“‘Keep Family. Keep Traditions.’ Ethiopians and refugees make a home in Tucson”

Cecelia Marshall, March 24 2012


The waiting room of the International Rescue Committee smells of stale trapped bleach which have soaked into linoleum tiles day after day.  Ahead, the uninviting receptionist is separated in her own terminal where a sliding window gives her power whether you can be helped now or ignored until later.

Here, refugees come for the first time in hopes of guidance, money, and opportunity.  They return hoping to gain more than their last visit, but if the punched broken glass window outside is any indication of high emotions; frustration is what they are met with.

An African woman sits across on a stiff plastic chair, her legs extended in front of her to reveal her feet; bottoms calloused and held by plastic flip flops.  On a broad lap covered with a “pagne” made of faded decorative fabric, a small notebook is spread open where she obtains numbers and dials on her small flip cell phone.  She dials and waits, getting a machine, leaving a quick message or reaching an answer on the other line.  Either way, she doesn’t converse long before she hangs up and moves onto another contact from her book.  It seems like a way to stay in touch, stay connected, or to bide the time before she is called to the back by an International Rescue Committee volunteer.

coverRefugees that go through the state department funded, IRC aren’t given much of a choice when it comes to the location they are placed.  Generally, it’s a launching point to give broad advice about how to get by their first few months in the U.S. and towards integration.  Getting a job, paying rent, where to shop, how to use public transportation:the logistics.  But
culturally and linguistically, it’s hard with a small staff and only one translator onsite.  Sink or swim in the land of opportunities.

Fortunately for refugees placed in Tucson, the Tucson community is very helpful and generous with volunteers to ease transitions and establish refugees’ self-sufficiency, IRC program coordinator Peter Newbegin says.  Unlike its main office in Oakland, Tucson is diverse enough to grow accustom to a variety of cultures, races and religions.

Periodically, a drive down Campbell, or across Speedway and Broadway passes you by lone lanky African men, sometimes sporting heavy winter jackets , from undoubtedly elsewhere than Tucson, stalling at a bus stop either awaiting transportation or taking a break in between legs of their isolated trek.  The southern Arizona climate is similar to many sub-Saharan African countries, said Newbegin.  But for individuals who come to the states alone without their families like the lone woman in the waiting room, no similarities in weather conditions can overcome that challenge.June 2012 Upload 181

Beza and Etse Gebru didn’t have the same problem when moving from Ethiopia to Arizona. Their mother had been the resilient one, arriving in the United States alone to create a buffer for the two sisters and their father.

For five years, while simultaneously applying for a green card and becoming a U.S. citizen, she lived alone in an apartment and found work as a nurse though her past wealthy life in Ethiopia allowed her the privilege of never lifting a finger.  Her husband previously worked as a diplomat and moved his family around different parts of the world.  It was an affluent lifestyle of luxuries and good education and both girls grew up speaking both English and Amharic.

When Etse was 6 and Beza 4, their father decided to retire and moved his children back to their homeland of Ethiopia to learn about their people, culture, and family.  At first, their mother entertained the idea but promptly she noticed her daughters deserved a better education and way of life and moved to the U.S. to begin it.

2843580226_df525f5239_oWithout their mother, Etse and Beza sought out the matriarchal figure in their grandmother, who they lived with those years.  She was the comforter, the disciplinary figure, and the “old spirit” storyteller that Etse and Beza fondly remember.  She wove countless tales about distant and hard times in Ethiopia during the communist regime and red terror when her uncles were killed, when Italians occupied the country and even back to when Ethiopia had an emperor.  She also spoke of the distant famine in the 80s.  In all of her tales, both true and fiction, she inserted little life lessons which both sisters place importance on such as “keep family, keep traditions, and always support your children.”

Supporting your children and keeping traditions was a difficult balance to juggle when Beza and Etse with their father, joined their mother in the states.  Moving meant the luxurious living of a diplomat in ornate homes being decreased to a small apartment where prized possessions were hard to display properly.  Their once retired father took up random jobs until becoming a manager of a security company.

It was a difficult transition not only culturally but the initial reactions they got from peers at school. Not only were people shocked they were fluent in English but, people imagined us to be skinnier, said Beza.  There was a definite misconception Americans had about people from Ethiopia, said Etse.  The first day of school, Etse walked into find her class doing “country comparison” projects and one student had chosen Ethiopia.  On a giant poster board illustrating comparisons of homes, the student used examples such as an American girl in a house, and an Ethiopian girl in a tree, dogs and cats v. elephants, giraffes, and lions, and shockingly, shoes v. bare feet.


“What you do every day is the same thing I do,” Etse tried to explain to the class.

When friends would come over after school, they were amazed by the family’s traditional decorative apartment which made the sisters uncomfortable. A cultural ease at school finally fell over the sisters to the point when friends showed Beza a popular “South Park” episode of “Starvin’ Marvin” that poked fun at the Ethiopian famine.

“Do I laugh or do I go in the bathroom and cry,” said Etse first seeing the video.   Ethiopia is still a third world country, but not as rural as people think, she said. It’s all about awareness and education, said Beza.  Sometimes you have to simplify it for people and describe Ethiopia as being near Somalia, a name people will recognize.

Besides the uncomfortable first experiences at school, the family was still warmly greeted. The thousand-person Ethiopian community of Phoenix had a grand celebration welcoming Etse, Beza and their father.  Making friends in the Ethiopian community was natural and at times forced upon you, Beza said.  Instead of friendships at schools which you form naturally and let blossom with time, Ethiopian friends were the ones you went to when  you felt needy to talk to people your own age with the same way of thinking and background.  The tight-knit community celebrated birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries together which meant inevitable closeness and knowledge and gossip of everyone’s business.

Today, Etse and Beza both live comfortably at UA with Ethiopian and Eritrean friends from their Phoenix community.

The summer of 2010, opportunely between graduating from high school and entering college as a freshman at the UA, Beza returned to her second home for two months without the support and dependence of her parents or older sister.  It was this trip that prompted her into the field of work she hopes to continue the rest of her life.

The experience was unlike living there where you are surrounded by parental figures guiding you this way and that, making decisions for you, and showing you instead of letting you see for yourself.  That summer, Beza was able to see the true extent of poverty unlike before.  Walking home through the capital streets, women without legs lay cradling their young children, begging for food while their babies crawled in the litter.  Beza saw true poverty, unlike poverty in the US where you eat from soup kitchens, get aid from the government and can sleep in shelters.  With it all directly “in your face…you feel helpless” and above all else, ashamed you abandoned your country, she said.

Before the trip, Beza hadn’t planned on ever coming back for more than a vacation.  Now, she “knows it’s where she wants to be.”  Studying Anthropology and Geography will hopefully bring her back to do field studies and create public policies in Ethiopia, she says.  While in Ethiopia, Beza saw the affects that globalization had on people’s minds and goals.

Everyone thinks they can move to Addis Ababa, find work, make lots of money, and afford the luxuries of a new house and appliances, she said.  They don’t realize there aren’t enough jobs or places to live so people live on top of each other or crammed in apartments.

After visiting the refreshing lush open green of her father’s village where he once was a shepherd, Beza saw that people who lived in the rural villages looked healthier, well-fed, with muscular and exercised bodies as opposed to city-dwellers.

Ethiopie, Ethiopia, Dollo Ado, Dolo Ado, Kobe refugee camp Ethiopian pastoralists face enormous problems after drought has continued for the last two years. Pastoralists can not find enough feeding for their cattle. Here Ethiiopian pastoralists from Somali origin are trying to keep their animals alive while their land has been conviscated after the decission to build a refugee camps for Somali refugees on their home ground. Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Hollandse Hoogte.

At the time I had first spoken with Etse, an evolutionary biology major specializing in infectious diseases, I assumed everyone who came to the U.S. from somewhere foreign inevitably wanted to go back.  It seemed like the hero’s circle where the protagonist must leave their home, gain a mentor, skills, knowledge and tools before heading back to overcome their past challenges, aid others and defeat the antagonist.  But for Etse, why go back when you can work from here?  Studying infectious diseases sure sees a need for a place plagued by famine, malaria, and aids, but so were parts of America, she said matter-of-factly.

“I love my country and I always want to go back [to visit] but it’s not my goal.  There is so much to do here and wherever I go, the most help I will be,” she said. Eleven years had flown by since she had last been there.  “This is my home now,” gesturing to the American Starbucks coffee shop where we sat.

Still, this last December’s trip was a chance for her to visit her childhood home, embrace family members she had left, and walk the streets where she had once so obliviously ran down with neighborhood friends to meet up and play.  What she met in Addis Ababa, was “shocking” she said.

The capital, a complete construction zone of rising buildings and homes attempting to compete with globalization with fully developed areas of town and people wearing the same, if not better, westernized fashions seen on campus or downtown Phoenix.  The most culturally shocking was her longing to return home, to Phoenix after only a couple days.  “I love it there,” said Etse, but she seemed unconvinced she would ever go back to Ethiopia for good.

This is one of four Green Clubs that were established last year in Konso by Trees for the Future and Greener Ethiopia. The students and teachers/facilitators were very active in community tree planting projects.
This is one of four Green Clubs that were established last year in Konso by Trees for the Future and Greener Ethiopia. The students and teachers/facilitators were very active in community tree planting projects.

The recent natural disaster of 2011 in the horn of Africa has again cried out for the help of the international community through the media to fight the famine and plague of infectious diseases.  Both Etse and Beza bore witness to this, though at different times.  What they faced was different than what was portrayed.

Obviously the media was seeking out the most hard hit areas and scenes to shock western audiences into action.  But what both Etse and Beza saw was the poverty spread throughout the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa.  The largest city in Ethiopia with a population close to 4 million, the contrasts between rich and poor are stark.  Some people walk around, hardly affected by it or by what they see, said Etse.  Yet, rising inflation has taken a toll on the cost of living.  While prices rise, wages have stayed the same and currently 17 birr= $1.

As Americans have misconceptions about Africa as a whole, due to the media, and campaigns like “LiveAid”, the rich, “godly” image of America Ethiopians have is enhanced and confirmed by reality television and sitcoms broadcast and translated overseas.  There, it is assumed if you move to America, “land of opportunities” you automatically get a job, make loads of money, and become rich and famous.  It’s a paradise where money grows on trees.  But just as Etse and Beza’s parents have shown, a lot of hard work and difficult transitions goes into it.   People “Right off the Boat” or ROBs, frequently annoy Beza with their overconfidence and attempts to only speak English, no matter how poor.  They are jealous of our non-existent accents and ability to speak English and would do anything to renounce their culture to be more American, said Etse.


But Tucson, like America as a whole has adopted refugees’ incoming cultures.  For about 15 years, Tucson has enjoyed the exotic tastes of Ethiopia from Zemam’s restaurant where owner Amanuel Gebremariam, an Eritrean, first opened up a cozy, renovated home into a quirky new way for people to eat with their hands.  It caught on, as new ways of life and cultures do in Tucson and soon Café Desta opened up in downtown by Brooke and Telahoun Molla to support Tucsonans growing ethnic tastes.  Though both Etse and Besa prefer Café Desta, they are still waiting for the day they will learn the authentic cooking of Ethiopian dishes from their mother.

Education of Ethiopia and America is lacking in both regards, said Beza.  “However, I’m really proud of how people are improving,” said Etse in regards to knowledge about other countries.

America has given me a great education and I want to use it and contribute to my people, my culture, and my country.  The two sisters never spoke of each other at all when interviewing them separately.  They each had their own experience living in Ethiopia and each visiting at different times. They had their individual dreams and ideals of how they were going to have Ethiopia and their culture impact them and their futures, or not.  It was refreshing, yet typical, but different then the “coming to America” story anticipated.

“I feel completely integrated,” said both Etse and Beza on separate occasions and their non-existent accents spoke towards this.  Though Ethiopian industry growth has caused some loss of culture, Beza and Etse’s demeanor speaking about their Ethiopia trailed the same ideals their grandmother instilled in them as children: “Keep family, keep traditions, and always support your children.”

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