Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Father's Perspective

During the last year, this Blog has helped us follow Samra’s sojourn as a young Ethiopian-American spending a year in Ethiopia. Family, friends and almost 600 other individuals have read her reflections. Some have left their blessings, words of encouragement, admiration, and well wishes. As her father, I thank you all for your kind words.

I wanted to write this entry primarily to share my perspective with other Ethiopian parents in the Diaspora. My purpose is simply to tell how our family decided to send our daughter on this sojourn and what the year meant to us. It is neither to advocate nor discourage others from doing the same. We all have different challenges and circumstances in life and have to chart our own way on how to get things done.

We are a generation that was forced to leave our homeland under very difficult circumstances and to raise our kids in all corners of the globe. We are also a traumatized generation that dream of the day when our homeland will know peace instead of war. We dream of the day when our leaders will have the wisdom to lead with dignity and honor as their forefathers did, instead of perpetuating a cycle of hate and disaster. In the meantime, we yearn to share with, and maybe pass on to our children, a piece of this special place where we grew up that most of us still call home.

For years I dreamt of spending a year in Ethiopia, so my kids could experience what it really meant to grow up there. I wanted them to experience what I experienced. I wanted them to experience what it meant to grow up in a place where everyone looked like you. I wanted them to experience what it meant to grow up in a place where children are celebrated and considered the utmost gift from God. Most of all, I wanted them to experience the beauty and diversity of Ethiopia. Although we have visited Ethiopia a few times starting in 1995, I did not feel they really appreciated all the things that gave meaning to the essence of Ethiopia. In order for that to happen, I felt they needed to experience going to school there, having friends there, and living a day-to-day life surrounded by the sounds and sights of life in Ethiopia.

I had hoped one of my associates would manage my business in California, while I spent a year with my family in Addis. Unfortunately, that did not work out. I had almost given up when a friend’s wife who had moved back from Los Angeles about seven years ago was visiting in early 2004 and suggested that Samra should come stay with them for a year. Their oldest son had just moved back to LA to finish high school and their daughter, who is Samra’s age, would love for Samra to come and spend the year with them. That was a tough decision. I had not envisioned my kids in Ethiopia without me. They would be leaving us soon enough to go to college, and a precious year away at this age seemed unbearable. However, as they say, timing is everything. Samra was at a stage in her life where issues like identity were paramount in her life. She wanted to take the opportunity. She wanted to go. How could we say no?

We took her to Ethiopia in mid-August and helped her settle down with our friends while we stayed at my cousin’s house. My cousin is an educator on the East Coast and uses her house mostly during the Christmas and summer break. The house came with a caretaker who also happens to be a great cook. Samra’s first day of school was tough, though. As adults we sometimes forget how much a teenager’s identity is wrapped up with who their friends are. Samra has always been a social girl with lots of friends. However, that first day of school she did not know a soul at ICS except her cousin Sally, whom she had just met. I still have the visual of her standing alone in the assembly between all the kissing and hugging of kids who had not seen each other all summer long. Watching her watch the kids, I thought maybe this was a mistake. That evening I was sure it was a mistake. It was one of the worst days of my life. Samra came home in tears. I called Sally and told her it’s her job to have lunch with Samra every day and to take her under her wing. I called the school counselor at home and asked what else I could do. Does he have any words of wisdom? He said it’s not just the new kids who have a hard time at the beginning of school; even his daughter has been crying all night because her best friend has moved back to Europe. He also said from his experience this will all be history in a week. He was right. By the end of the week Samra was flapping her wings and flying into the horizon. We stayed in Addis until mid-September to make sure she was doing ok, but she wasn’t very interested in our being there. We then left and came home.

I have to admit the first few months were not easy on me. We typically called Samra a couple of times a week. There were a couple phone conversations where I wondered what the $#@^ did I do leaving my baby girl thousands of miles away. I almost got on a plane a few times after talking to her on a day when she was particularly having a hard time. That is when Marsha and I decided one of us would have to spend quit a bit of time there. We decided it would be easier on us as a family for Marsha to go. We also decided that she would keep going back periodically as long as Samra needed us there. I really…really missed my little girl during those first few months. I couldn’t wait for her to come home for Christmas.

Marsha actually ended up spending another three and half months in Ethiopia. She went back in November and came back home with Samra for Christmas. She went back again from mid-March to mid-April and also from mid-May to mid-June. This actually ended up being a blessing for Marsha as well. In the past, she had seen Ethiopia through my eyes. During her stay, she learned to appreciate Ethiopia through her own experience and interactions. She was also able to do some volunteer work at ICS giving her a chance to interact with the expatriate and Ethiopian professional community as well.

Life got a lot easier for all of us after the Christmas break. As you can read in her blogs, Samra’s mantra that home is Oakland, California, USA …...somewhat changed around then. She was making friends and having a lot of fun in Addis. She was able to navigate through the chaos that is Addis and she felt she belonged. She learned to take a regular taxi, negotiate the price in Amharic and go get her hair done or simply hang out with friends from ICS. Knowing that she was having a good time made my life a lot easier.

Although the year was not always easy, we are very happy that Samra had the opportunity to spend the entire school year in Ethiopia. You can read her blog entries about her self-discovery during the year. She truly is a different person. Some of the obvious benefits included:

1. She has learned enough Amharic to get by. She took formal lessons twice a week for most of the school year. The nice thing about the formal lessons is that she can read and write as well.
2. Spending a year at ICS with kids from more than sixty nations has made her appreciate that she is unique as an individual and is not just a check mark next to her ethnicity on some census form.
3. They say that you need to know where you came from to know where you are going. Samra has always been confident and strong. However, I think this year has made her even stronger and more confident.
4. She really gets Ethiopia! All the stuff I mentioned above plus some more.

I hope you will find this perspective helpful if your family decides to take this sojourn for your child.



iamnasra said...

I read this in another blog...I was truly touched by the story...It takes a great courage and insight from do so...I did learn from this I hope one day your stroy will be kept within me and will able to choose the same journey for my children to see Zanzibar

Anonymous said...

Dear Haile,

Thanks for inspiring a few of us to give experience for our children. Your story is wonderful! Thanks for sharing. You should be proud and feel blessed to have a daugther like Samara.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the post. I have a similar story to tell.

After a long absence, I took my son back home and we approached Ethiopia, my son glued his face to the window for most of the time. When he was not looking outside, he was looking at me to dicepher my emotions.

Now that he is a grown man and can afford it, he goes home once a year, to be met by my old friend who advices him about the pit falls that awaite a young man in Addis's night life.

My only regret is that I didn't send him early enough to master Amharic. His repertoir consists of a few words that are always preceded by " tadias.."