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

September 4, 2014

Sinkane’s Ahmed Gallab – Using music to explore and define his cultural Identity

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Ahmed Gallab

Liya and myself have had a lot of life events happen that had us step away from this blog for a minute now, but as I was driving home from work yesterday I ran into this NPR piece that brought it all back. It reconnected me to the question of who am I now years after starting this. How has my connection with my multiple identities shifted with the recent happenings in my life (more on that later).

Take a listen and share your thoughts on the radio piece. He talks about how he makes sense of being born to Sudanese parents, having to seek asylum in the U.S., and the process he went through reconciling the cultural differences in his Sudanese home vs. the American world outside his door.  He also talks about the internal struggles around identity and how he sees himself culturally now. 

Also check out Sinkane on Youtube:




October 21, 2009

Raising Your Child in America

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 10:37 pm
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As mentioned in our About Us page, I left Ethiopia at age 4 and grew up across the Netherlands and the USA.  I remember as a child having some difficulty reconciling the differences between the two cultures I lived on the daily.  On the one hand was talak makber, doro wot, Amarigna, etan on a lazy afternoon, buna, buna, and more buna.  On the other side was the Dutch, the English, Sinterklaas, Santa Clause, nursery rhymes, and french fries (among other things).  In my mind these vastly different worlds blended together seamlessly. 

There was no rift where one ended and the other began and I traversed the two worlds with ease blending them into one in my mind.  For some reason, though, those non-habesha around me always seemed to trip each time they caught a glimpse into my Habesha world.  Questioning looks when they come by and find the house filled with etan smoke, when they see injera for the first time, when my mother gives last minute instructions in a strange tounge.  After some time I learned it was best to not allow them into my Habesha world.  Initially it was not shame that led me there, but an inability to explain this other side in a way they could understand and value it as much as I did. 

After some time shame did creep in – for example after getting tired of smelling like wot each time I left the house.  I was never really harassed for being “African” though I vaguely remember the term “African Booty Scratcher” being thrown around.  I don’t remember anyone looking down on me as far as I could tell.  This, despite the fact that some of my most impressionable years came during the 80s famine which permanently imprinted the fly covered starving child with the distended stomach as the staple image of Ethiopia.  Yet, the constant differences between my two worlds gently lapped away at my confidence and sense of belonging – key components of a healthy childhood.

Over time with the maturity that comes with age, after spending time learning about my culture, after getting to befriend age peers with similar backgrounds that shame turned into tolerance, acceptance, and eventually pride.  There is no treasure in the world that could get me to change my culture and heritage. 

As I think about my future children (God willing there will be at least 2 🙂 ) I wonder what their experiences will be like.  How do I – a woman who grew up in two worlds help my children equally embrace and value the worlds that will be home for them?  What obstacles will they face that I never had to endure as they try to make their place in the world – or as they try to just be another kid in the class? 

My sister and I have met many interesting people through this book project and one such person is Ayanna Nahmias.  Ayanna is a woman who has traversed many worlds culturally, physically, and spiritually.  Here are some pictures of her that she has agreed to share with us: 

I recently ran across a blog entry Ayanna wrote about helping her 7 year old son overcome racism and anti-African reactions he experienced while in school.  I was touched by his confusion and frustration as that was around the same age that I first began to understand I was different from my peers.  I am inspired by the strength and conviction Ayanna and her mother tackle this difficult dillema.  She shows that it can be done and done well at that.  As a psychologist who has studied immigration and it’s impact on families I can spout out all the shoulds and shouldn’ts in raising a healthy bicultural child.  Hell, I do this on a regular basis for the Ethiopian Magazine Dinq and occassionally on the Ethiopian radio show Admas.  But inside I am afraid that when it gets to be my turn I will make too many mistakes.  My biggest fear is that my lack of “full Ethiopianness” will hinder me from being able to help my child connect to his or her Habeshanet.  Will it be the end of the world if my children area bit more American than Ethiopian?  No, of course not.  I just know I will be a bit sadder if I don’t at least provide the opportunity for them to connect to that side of themselves.

October 15, 2009

Do You Remember

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seleda header

Or are you too young to have taken an interest in that site?  I remember discovering by accident as a junior in college.  At that point in my life I had grown up very isolated from the habesha community.  In fact I made my first habesha friend as a sophomore at that university – this was the first time I was around another habesha who was anywhere near my age.  We are still close friends today almost 10 years later.  But I digress, Seleda, right?

Discovering Seleda was like being given a window into a world I didn’t even know I longed for.  It meant reading well written and humerous analyses of typical life happenings except it was through OUR lens! Written in a mix of English and Amarigna just like I speak!  The intelligent humor, sophistication, tenderness, and vulnerability with which the authors discussed life, love, hurt, death, longing for home, making a path in the diaspora, and trying to figure it all out was affirming, inspiring, comforting, and like having a piece of home.  Efoy – I said- lelam inde ene yemichigir ale leka.  The best part was that it appeared like the writers had a couple years on me so they provided a glimpse of what might come next in my life and struggles.  It felt like I was given a crystal ball to anticipate and prepare for what may come in my future.  I am the talak between my sister and I and it often felt like I was given the job of explorer who had to go out and forge a road that my sister could later possibly follow with more ease (should she so choose.)  Dad often called me the guinnea pig and trailblazer of the family because my parents learned parenting by trial and error of raising me…you can imagine what that could have been like.  Through Seleda I found my examples to look up to.  I found a place where I could see what normal angst is and how to traverse common pitfalls of life.

Well, I have good news – Seleda is back better than ever at I am happy to say they are as  witty, interesting, and humerous as ever.  To make their return even more meaningful for me, if you read the piece In Search of My Identity in the Diaspora by Teninet Bereket you will find some thoughts that very much fall in line with the concepts of this book project.


PS:  Here is a reprint of a previous Seleda piece that readers of this blog might relate to even more:

September 1, 2009

“My Tsehai Experience” by Naomi Tesemma

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This very insighful and moving story was shared with us by a new friend of ours, a trailblazer by the name of Naomi Tesemma. We are excited about her submission for this book project and are grateful that she shared this very personal and wonderful experience with us about the Tsehai Conferences, an annual conference whose mission is to provide an international forum that brings together academics, researchers, other professionals, civic and political leaders, artists and entrepreneurs to discuss, debate and deliberate on the State of Ethiopian affairs and the diaspora.

Thank you Naomi!

Please follow this link to read about Naomi’s Tsehai Experience written in July of 2007:

Please follow this link to learn about the Tsehai Conferences:

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?

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