. No one realized they were feeding into a racist, superficial, and misconceived notion. I liken it to someone saying “you are so articulate” to a black person – know what I mean? However, for now I’m ok with the struggles. The value of just being me is worth it.

September 1, 2009

Looking for “Home”: Experienced By More Than the Habesha Diaspora (Part 2)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 4:38 pm
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Reply to:
Subject: A split mentally
Date: Tue, 4 Mar 2003 21:11:28 -0500

As your sister I find it extremely easy for me to relate to your situation…
I moved to Georgia the same time you did, but for some reason my experience in high school caused me to think greatly in the direction that you are as well. When I lived in Miami, I feel like I was in the prime of my life, not because I was young, and had a blast, but just as a person. I was ignorant to the problems of the world and the issues of culture mixing. You know what they say it is sooooo much better to be ignorant. But I feel this ignorance brought me peace and clarity. While living in Miami, I am sure you can attest to this, we fit in. I never thought about how well we fit in until I didn’t fit-in in Georgia. We were all just from Miami and we all shared similar cultures. We all kissed each other to great one another no matter where you were from, and everyone understood us when we would talk about our families, or how we would celebrate our holidays (we spend new years with our family).

Yes it was beautiful to live in ignorance. Now after living in Georgia for five year (I can’t believe it has been so long, I need to get out) and go back to Miami, I notice things that I had never noticed before; and this highly perturbs me. When I walked into (NAME’s) house this Christmas, the first thing I remember thinking, “her house is sooooo Mexican”. Why hadn’t I realized this before? Is it better that I notice now, and realize her cultural differences? or was it better that I never noticed and just said she was my friend that I would bike ride with?

I guess, unlike other places in the states, Miami has created its own culture, which tends to be quite lending and comfortable to Latinos. Allowing immigrants or first generation Americans claim a culture with out the need to stick to their own. The solid lines that are drawn in other places I think are due to ones comfort level with the mainstream culture. Latins feel comfortable (at home) in the mainstream culture in Miami. This also explains why so many of my “gringo” friends from palmetto have moved north of Miami to places such as Palm Beach… because they were not feeling comfortable in the mainstream culture.

This explanation can also be used to analyze relationships…

Although I feel that living in Georgia has corrupted my mind, I would never give this experience up. Why you ask? It is because I was placed out of my element… dropped into a situation with nothing comforting, nothing recognizable. And when I say nothing, I mean NOTHING. When you are challenge with differences, whether it be in culture, food, morals, political views, that is when you define yourself the most. When the most contrast if visible and you mold yourself to how you want to be or just simply make modifications. As a person you become stronger and more knowledgeable about why you think the way you think and the positives and negatives to how you are.

You are having yourself discovery period in nyc, while I have been having it in UGA. I have learned great things about myself and of others, and why these southerners are soooo weird. I say learn, learn as much as possible, bc not only does it widen your horizons but it makes you stronger.

Finally, to touch on the subject of relationships. Yes we do tend to flock to our own, and why? Because that is where we feel comfortable, that is where we feel home. Why do you think you feel so comfortable around people you can speak Spanglish to without thinking twice on if they are going to understand? Maybe bc that is what we speak at home. Why do you think I liked dating (Name)? it felt like home… so much like home sometimes I felt like I was turning in to mom…wanting to cook some gnocchi and take care of him. When you meet that special person, not always, but most of the time you will want to marry someone similar to you bc you tend to feel comfortable and homey in those situations. Don’t you want to feel like “home” when you start a family?
When it comes to learning about other cultures… living in the language community I see others doing this quite often. open minded Georgians fall in love with the Latin culture and completely immerse themselves in it. All these girls have all dated Latino men, and the only Latina, me, is the only one who hasn’t. funny, huh? I commend these girls, bc they are trying to broaden their world, but I truly feel they will never fully grasps the culture completely. They were not raised in the same situations, speaking Spanish, with the same morals, or culture. No matter how much you read about it or speak about it, they will never reach it. living it is completely different than learning it.

in conclusion… as your advice: learn, learn and become strong and confident in who “you” are, then don’t worry about the rest, bc you will know when your person comes along, no matter where he is from or what he looks like, just as long as you can see “home” with him.

hope it makes sense…

Looking for “Home”- Experienced by More Than the Habesha Diaspora (Part 1)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 4:27 pm
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Because the question around “who am I” have been my companions since leaving Ethiopia at age 4.  Since that point whether we were fighting or they were consoling me these questions have been my constant companions.  These are things I thought about often and when I found others who who related to this sense of homelessness it was a breath of fresh air. Recently I found such an interaction I had by email in 2003.  A friend who is half Italian and half Venezuelan (she was an undergrad college kid at the time) forwarded me an email between her and her older sister. Does this sound familiar to you at all? The first half was written by the older sister and the second half (which I will put in a follow up post) was written by my friend:

Subject: A split mentally
Date: Tue, 4 Mar 2003 21:11:28 -0500

Below is something I wrote…I was just thinking and decided to put my
thoughts on paper…I’m curious to know how all of you feel as well….

I overheard a friends saying that she went to South America and experienced something she has never experienced before. Mind you, I have been going to Venezuela ever since I was a baby, so I was quite interested to see what she would say. It’s ironic to have a servant do everything for you but very nice at the same time. I know it’s demeaning, but it was nice not having to make my bed, clean my clothes, or get a drink of water before bed time because there was always one waiting for me it was nice being served. I questioned myself and realized that I to had the same experience when I went to Venezuela but never suspected it was weird.

I was speaking to a friend of mine from Yemen about finding a companion. So I explain to him that there are certain qualities that I look for in a man. To my surprise he could not relate since back home he is not allowed to date, instead the perfect mate would be found for him by his family. This young man has had the opportunity to study in the United States, and he has had to mold his lifestyle to live like an American. He has changed the way he dresses, the way he speaks, and the way he lives he does not wear the clothing, he does not bow down and pray at the temple 5 times a day, and he speaks to women! Quite shocked, I learned that in Yemen men do not speak to other Muslim women (with exceptions-sisters and mothers). When I asked him if he would like to marry here or in Yemen, he said back home. But why?

We that live in the US live in a very diverse environment, surrounded by cultures and languages from around the world, gifted with the ability to learn firsthand about how life is elsewhere. But does this awareness separate us? Does it cause us to question ourselves, our morals, our teachings, whom we are and where we come from?

I am Venezuelan-Italian, born and raised in the United States, brought up in a Catholic Church with Catholic morals and teaching and yet with such definition, I still face uncertainty. Being able to travel and grow up in diverse societies, has allowed me to learn about my culture and the ones that surrounded me. But it has also caused me to question myself and my surroundings. The more I see and experience, the more I separate myself from what I was brought up to be. I am neither Venezuelan or Italian or American, I have lived differently, think differently, and have grown up differently therefore I am a mixture and then some! Exposure and knowledge has allowed me to live beyond my barriers and feel the separation that I live amongst.

I currently live in New York, the big apple, the city of the world where everywhere you turn there is a different language being spoken. But then you see groups, defined groups of culture, language, color and lifestyle- is it fear of experiencing something new or is it the fear of losing oneself?

As animals, we tend to be attracted to beings that are similar to ourselves, meaning we tend to be attracted to someone that was raised like us, same social level, and the same ethnic background it’s just a lot more simplistic, more comfortable, and less chance of being rejected from society. So, back to the previous question; is it fear of experiencing something new or is it the fear of losing oneself?

But wouldn’t it be great to learn something totally new, learn how others think, feel, and live? Wouldn’t it be nice to share ones uniqueness with another unique being, be totally intrigued about all the differences that both of you posses? It’s an adventure, a discovery of another soul, a learning experience, discovering a beauty in someone else totally different from you. We all have different ways of thinking, different ways of how life should be; which is influenced greatly by our surroundings. So wouldn’t it be a great challenge to learn about this difference and still be able to care and love someone totally opposite of you? But wouldn’t this also be very difficult to accomplish?

I was told that one never stops learning, and that is how I want it to be. Life should be a learning experience and what would be the best teaching is to understand someone else. We are complex animals; scientist cannot even figure us; therefore that would be the greatest challenge of them all. It’s good to try different foods, travel to new places, talk to different people and live an adventure.

So don’t you think that living in such a diverse environment has made it a lot more difficult for us to find people or that one person that suites us? Life just becomes confusing, do I stick with what I know or do I try something new?

I think the best solution in any kind of relationship is to love that person entirely, as a whole not only in pieces

PS: Please reply I would like to know what you think?

August 31, 2009

Sample Writing

Just for discussion, inspiration, etc. I thought people could share work they have done in the past. These are just for sharing and will not be considered for the book (those will need to be formally submitted.) Book submissions of course do not have to be exactly like pieces here:

Here is a piece written by my sister Liya:

ethio kids on stage


Habeshannete Kurate- on being Ethiopian
Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 8:56pm

My colors bleed together
behind this distorted glass
a dimension of my self
stuffing towels into cracks
to fend off shinkurt, berbere
until it is time to feast on
“Erre”… “ewa!”
no licking fingers at this table
no singing at this table
no eating alone at this table
No one left behind
at this table
decorated in elaborate Meskeloch
a luxury woven into everyday
jewelry, hats, shirts, bedsheets, art
You musn’t forget Egzihaber Yimesgen
Until the cross burns a place in you
You see the cross at the road between
here and there pointing with all its fingers
Left and Right and Heaven and Hell
Egzihaber Yirdachu, Ye Hagere Lijoch
They will dance a place into eternity
Laugh and praise their way into history
Break bread
at a Crossed place

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