Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sketches of a trip : Eritrea 2011

Sketch Four

One of the many things that I do in Eritrea is to dig more deeply into the story of my paternal great uncle, Fitewrari (a title) Fessehatsion Beyene. On this trip, I received some more pictures which I added to my documentary film. I had never seen some of the pictures before. Even though the documentary is still ongoing, I have a clearer picture about his life than when I started it in 2006.

While growing up, I had heard bits and pieces of stories about my late great uncle. Even though I’ve been asking off and on about the little pieces that I’ve heard many times, the replies were either not satisfactory or non-committal. I realized that I had been asking the wrong people or the wrong questions (some of the people whom I had asked were two of Fitewrari Fessehatsion’s late sisters. One of his sisters was in Italy in 1929, in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1940s, London, England in the 1950’s and the U.S. in the 1960’s) until I got a positive and tangible reply from my good friend, Dr. Uoldelul Kelati. That’s when I started to seriously document my great uncle’s life. Pieces of the stories that I had heard included the information that he was a pilot (with a ballad to go with it), had many children from different women (during filming of a family gathering to discuss Fessehatsion, my colleague, Azmera from AVIE, commented that my great uncle was a “human multi-system”), was the best dresser of his time, that women fought over him (with a ballad to go with it), etc.

A couple of years ago, after I returned from a visit to Eritrea, I got an idea and decided to ask Dr. Uoldelul if he could look into the Italian archives and find out anything about Fitewrari Fessehatsion. He wrote me back and mentioned that his friend, Dr.Alessandro Volterra, author of Sudditi coloniali: Ascari Eritrei 1935- 1941, had written a few pages in the aforementioned book on Fitewrari Fessehatsion. I was thrilled to find out that my great uncle had received a pilot’s license from Italy in 1928. Finally the ballad about his flying was confirmed. From what I have gathered so far, he was a modern man (for his time), an intelligent and a very complex man. He was a musician, a cook, a speaker of many languages, a pilot, a “ladies man”, a driver, elegant dresser, etc.

There are many missing parts to the jigsaw puzzle, but let me give you some of the highlights of his life. I’m leaving out some juicy and intriguing parts for now. Some of the highlights were pointed out to me by Dr. Uoldelul. I would like to thank him for that. I would also like to thank Dr. Alessandro Volterra for sending me copies of Fessehatsion’s file which are housed in the colonial archives in Italy and Dr. Massimo Zaccaria for sending me the link for the history of aviation in Yemen.

  • Fessehtsion Beyene was born in Keren, Eritrea in 1890.
  • He spoke Tigre, Tigrigna, Arabic, Italian and Amharic.
  • He moved to Asmara after working as a cook in Keren.
  • In Asmara he became a driver for an Italian official in the early 1920’s. It is believed that there were only 4 or 5 Eritreans who had driving licenses at that time.
  • In 1921, Fessehatsion went to Italy as a driver for the Montenero family.
  • He went back to Eritrea on December 1923 (it is not clear if this was by choice or a necessity imposed on him).
  • His son, Claudio, the product of a relationship with an Italian woman, was born in March 1924. One could imagine the scandal that ensued from public knowledge about this union.
  • Fesshatsion went back to Italy in 1927 as a translator for Yemeni army pilot-trainees. This aviation connection was unclear to me until my good friend, Dr. Massimo Zaccaria , explained to me that it was the new policy of Jacopo Gasparini, the Italian governor of Eritrea of the time, who masterminded a regional policy based on good relations with Yemen, hence, the presence of the army-pilot trainees in Italy.
  • In 1928, Fessehatsion obtained his pilot’s license.


Fessehatsion (second from left) with Yemeni army-pilot trainees in Italy.

Jacopo Gasparini, the Italian governor of Eritrea (1923-1928)
From the book "Italian Colonialism in Eritrea" by Zemhret Yohannes in Tigrigna.

  • In 1929 he was sent to Somalia (though not as a pilot, but rather as a foot soldier) and remained there until 1936. By this time his son Claudio was 12 and, by virtue of his mother, an Italian citizen. Fessehatsion in the meantime had also married a Somalian lady in Somalia and had two sons with her.
  • In 1937, he managed to have his son Claudio with him in Somalia, though he could not acknowledge him as his son (a colonial 'subject' could not acknowledge an Italian citizen). Fessehatsion was able to obtain residency for his son, but at the same time Fessehatsion was forbidden to go back to Italy forever. This seemed to be due to the embarrassment the Fascist government had in dealing with the fact of a black man having a son with an Italian lady. In fact, the military records of Fessehatsion do not mention any misdeed and, on the contrary, kept stressing his unusual skills, cleverness, etc. At a certain point, official records became silent on the fate of the two. But it seems that the colonial administration found it unacceptable for an Italian citizen (Claudio Ricucci) to live together, in a father-son relation, with an African man. This would explain why Claudio ended up in a boarding school, whose costs were paid for by Fessehastion.
  • He was kicked out of Somalia and settled in southern Ethiopia where he died in the early 1960's.

Next, Part Five.

Sketches of a trip : Eritrea 2011

Sketch Three

One of the things that I do in Asmara is to visit Dr. Yosief Libsekal, Director of the National Museum of Eritrea, in his office. As usual, he was very gracious and humble in receiving me and we discussed the various activities that the National Museum is engaged in. While discussing their activities, I found out that Dr. Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro, research professor of ICREA (Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats), Spain, was in Asmara and that he was going to leave the same evening. I told Dr. Yosief that I was interested in meeting and interviewing Dr. Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro about the extraordinary 1 million year old bull skull, Bos buiaensis, found in Buia, Eritrea. Dr. Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro agreed to be interviewed that afternoon. I was also introduced to Tsegai Medin, a young Eritrean archeologist, a student of Dr. Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro. Currently, Tsegai is director of research at the Eritrean National Museum. If I am not mistaken, at the time of Eritrea’s independence in 1991, there was only one archeologist. Now there are over 40 young archeologists working in different parts of the country. Proof of Eritrea's investment on its human development resources. Tsegai graduated with a Master’s degree from University of Catalina in Spain and is going to continue with his PhD studies.

Dr. Bienvenido Martinez-Navarro (on the left)

Archeologist,Tsegai Medin, director of research
at the Eritrean National Museum

Even though the filming was unexpected and unplanned, I rushed home, ate fast, skipped the traditional coffee ceremony, grabbed my camera and went to catch my ride to the National Museum. When I got there Dr. Bienvenido Martínez-Navarro and Tsegai had already set up the famous Bos buiaensis on the table. I could not believe the size of the horn on the bull! It was found in 200 fragments, and after it was reconstructed, its length is 2 meters. Even though I’ve read and heard about the different finds, it dawned on me that Eritrea is becoming not only a center of major mineral activities (Bisha, Zara, Colluli and etc.), a modern “El Dorado” if you will, but also a center of major archeological finds in places such as Buia, Adulis, Asmara, Mendefera, and etc. In other words, Eritrea has become a “gold mine” for mineralogists, archeologists and now cyclologists (with the win of the 7th UCI African Continental Cycling Championships in October 2011, a cyclologist is my made-up term for scouts who look for best cyclists).

Below are some of the points that Dr. Bienvenido Martinez-Narvarro made and also some examples of major archeological finds in Eritrea:

  • Eritrea has some of the best archeological, paleontological, and pale onto-archelogical sites in the world.
  • This is very important heritage for Eritrea that has to be used for the development of the country.
  • Buia Lady: 1 million -year old hominid skull found in Buia, Eritrea.
  • 27 million year old elephant missing link called Eritreum melakeghebrekristosi named after the farmer, Melake Gebrekrestos, who found the jawbone.
  • The oldest settled agricultural community in Africa on the outskirts of Asmara.
  • There are over 40, 000 potential archeological sites in Eritrea.

All of these finds and activities remind me of an old Greek saying attributed to Pliny the Elder who wrote that “Ex Africa simper aliquid novi”- something new always comes out of Africa. I would like to say the same thing when it comes to Eritrea- “Ex Eritrea simper aliquid novi”.

 Next, Sketch four.

Sketches of a trip : Eritrea 2011

Sketch Two

My trip to Eritrea would not have been complete without looking into some information on Kidane Kiflu. People sometimes ask me why I continue to research about Kidane Kiflu. My answer to that is twofold. First, I read the letters that Kidane Kiflu wrote to Jack Kramer, which are housed in the Hoover Institution Archives. Through his writing, I began to understand and appreciate his prophetic vision (while he was in his early 20’s) for a future Eritrea. Second, and most importantly, I wanted to understand, through Kidane Kiflu (his life and writings), his generation. That is, the generation that brought independence to Eritrea, fighting through thick and thin to achieve this goal. In other words, was the vision that is described in his letters only his or was he representing his generation’s sentiment and vision for the way forward for Eritrea at that time and beyond? I came to the conclusion that he was representing his generation. I believe that he along with Woldai Ghidey became important in the struggle because their death signified “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in the EPLF’s split from the ELF.

Kidane Kiflu

As evidenced with other students and student leaders who joined the Eritrean struggle such as Tekue Yehdigo, Welderufael Sebhatu, Mehari Debesai and others, they were as dedicated, well versed, well articulating in their analysis and vision as Kidane Kiflu was in his letters. Therefore, Kidane was one of the many young people of his generation who had the vision, commitment, determination and discipline to see an independent and truly free Eritrea. His letters, and letters by other student leaders of the time, testify to the aforementioned. By the way, I believe that a particular period in history can also be understood not only through archival materials, interviews, but also through letters to/from individuals, organizations, friends, family members
and etc. A couple of years ago, for example, at the Research and Documentation Center (RDC) in Asmara, I looked through letters written in the early 1970s by Eritrean students in various countries across the world to their respective organizations in various countries. It is a fascinating read. Of course, I didn’t have enough time to look through all and research deeply, but suffice it to say that one day it should warrant for research on the various Eritrean student movements (Eritrean Students Association in North America, Germany, Russia “the former Soviet Union” and etc.) While we are at it, we also need to do research and publish all the posters and tapes that the liberation struggle published. It is because the various respective cultural and political productions (posters, designs on the cassettes, songs, etc.) of the time represented a
particular threat, motivation, mobilization, education, and etc. This doesn’t mean it has not been done yet, but we need to do more. For example, RDC has digitized the entire Dmisti Hafash (Voice of the Masses) broadcast since its first broadcast in 1979. Also RDC has identified and reproduced digitally, books that were printed in Eritrea since the first book came out in 1867 through 1941. There were more than 750 titles identified and some 60,000 pages digitized. For more on this keep an eye for my interview with Dr. Massimo Zaccaria.

Tikue Yehdego

One thing that I noticed every time the name Kidane comes up in conversations in Eritrea is that he is remembered fondly and respectfully. I have talked to people who knew him personally and every time I end up hearing some new information about him that I have not heard before. For example, in my 2008 visit to Eritrea, I heard from a person who told me that he had received a letter from Kidane a week or so before his murder. In that letter, I heard Kidane has sensed that he was going to be killed and he had mentioned that in the letter. I have urged the person to look for the letter.

On one occasion during this visit, a group of us went to have drinks after a book signing/ book review event of Michael Adonai’s latest book entitled “Tsehifto Haneta: Ekub Tewaseotat Hagerawi Bealat” (Haneta’s Writings: collected national holidays theatrical plays). For a report on this event, see my upcoming Sketches of a Trip: Eritrea 2011.While discussing and admiring the just concluded event, the conversation ended up discussing Kidane Kiflu. A person who was there was shocked when he heard that I had written about him. He said that he knew Kidane and his family very well. As a matter of fact, he mentioned that he still remembers when Kidane left to join the Eritrean struggle from Addis Abeba; People who knew Kidane in Addis Abeba understood (including his family) that he was leaving for Czechoslovakia for his studies. This was something that I never heard before. Further down in the same discussion, several names popped up who knew Kidane in Addis Abeba and I jotted down the names to interview them.

Some of the people on the list were people who I already knew and had interviewed for other topics, but did not realize they knew or even went to school with Kidane. One person told me that Kidane was very serious at Haile Selassie I University in Addis Abeba. He told me that Kidane, behind the scenes, was one of organizers of the Eritrean students at the university. I also understood that he was a good friend of Professor Donald J. Grady, a Canadian political science
professor from McMaster University, who was teaching at that time at Haile Selassie I University. I was informed that Kidane Kiflu threw a party for Prof. Grady, when the latter was returning to Canada. In that event, Kidane was the MC of the party and had on his Eritrean traditional cloth. In that event, the renowned historian and playwright, Alemseged Tesfai sang a song. Who said our heroes didn’t or don’t have fun!

During a discussion with some people in Asmara, I heard about the book written by Tekie Beyene entitled “Kab Rik Hifinti” (a loose translation would be “a snippet from an enormous part”). I bought the book and asked Tekie to autograph it. The book is an autobiographical account of his involvement in the struggle. It is the first of its kind. Tekue Yihdego’s name is mentioned many times as one of the student organizers in Asmara. As I mentioned at the beginning of this sketch, Tekue Yehdego’s (Mehari Debesai’s and others’) writing and vision was similar to Kidane’s. In the book Tekie mentions that sometime later after Yehdego joined the liberation struggle, he was sent to Beirut, Lebanon. By this time, Kidane Kiflu was already killed (1969) in Kessela, Sudan. In Beirut, Merhai Debesai and others arranged for Tekue to get married to Haddas. When their son was born, the couple named him Kidane in memory of Kidane Kiflu. Later, Tekue died in Eritrea while he was on assignment. And guess what? The god-father of Kidane Tikue is none other than the president of Eritrea, Isaias Afeworki. All of the above and more are detailed in the aforementioned book by Tekie Beyene. I recommend the book highly. I encourage other people who participated in the struggle for Eritrea’s independence to follow Tekie’s example and write their personal experiences in the struggle.

The front cover of Tekie's book
published by Hidri Publishers
in Asmara, Eritrea

Back cover. Commentary by Alemseged Tesfai,
Woldemichael Abraha and General Sebhat Efrem.

Pictures are courtesy of Tekie Beyene. I would like to thank Tekie Beyene for letting me use the pictures.

Next, sketch three. My visit to the National Museum of Eritrea

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sketches of a trip : Eritrea 2011

Sketch One

I always look forward to my regular visits to Eritrea because of the surprises that await me. Even though the physical distance between Eritrea and the United States (where I reside) is far and wide, the distance has been shortened (time and space, circumvented) because of ERI TV's (Eritrea's national television) 24/7 physical presence in our living rooms.

This year’s trip was different from my previous trips because this was the first time that I was visiting Eritrea at the same time as the rest of my family. Therefore, most of the time was dealt with family reunions, visits and travels. As Dawit Haile mentions in one of his series on his travels entitled “Ghosts of Famine and Drought, where art thou?” (Part II), first and foremost, we had to visit families whose loved ones had died since our respective last visits. After all the family visits were taken care of, I was able to sneak in some research and filming here and there. I also had the opportunity to give three lectures. The first lecture was organized by the Organization of Eritrean-Americans/ Eritrean-Canadians Returnees. The organization has over 130 members, with its office located in downtown Asmara. The organization also manages a café. The returnees are engaged in various activities and contribute to the development of Eritrea. Among them are chemists, economists, lawyers, IT professionals, engineers, physicians, professors, agronomists, scientists and etc. With the turnout and success of the first lecture organized by the aforementioned, two other invitations (by Orotta School of Medicine and Dentistry and Asmara Public Library) followed. The turnout in both places was large and discussions were lively. Even today, I am still getting e-mails about the discussions. I would like to thank the board members of Organization of Eritrean-Americans/Eritrean-Canadians Returnees,Professor Andemariam Gebremichael and Professor Abraham Kidane for inviting me to speak at the Orotta School of Medicine and Dentistry and Asmara Public Library,respectively.

The first place that I did some filming was at the site of the Egila - Dem'Hina road construction. Since my last visit to the same place in 2008, the construction has progressed tremendously. It is an engineering marvel. The commitment, dedication and professionalism of the work are evident with every turn. To check the progress, five of us (four from the Audio Visual Institute of Eritrea) left Asmara one early morning. We stopped for breakfast in Dekemhare, and continued to our destination. Before we reached Adi Keyeh we made a left turn on the road to Safira. The entire area (Qohaito, etc) is an archeologist’s “heaven”. After traveling for hours (it didn’t feel like we were on the road for hours because we had so many laughs along the way) we reached Biddho Construction Company’s camp. Biddho is the company that is building the Egila-Dem'Hina road . The camp is located on top of one of the mountains whose chain crowns the area. With the finalization of the road, south central Eritrea will be connected with Foro, which is located in the eastern part of Eritrea. The government of Eritrea has been working to connect every part of Eritrea. The time is not far when all of Eritrea will be connected like a spider’s web.


                                                Member of Warsay Yekalo chiseling Biddho's logo

As soon as we arrived, we were offered water to wash our faces and feet. Dinner (tasty Shiro) and coffee followed right away. Members of Warsay Yikalo in the area joined us and the fun and laughs continued until the wee hours of the night. We were shown our room for the night. At night, I experienced first hand the saying that “necessity is the mother of invention.” The “guest house” is entirely made out of zingo (corrugated roofing sheets), which makes the rooms hot
during the day and cold during the night. However, the interior of the rooms (including the ceiling) at the camp, were entirely covered with tenkobet (handmade traditional straw mat), which keeps the rooms cool during the heat and warm during the night. Eritrean ingenuity at work!

The following morning, I woke up and toured the camp and stood at the top of the mountain and viewed the spectacular scenery. We had a good breakfast and set out to film the community who reside in the area participating in building canals and bridges. The participants included children, the youth, the elderly, women and men. We visited several places where people were already participating very early in the morning. I talked to some of the villagers and asked them about the changes that the road is making in their lives. They told me that with the road being operational they were able to go to Adi Keiyh by bus for services such as hospitals, etc. Their only concern now is that of water. I witnessed the bus service that they mentioned in my conversation. The bus leaves for Adi Keyih twice (leaves on Wednesday afternoon and returns on Friday morning and again leaves on Friday afternoon on returns on Sunday afternoon) a week. The market days in Adi Keyih are on Thursdays and Saturdays.

In the afternoon we reached the spot where the construction team is painstakingly carving a road out of the side of the chain of mountains. The construction has reached the point where one can see Foro in the distance and the sea shining like a mirror behind it. What remains to be built is a short distance of road to get to the bottom of the mountain range, and after that the road will be flat from then on. After filming there, we returned to Biddho’s camp and were treated to an early dinner. After that we headed back to Asmara.

Wedi Feraday, Wedi Zere (in charge of the road work
to Foro), myself, Yemane and Yosef.
Akiliu is missing
from this picture.

Four of my co-travelers (Wedi Feraday, Aklilu, Yemane and Yosef) are my colleagues from the Audio Visual Institute of Eritrea (AVIE). AVIE has a very talented group of young professionals (both male and female) who are engaged in producing films in Eritrea. They have recently bought the latest expensive HD cameras, computers and editing software. Since the beginning of September 2011, one of their members, a promising director of photography, Samuel Alazar, is in China studying film. There is no doubt that AVIE would be in the forefront of producing and presenting Eritrean narrative to the world, both in documentary and feature, in the coming years. After our return to Asmara, my colleagues went to Zoba Gash Barka and Nafka. Unfortunately, I was not able to make that trip. Another member, Azmera, joined them for the trip. The pictures from their trip is also included in this sketch below. All the pictures are taken by Yemane Andebrehan.

A Conversation with Rahwa Gebretnsaie

Issayas: Can you tell us about yourself?

Rahwa: I was born in Connecticut and moved to California at a very young age. California had many great gifts in store for me, including a new brother, supportive communities, and great institutions of learning. My parents were very dynamic both in their parenting skills and in their involvement with the Eritrean community organizations of the Bay Area. They kept my brother and I involved in everything from soccer leagues, to Tigrinya school and charitable activities. I am indebted to them for teaching me by example the meaning of discipline, self-sacrifice, and compassion for others.

Rahwa Gebretensaie

I spent my teenage years involved with an organization known as Y.E.S. (Young Eritrean Students). My best friend and I founded this organization in response to the deportation of thousands of Eritrean civilians from Ethiopia during the 1998-2000 war. Through this organization, we worked with our elder leaders in the community to raise funds and awareness of the human rights violations that were happening towards Eritreans residing in Ethiopia. Despite the fact that we were able to raise over ten-thousand dollars for these war displaced victims, I felt defeated as I continued to witness innocent civilians being imprisoned, robbed, torn apart from their families, and deported out of Ethiopia for no basis other than their Eritrean ethnicity. I realized then that I wanted to make a more long-term contribution towards preventing injustices like these from happening again, and so I turned to my focus towards my education.

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, I decided to double major in Political Economy and Arabic Language and Literature. I chose Political Economy to give me a theoretical understanding of what motivates the behavior of states and to gain historical perspective on the different policies and strategies states have used to develop their economies.

Issayas: Briefly, how do states behave and what is your assessment of Eritrean political economy?

Rahwa: The best way to answer this question “briefly” would be with the old saying: “Nations don’t have friends, they have interests.” The policy-makers who determine national interests are ultimately accountable to whoever legitimates their power, which varies from state to state. There is also the geo-political context in which membership in multilateral institutions, regional organizations, and other strategic alliances among nation-states also influences states’ behaviors.

As for the second part of your question, as Africa’s second youngest nation, Eritrea has the benefit of hindsight in assessing what economic policies have and have not worked for other African nations. It is really difficult for me to make a general assessment about the Eritrean political economy in light of the kaleidoscope of issues that encompass the question. One notable aspect about the Eritrean political economy is the extent to which many of the current policies reflect a continued desire to maintain self-reliance, which was of course one of the most valued principles of the independence movement.

Issayas: Why did you choose to study Arabic?

Rahwa: I chose to study Arabic, first and foremost out of a personal fascination with the language and culture. I had the fortune of learning Arabic from two amazing professors at UC Berkeley, Dr. Sonia S’hiri and Dr. Muhammad Siddiq, to whom I am forever indebted for teaching me the beauty and depth of the language through poetry, prose, and religious texts. My Arabic studies led me to travel to Egypt where I spent one year studying at the Arabic Language Institute at the American University in Cairo. I joined organizations on and off campus in an attempt to meet as many people and gain as much as I could out of my experience in Egypt. This gave me the opportunity to engage with fascinating students and professionals from around the world, which really helped expand my world view at the age of twenty-one. Egypt left a lasting impression on me, and far exceeded my expectations of being a place where I would merely study Arabic.

Issayas: Have you been to Eritrea?

Rahwa: While I was living in Egypt a few of my classmates, expressed a strong interest in visiting Eritrea with me during our spring vacation. Without hesitation, I invited these Singaporean, Somali, and Israeli friends to join me on a short trip back to Eritrea. Although this was not the first time I had visited Eritrea, the country seamed unusually tranquil and peaceful. Perhaps this was because I had come from one of the world’s most overcrowded yet enchanting cities, Cairo. My friends were really amazed by the generosity of our people and the serenity of the country.

I had previously visited Eritrea in 1992, 1998, and 2002. Each year was marked by an incredibly different historical context. In 1992 the country had just emerged from thirty years of a long protracted war. While the spirit of nationalism was incredibly high, the massive destruction the war had caused was widespread. By 1998, the country transformed and the destruction had been replaced by many new infrastructure projects at a rapid pace. I also witnessed many unbelievable strides being made in the health and education sectors. Unfortunately, my family and I were forced to evacuate within days of our arrival due to the breakout of yet another war. By the time we returned in 2002, I was shocked to see the toll that the war had taken on the progress Eritrea had made since independence.

Issayas: For your graduate degree, you went to your alma mater and graduated in law in 2010.Why did you choose to study law?

Rahwa: I made the decision to study law in Egypt while I was a student in Egypt, where I joined a student group known as the Model World Trade Organization (“WTO”). The organization consisted of students from all over the Middle East and Africa, which made for very lively debates and a great learning experience. We spent weekends debating a wide range of trade related issues such as the legitimacy of agriculture subsidies in the U.S. in the context of the Doha rounds. Through this experience I became interested in the intersections between law and development, and so I decided to apply to law school.

Issayas: Do you have any advice to young Eritreans?

Rahwa: At this stage in my life, there are really only two pieces of advice that I feel compelled to share with young Eritreans: 1) My parents have always said to me, life is about “miwdak’n mitisa.” ("fall and rise") I’ve experienced many setbacks in life, however, through my faith and strong circle of family and friends I have been able to pick back up from each defeat and learn how to reinvent myself. Take each fall (“miwdak”) as an opportunity to rise (“mitisa”). These experiences are opportunities for you to develop the strength and wisdom that will carry you forward in life. 2) Stop the “kal’alem”! Let me first say that I deeply respect our culture for teaching us to be modest and respectful of our elders. These are traits of dignified people. However, those of us who are also American must adapt to the society we live in which values confidence and assertiveness.

Rahwa with her brother and parents.

Issayas: Being humble doesn't mean you don't have confidence. In other words, is there a boundary line between self-confidence and narcissism (vanity, conceit)? Can you balance between being humble and being confident?

Rahwa: Many Habesha Americans, myself included, tend to sell ourselves short. This is not because we lack self-confidence, but rather because we are taught to be humble. Young Eritreans need to learn to be confident and assertive if they are to succeed in this country. There is certainly a way to do so without appearing arrogant and vain, which our culture disdains.The first step is to value your self worth, and the second step is to know when to assert it. Whether you are in a job interview, applying for college, or seeking a promotion, you should always have the mentality “I deserve this.”

I have learned the hard way that too much modesty can be a real setback. There may be times when you see your peers advancing farther than you, despite the fact that you are more capable than they are. I guarantee you that when this happens, more often than not it will be because you understated your capabilities and they overstated theirs. You should speak about your talents with pride, you should boast about your credentials, and you should not be afraid to overstate your capabilities (with reason of course). Remember, you can always learn what you need to know when you get there, the key is to getting your foot in the door.

Issayas: Rahwa, Thank you for your time and thoughts.

Rahwa: You're welcome.
On November 10, 2011 Eritrea was represented (for the fourth time) at the 5th annual Cultural & Diversity/Disability Awareness Day at Caltrans Office (district 6) in Fresno, California. Even though the Eritrean community of Fresno is small in number, they came out in full force to support the cultural event. People lined up to taste Eritrean food, checked out the cultural products on display, talked to members of the community about Eritrea, read displays, drank traditional coffee, danced to Eritrean music and listened to a saxophone rendition by Fekadu Amdemeskel (a former Police Orchestra and Roha Band member). I must say that Eritrea was well represented by the Eritrean community members of Fresno, as cultural ambassadors.

According to Petros Demoz, the organizer of the Eritrea section of the event, in an effort to educate employees and the public on the rights afforded to all races, ages, cultures, sexes, religions and sexual orientations under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Caltrans, at the end of each year, organizes a cultural event. In the event, employees are encouraged to enjoy cultural foods, crafts, displays and a variety of performances & dancers. Caltrans is California's Department of Transportation.

Below are pictures from the event. Kudos to the Eritrean community members of Fresno, California.

Below are some pictures from the previous cultural events (2008-2010). Visailia Eritrean community members also participated.

Next, A conversation with Rahwa Gebretnsaie.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Conversation with Dr. Simret Beraki

Issayas: Can you tell us briefly about yourself?

Simret: I was born in Asmara, Eritrea. When my mother was six months pregnant with me, my father, like many fathers at that time, had to leave his family and join the EPLF (Eritrean People's Liberation Front) to free Eritrea. My mom had been a housewife, and transformed into a working mom to raise five children on her own. When my two oldest siblings reached adulthood they had to leave the country as well, and by chance my big brother ended up in Sweden. Six years after his arrival, he and my mom decided that my older brother and I would be better off if we joined my big brother so that we could have a better future.

We attempted to reach Sweden through Poland, which at the time seemed problem free. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Poland, Sweden was not accepting refugees through Poland and all the borders where closed. As every refugee, we had to stay in Poland, hoping to go to Sweden eventually. After almost two years of waiting, Sweden accepted our asylum application since we were underage, and we were allowed to join our big brother in Sweden. I learned Swedish in one and a half years and started my first Swedish class in high school. Afterwards, I went to Stockholm’s University and my major was molecular biology and chemistry. In 2003 I started my PhD study, and I defended my thesis in 2008. In 2009 I moved to California for my first postdoc position at Stanford University, Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences.

Simret wearing her Dr's ( Doctor of Philosophy) hat on November 2008
at the City Hall in Stockholm, Sweden. The event was organized by
the Karolinska Institutet in the City Hall.

Issayas: How was life in Poland? Were there any Eritreans at that time?

Simret: Life in Poland was hard, the toughest time in my life. There were other Eritreans but they were all adults, I was only 13 years old and my brother was 15 years old when we arrived in Poland. I always felt like an outsider because there were no Eritreans my age. We didn’t go to school, and basically had nothing to do. Since we were the first refugees in Poland, they didn’t know how to deal with us. I learned the language by interacting with the locals. This is in the beginning of 1990, when Poland became free from the Soviet Union and the majority of the people had never met a black person. It was extremely intriguing time of my life.

Issayas: How were you able to speak Swedish in a year and half?

Simret: Thinking back, I don’t even understand how that happened. The first year in high school was hard, it was not only the language that was new to me but all other subjects, as such chemistry. physics, technology, biology etc, all was new to me. Thankfully, I met really nice class mates that were there for me, and my big brother helped me a lot. In addition, I was brilliant in mathematics, which improved my confidence, whenever it was hard I was confident that it was due to my language difficulties, not that I was less intelligent than others.

Issayas: When were you in Eritrea last time?

Simret: I was in Eritrea in 2003, just after I graduated from college. I took a 3 month vacation and stayed at home with my parents in Asmara. I’m extremely attached to my family; I call home to Eritrea every other week and see them every other year in Sweden.

Issayas: You work at Stanford Institute for Neuro Innovation and Translational Neuroscience as a resarch associate. What is neuro innovation and translational neuroscience?

Simret: Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neuro-sciences (SINTN) investigates the function of the brain and spinal cord at the molecular, cellular, and behavioral level, as well as the pathological processes underlying nervous system failure following injury or neurologic and psychiatric diseases. Based on this knowledge, the aim is to develop new techniques that influence the function of the nervous system, which can eventually translate into therapeutic approaches for people with disorders of the nervous system.

Issayas: Any advice to young people about succeeding in the West?

Simret: Know your potential; do not be afraid to try different things to find what you are passionate about. Be eager for knowledge; the more knowledgeable person you become the more power and respect you receive. Lucky for me, my big brother knew my potential before I knew had one, even when everybody else was telling me I would not succeed. He told me to go for it. Be supportive to yourself and others.

Issayas: Simret, thank you for your time and sharing your experience with us.

Simret: You're welcome.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Where is Bisrat now?

Twenty years ago, a group of us started a newsletter called ERITREANA in our neck-of-the woods.
Also twenty years ago, a young 8th grader from Baltimore, Maryland (USA) sent me an article to be published for the August/September 1991 issue.

Fast forward to May 2011. Where is Bisrat now?

Issayas: Would you tell us about yourself?
Dr. Bisrat: A lot has happened since I last wrote about myself in your newsletter. I am proud to say I have several roles currently. I am a mother, wife, and doctor. As you can imagine, I am really busy in my day-to-day life but I enjoy all aspects of my life, particularly hanging out with my one year old son. Currently, I am working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer (we are also known as the “disease detectives”). I work on infectious disease such as tuberculosis. I will be obtaining further clinical training as an infectious disease specialist in a few months.

Do you remember that you had written an article for a newsletter?
Yes, I remember writing that article many decades ago! I’d forgotten what I’d written but it was great to see it again, now as an adult.
Issayas: Let's continue from that article. In the article, you mentioned that you and your family would be traveling to Eritrea that summer (1991). Did you make that travel? What was your reaction going there the first time?
I was amazed to visit Eritrea back in 1991. Everyone in the country was ecstatic that Eritrea had obtained independence and there were jubilant celebrations in the streets. I enjoyed a wonderful 3 month vacation there. I was so happy to see the relatives that I left behind, especially my grandmother. I also made many new friends, some of whom I still keep in touch with.

Click on the page for a larger image 
Issayas: Have you been to Eritrea since then?
Bisrat: Yes, I actually spent a year there after graduating from college. I worked with the Ministry of Health on a variety of projects. Some of my activities included making visits to Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps throughout the country. My travels allowed me to visit many places in Eritrea including Keren, Afabet, Nakfa, Barentu, Adi Keyh, Areza, Massawa, Koito, and the Dahlak Islands. It was a life changing experience, to say the least. I was sad to see the destruction that war had caused but I was happy to see the resilience of our people.

Issayas: Even though you were in the 8th grade when you wrote the article, in
your article you encourage young people to learn their language, to know
their culture, etc. Now, you're not an 8th grader, but a practicing physician
who graduated from John Hopkins University, a renowned university. What message do you
have for young Eritreans?
Bisrat: I encourage them to work hard and stay focused in their studies. For me, education has been my ticket to a better life. I would encourage young Eritreans to dream big and think of ways to make their dreams a reality. In my discussion with Eritrean youth, I have found that they may not always be aware that they can achieve whatever they set their mind on, no matter how big or small. I think the saying “the sky is the limit” should be everyone’s motto. With that said, it’s really important to reach out to other Eritreans who have already gone through the process of schooling and career development to obtain guidance and mentorship. Being in medicine myself, I know there are things that I wish I had known when I was going through the process that might have made my life easier. Nevertheless, others like me are now available to help, and in this social networking age, it should be a lot easier for Eritrean youth to connect and reach out to others. We have to maintain a support system for each other and provide mentorship along the way.

Issayas: What would be your advise for children (and parents, too) to be successful like you?
Bisrat: Actually this is a great question. I now have a one-year old son and ask myself that same question. Honestly, my goal is to raise my child the way that my parents raised me. This means he will grow up in a relatively strict household with a lot of guidance from his parents. My husband and I want to teach him Tigrinya as his first language and want to encourage him to learn about his Eritrean heritage. We have also decided to limit the amount of television that he watches. Actually, our goal is to simply remove the television from our home and encourage other activities such as reading and outdoor excursions. In addition to getting him into a good school (preferably public), we also want to encourage him to engage in many extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, arts, travel). We want him to be a fun-loving and independent child that takes initiative and lives life to the fullest.

Issayas: The person sitting on your lap in the picture is your sister. What's her name and what's
she doing now. Is she your only sibling?
Bisrat: Yes, that is my sister. Her name is Zebib and she is going to graduate from college on May 21, 2011. I suppose I’ve been an influence in her life because she has recently decided to go to medical school. She is thinking about pursuing a psychiatry residency after completion of medical school. I also have a younger brother who is currently a second year mechanical engineering major. He is a sharp cookie as well and is considering a career as an engineering researcher. He is especially interested in exploring alternative energy sources and will likely seek employment with a company that is working on advancing those types of technologies.

Bisrat (left) and Zebib. May 21, 2011
Issayas: Now you are married and have a one year of child? Could you tell us about your
Bisrat: Yes, my husband is named Hagos. Hagos and I met at a family wedding where he was a groomsman and I was a bridesmaid. The bride and groom of that wedding decided to pair us up as they thought we would make a nice couple. Little did they know that we would get married nearly one year after their wedding. Hagos is a second generation Eritrean who was born in New Jersey. He’s completely fluent in Tigrinya (maybe even better than me, although this is a constant debate between the two of us) and has been to Eritrea twice. He is a computer scientist went to (MIT: Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University) by training as well as a businessman.We both have loving and supporting parents and we are currently enjoying our new roles as parents.
Issayas: Thank you for your time.
Bisrat: You're welcome.
Note: The interview was conducted by phone and e-mail.