A few months after my family and I returned to our home in the DC suburbs, I had an experience which, in a way, cemented my decision to zero in on Ethiopian immigrants and to write about them. At first glance, it seemed one of those pedestrian experience that we daily come across. But, suffice it to say, it was what triggered the decision.
One day I brought my dry cleaning to the Vietnamese-owned shop in downtown Silver Spring. It’s a shop I have used for many years. A couple of days later, the owner told me to pick up my items because he lost his lease. Not long after, a cafe owned by an Ethiopian opened at the same spot. A thought flashed in my mind that the number of Ethiopian businesses in Silver Spring has grown more than I could ever imagine. In the countless times I have driven by Fenton Street, I could count on my fingers the Ethiopians shops that were there before I left. Now, there are more restaurants, hair salons, cafes, and small grocery stores. Businesses offering travel, legal, tax, and cell phone services to Ethiopians also abound.
I spent weeks reading as much as I could about Ethiopians, their culture, politics, and how they came to America. I began to feel a kinship toward them. Like me, many had suffered under repressive governments. In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos sustained an autocratic rule for more than twenty-five years, earning him the “strong man of Asia” title by the international media. While still in my teens, I became one of the thousands of political prisoners under his regime. This harrowing experience instilled a keen interest to understand interpretations of ‘otherness.’ I have often seen myself as an ‘other’ even in familiar settings: family, hometown, schools, culture, politics, or religion, all of which one can reasonably assume are integral to identity. The influx of Ethiopians in a DC suburb provided an opportunity to discern “other-ness” in many forms. They weren’t born in America. Little Ethiopia intrigued me as it represented ‘they’ as opposed to ‘we.’ In brief, I was keen to explore what one German pastor once preached as du und du neben dir – the you and the you next to you, and what this might mean in my interactions with Ethiopians in a DC suburb.
Weeks earlier, I had spoken to a therapist employed by a public school in Northern Virginia. The school enrolls an overwhelming number of immigrant students. While we talked she told me example after example of students struggling to make it in school, the hurdles they face as refugees, as new immigrants, or as children of those who fled because their lives in their homelands were at risk. The challenges they confront in resettling in a new place was enough to drive these vulnerable children into a deep mental malaise difficult to extricate from and to treat. One of the stories that stayed with me was that of a nine-year-old Sudanese girl who was sent to the therapist because the girl was failing all her classes. Her English was rudimentary at best. Worse, she was suffering from any number of psychological maladies that commonly afflict refugees. More troubling was the girl's mother, who refused to trust that the NoVa public school would protect her child. The mother suffered from physical and mental afflictions resulting from being tortured in Sudan. She has learned to mistrust schools because of what she has seen at a Sudanese school and wasn't inclined to trust one again in a new country. The therapist said it took about a year for the child and mother to get enough help to move forward but that it would take several more years to heal so that they could get back toward a semblance of normality in their lives.
At the end of our conversation, when I asked the therapist what advice she could give me in dealing with refugees, she said this, "just remember, their stories are not their lives."
It's a piece of advice I intend to follow as I begin my fieldwork meeting and interacting with Ethiopians in their community.