By: Samuel M. Gebru
November 28, 2010
Author’s Note: This article was inspired by the conversations I had with members of my family over the past two days. During the Thanksgiving weekend, we discussed much about keeping the culture of our native homeland Ethiopia and ethnic group while living in the United States. I have added much to this article, particularly in my conclusion on using the Ethiopian Global Initiative’s mission statement as a possible action plan, but the basis was from our conversations.
According to the United Nations Development Program, Ethiopia lost over 75% of its skilled workforce between 1980 and 1991. These were the years of the civil war, when Ethiopia was governed by Marxist ideologies. Before the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, most Ethiopians in the United States were either students or businessmen. There was hardly an immigrant community of any strong number.
Since our Marxist days, Ethiopians have left to many other countries in search of improving their lives and leaving the political, economic and social issues that continue to constrain Ethiopia. Many Ethiopians have been victim to countless traumatic events. What used to be a community of temporary students and businessmen became a community of immigrants and refugees.
As the Ethiopian diaspora increased from war-to-war, revolution-to-revolution, so did social and economic concerns. Ethiopian adults, both educated and uneducated, found it very difficult to find meaningful employment in their adopted homelands. Many Ethiopian Medical Doctors, for instance, had to retake courses to satisfy American requirements. Ethiopians who were teachers in their homelands became parking lot attendants for American sporting events. It was back to zero for many in the Ethiopian diaspora.
The unanswered problem was the social aspect. Without a doubt, Ethiopians face a cultural shock when coming to the United States. Because the community lacks the resources to address those cultural shocks, the economic problems become widespread. While Ethiopian adults were too busy focusing on making ends meet for their immediate families, new expectations of supporting their extended families in Ethiopia grew. The end result is a lack of cultural connection between Ethiopian parents and children.
PROMOTING AND PRESERVING OUR IDENTITY
Faced with two jobs, trying to go to school and learn English and perhaps a vocation while also trying to navigate an entirely new country and culture, Ethiopian parents did not pass on the Ethiopian identity to their children. In a similar article I wrote on July 22, 2010 on my personal blog, We Do Not Know, I asked:
Who do we blame for our lack of knowledge? Can it be the parents? Fine, some blame can go to our parents who seldom teach us anything on Ethiopia—but how much can one expect from people that are struggling to raise us? When you live in a country whose culture and language you have not mastered, it is hard to focus on anything else but getting by. Perhaps it is our community that we should blame. I would reply: what community? Ethiopians seem more divided than united in the diaspora. So there is no community from the onset to blame!
The first responsibility of raising and educating a child goes to a parent. If parents do not actively promote Ethiopian culture to their children, then there will be a knowledge gap. The identity is lost when young Ethiopians are not taught about the big multicultural mosaic known as Ethiopia. Not knowing about their culture is a very troubling reality for many young Ethiopians in the diaspora. Ethiopians should be most proud of their identity; Ethiopia is the only African country to never be colonized, the first country to accept Christianity, a country proclaimed the land of justice by the Islamic Prophet Mohammed, one of the oldest continuously surviving countries and the touted cradle of mankind.
The unique identity of the Ethiopians is not being taught or told in adopted homelands such as the United States. Young Ethiopians should be the first in line to be taught about their identity; before promoting it to non-Ethiopians, Ethiopians should be made aware. So, if the parents are too busy and are struggling night and day to make ends meet for their children, who can teach the young Ethiopians of their history, culture and language?
CREATING A MEANINGFUL COMMUNITY
|Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles, California is often cited|
as an example of meaningful community
Ethiopians in the diaspora need to draw lessons from other immigrant communities in the United States. The Chinese, Israeli, Mexican and Greek communities have been able to establish themselves in meaningful communities that are free from politics, religion and ethnicity. These communities are united and all share the mutual concern of preserving their native identities in the United States.
The result is phenomenal. Chinatown has become a thing of urban living for many cities throughout the world. The Israeli/Jewish community has become one of the biggest and most politically important communities in the United States through their strong unity and advocacy for their rights. Mexicans and Greeks import their own products to the U.S. to boost commerce, open cultural centers and use their Churches as points of community.
Currently, there are many Ethiopian community organizations established throughout the diaspora that all share the same mission statement. In practice, however, much is to be desired. Nonetheless, the organizations that do strive to bring their divided communities together are never supported enough to accomplish their goals on a big scale. In this case, the result is almost tragic. For instance, we Ethiopians do not have a central place in Washington, D.C. or Boston or Houston to call home; a place that is apolitical, indifferent to one’s ethnic and religious affiliations. The tragedy extends itself when we are faced with major problems, such as death.
The recent and unfortunate death of Ali Mohammed of Washington, D.C., and the outcry of the Ethiopian community that followed, showed me that there is a long way before we are able to deal with problems facing our community. Whether it is defending for our rights or promoting our identity, we face a serious problem with responding to these issues unless we create meaningful community organizations. These organizations should be able to bring all of us in, ethnically and religiously—Tigrayans, Amharas, Oromos, Gambella, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Muslim, Jewish, etc. And if they don’t, then they are not truly commUNITY organizations.
ADVOCATING FOR OURSELVES
Young Ethiopians should advocate for themselves. They should advocate at community meetings and within their churches, demanding to be taught their languages. Amharic is Ethiopia’s official language—we should all learn it. We should also branch out and learn our ethnic group’s language too; and if our ethnic group speaks Amharic as its primary language then we should learn another ethnic Ethiopian language. Language is one of the most important ways to become more culturally competent; language makes it possible to learn more about another culture. Realistically, many Ethiopian youth who don’t know their language travel back to Ethiopia and are as good as deaf.
Advocating for ourselves moves beyond learning their language. The Ethiopian identity extends to our religion, music, traditions and values. This identity is endangered in many of our diaspora communities simply because we as a whole let it happen. Like the Greek and Chinese, we should invest in community centers and “Little Ethiopias” throughout the world that would serve as places where we can keep our culture alive. Parents who do not have the time, resources or knowledge to help their children fully understand the Ethiopian identity could then send their children to these community centers.
We must further this advocacy to include the entire community. Ethiopians must also advocate, as a community, for their rights. We cannot and should not be a reactionary society; it is not Ethiopian culture to be reactive. The Ethiopian identity teaches us that the bravest and most heroic Ethiopians were proactive. When the U.S. Congress meets to debate healthcare reform or immigration reform, Ethiopians should stand as a community and not as individuals to inform the Congress of their opinions. Sadly, the Congressional Caucus on Ethiopia and Ethiopian Americans is not used for these purposes. While they are there to serve as our microphone on Capitol Hill, we either ignore it or misuse it.
Its time for a major change in our thinking. Albert Einstein once said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem.” Our current thinking is of separation and self-interest. In order to continue the Ethiopian identity, we must proactively promote it by teaching each other and, in turn, teaching the rest of the world. Our priorities are misplaced. We have focused too much about what happens in Ethiopia while we forgot about how our communities are living abroad. Surely this is not a call to abandon everything in the native homeland—to do this would be unthinkable!
The next steps are to build bridges with one another and share ideas and solutions. Since the blame game is neither effective nor efficient, we cannot point fingers at this group or that group. The most important thing now is to be proactive and think about tomorrow and the challenges the Ethiopian diaspora will face then.
In the June 2010 conference of the Ethiopian American Youth Initiative, now Ethiopian Global Initiative (EGI), much was discussed about the disillusion of Ethiopian youth in the diaspora, particularly the United States. Encounters with the Justice System and teen pregnancy were discussed as two very noticeable ways that the Ethiopian youth are being negatively impacted. Having strong communities that are able to keep the youth out of trouble and in positive atmospheres is what we need. Two prominent examples of this are seen with Young Diplomats in Toronto and the Debre Selam Kidest Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Mentorship Program in Washington, D.C.
My next step is to challenge you, as the reader, to act. The 2011 EGI Global Summit host university will be announced shortly and that will be a prime venue to discuss solutions to problems that the Ethiopian diaspora faces. Throughout the summit, participants will discuss how best to combine their social and intellectual capital to launch community-based projects that promote the Ethiopian identity, economic prosperity and civic engagement. Participants will also have the opportunity to learn more and get involved in sustainable projects that aim to transform Ethiopia.
Coming together in a central hub, as our new logo depicts, is the goal of EGI. To have multiple projects going on throughout the world all with various ideas and characteristics is EGI’s purpose. EGI’s mission to bridge previously divided communities together through projects that will undoubtedly change our thinking will unite all these projects.
The next step is to act.