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When I think about some of the most difficult times in my life – the times that I wish I would have made better, more informed decisions – my adolescent years immediately come to mind. Adolescence is a difficult time, for anyone. Because adolescence is a tumultuous time in the lives of so many, there is a wealth of research covering it. One research team writes, “young people…are in the midst of a process of restructuring social relationships, of ﬁnding their place in society, and of making important choices for their future lives.” (Beyers and Cok 2008, 147). However, for the immigrant youth attempting to navigate these processes, the challenges are compounded by the potential for numerous contradictions between the culture of their parents and their homeland, and a variety of cultures that exist within American society. The challenges that these processes present to Ethiopian-American youth are of particular interest to me. Over the course of several weeks, I had the opportunity to get to know Metasebiya “Meti” Mulugeta, the Director of Youth Programs for the Ethiopian Mutual Community Association (ECMA), which operates the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle. During this time, I learned how the ECMA, in concert with the greater Ethiopian community in Seattle, is creating spaces where its youth can be empowered to succeed, and providing essential services for parents within the Ethiopian community which allow them to successfully make the transition from the homeland to their new home in Seattle.
The Ethiopian Community Center (ECC) is located on Rainier Avenue South on the border of the Dunlap and Rainier Beach neighborhoods of South Seattle. The building – previously the home of a church – is well maintained, but not elegant. The property, including the large parking lot, is fenced and gated and the building’s windows are barred, presumably for security reasons. The interior of the building has a very professional, business-like appearance, while at the same time displaying the identity of its Ethiopian occupants. The walls are painted off-white and adorned with framed poster of varying sizes, displaying maps of Ethiopia and an assortment of historical and cultural facts.
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During my time at the ECC, one of things I found most fascinating was the atmosphere. As expected, Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia) is most commonly spoken. Although I don’t understand all of the conversations, some words and phrases are familiar to me, such as chiggeralem (no problem) and eizzosh (I’m sorry [female]). Because the lobby area and its adjacent offices are used to provide social services to the community, the atmosphere is very business-like, but I am continuously fascinated at how venturing deeper into the building progressively reveals to me a vibrant community that I would never see by just standing in the lobby. On my first visit to the ECC, I was struck by how quiet the building was and attributed it to being a Friday afternoon. I was curious about where the two young children ran off to when I greeted them as I sat filling out paperwork. As I got to know the ECC, I learned that Friday is one of their busier days, but the action occurs just on the other side of the heavy double doors separating the lobby from the rear of the building. One of those areas is the classroom, where children from the community come for tutoring.
Three afternoons a week, the classroom in the back of the Ethiopian Community Center is used for the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association’s tutoring program. The classroom is arranged in a typical fashion, with bookcases and filing cabinets containing a variety of children’s materials, books and supplies lining the walls. On the walls are various posters displaying educational and health related information. Several of the educational posters display information about the fidel, or Amharic alphabet. In the center of the room are several tables arranged in the shape of a horseshoe so that the children can sit on the outside of the horseshoe, while Meti and Beiza, the tutoring volunteer, can occupy the center area.
If one were to walk into the classroom of the Ethiopian Community Center (ECC) during a tutoring session, one might characterize the numerous and simultaneous interactions between youth and tutors as cacophonous. While the enthusiasm of the children and the diligence of their tutors looks like many other classrooms around the city of Seattle and across the globe, the community that comes together to make it possible have a singular vision in mind: to empower the youth of Seattle’s Ethiopian community and prepare them to face the unique challenges of immigrant youth.
“[After you have been learning Amharic for one year], I want you to write books to send to children in Ethiopia.” Meti, the Youth Programs director of the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association had just introduced me to the tutoring class at the Ethiopian Community Center.
The children in the tutoring program range from five to ten years old. Hermela, the oldest of the group, exclaimed, “But that’s so hard!”
“After one year it won’t be hard for you. You have already learned your fidel and many other things, and it will continue to be easier for you,” Meti replied, reassuring the children.
“But why do…?” Hymanot is an energetic eight year old, who assured me when I met her that she is eight-and-a-half. Anticipating Hymanot’s question, Meti interjects, “Here in America, you have lots of books to always read, but in Ethiopia children don’t have a lot of books. If we do this, we can help them!”
“That would be really cool, but it’s still a little scary…” Nine year old Eden’s response reflects the general acceptance of the group to Meti’s reasoning. However, it is apparent that through the acceptance and excitement, the arduous task that Meti has proposed is somewhat intimidating for the children.
Interactions during the tutoring session are an interesting hodgepodge of Ethiopian culture and behavior one would expect of five to ten year olds. The children are almost always distracted by something, and if they don’t have something to distract them, they find it. Beiza – a nineteen year old whose, nearly perfect, American English amazed me when she told me she had only lived in the United States for one year – has her hands full with the children who seem to wait for her to try to get one of them on task to start their next disruption. When Beiza walks out of the room and I am left alone with the children, they immediately run to the front of the classroom and start dancing while singing “Gangnam Style.” Even in this, their Ethiopian culture is evidenced as they are reticent to sing the line “Hey sexy lady” in anything more than a whisper.
As one would expect from young children, fun seems to be the order of the day for this wild and rambunctious group. Hymanot is particularly excited about Halloween, which is the next day. She regularly asks the other children what they are doing for Halloween. Eventually, she approaches Beiza and asks her, “What are you doing for Halloween?”
“I don’t celebrate Halloween,” Beiza replies, somewhat preoccupied with helping Blain with her homework. Blain, one of the older children at ten years old, answers, “It’s not our culture to celebrate Halloween because it’s all monsters and ghouls and stuff…”
According to the EMCA website, one of their goals is to reinforce Ethiopian cultural values in their children. During the tutoring sessions, it can be seen in Meti and Beiza’s interactions with the children as their conversations are salted with Amharic language and examples from Ethiopian culture. This is apparent to me as the children regularly refer to me as Gashe, an Amharic term of respect that is used to address the eldest man in the room. However, a couple of the more energetic girls insist on calling me Bertram because of my apparent resemblance with the butler from Disney’s Jessie. A stern glance from me and they quickly change it to Gash Bertram which elicits a gaze of mock annoyance. My own children are seven and ten years old, so these types of games are very common for me.
During an interview with Meti, I asked her to elaborate on the ECMA’s stated goal to “help mold, guide and mentor the next generation to be educated, responsible, law-abiding, and respectable members of society” (ECMA 2013), their vision for the direction of the ECMA’s youth program, and the challenges involved in that. Meti expressed the importance of being able to transition from an all-volunteer staff to a paid staff that is supplemented by volunteers in order to provide a sustainable and valuable resource for Seattle’s Ethiopian community.
To run it the way it is [with] volunteers, it demands a lot. Working with kids is very interesting, very rewarding, but also demanding. [A lack of programs for older youth] is a funding issue. We need to have well experienced people who can be here for a long time. You can’t start something and [just] abandon it, so we don’t want to start something we are not going to really follow through.
The challenges that Seattle’s Ethiopian community face reflect the realities of survival in the American culture. The complications caused by the focus on individualism are immense for immigrants coming from a culture where the community and family are central to their existence and survival. Meti related that Ethiopian immigrants find themselves spread thin working multiple jobs, caring for their children, sending remittances to help family at home, and being involved in activism to effect change in Ethiopia. The lack of time for volunteering is insignificant compared to the effect this has on the youth who find themselves in a place of liminality, where they feel on the threshold – but not quite a member – of multiple worlds (Turner 1995).
The easier thing to adapt to is this kind of culture…Before parents are able to settle and understand [American] culture, [the youth] are already in that situation…In our tradition there is corporal punishment; parents are more authoritative. They come here and feel this is all of a sudden taken away. The kids [think they] can do whatever they like and there are no consequences. This discrepancy is problematic…For the children, it is also very hard. They have a different culture, a different life at home. As soon as they get out there, they are faced with a different world. When they walk across two worlds in one day, it is [very] hard…We are raising them here and they are influenced by everything that is going on [around them]…We have to come half way. We have to really understand their world. The burden is on us, the parents. Otherwise they are either going to rebel or be crushed. We don’t want either one of them.
Meti tells me that the EMCA uses a two pronged approach in order to address these discrepancies. The first is to offer social services in the form of counseling and classes to parents in the Seattle Ethiopian community that will give them the resources needed to successfully transition from parenting in Ethiopia to parenting in the United States. It is common for them to be unaware of what their parental rights are or how to adapt to American realities, with only the advice of friends and the – often misinformed – information their children pass on to them. The second is to provide a safe space for the community’s youth where their Ethiopian heritage and culture can be reinforced so that it provides them with a foundation for facing the challenges that their world(s) provide.
Our main focus is to empower them, build their confidence, and give them a place where they belong, where they are noticed, where they are the center…where they are celebrated, where they are encouraged and feel like they master it…we are giving them a secure base.
In order to accomplish this, the Seattle Ethiopian community must face the challenge of coming together from across the Seattle metropolitan area in a deliberate effort to make the ECC a place where young and old in the community can find support. During our conversation, Meti was clear that church and family were still critical components of the Ethiopian community, as they are in Ethiopia. However, the realities of living in a new land among new peoples is that there are gaps. As an organization providing a social service to fill these gaps, the ECMA must draw from all parts of the Ethiopian community in Seattle to be successful, with some like Meti relocating in order to be more accessible.
When you are in the homeland, the environment is natural and organic. We are creating that here, but it is out of place for a lot of people. Some are coming from Lynnwood; some are coming from Everett; people are coming from [many different] places for deliberately planned gatherings. By doing so, we are connecting the community together. In Ethiopia, you don’t have to look for people. They are there…and that’s the thing: in the diaspora, you really have to make a concerted effort to come together.
As immigrant youth go through the process of identity formation, they naturally face challenges that other adolescents might not. As Meti so eloquently said to me, “…they walk across two worlds in one day…” In The Promised Land, Mary Antin writes, “What the child thinks and feels is a reflection of the hopes, desires, and purposes of the parents who brought him [sic] from overseas, no matter how precocious and independent the child may be.” (Antin 1912, 198). The parents and leaders within Seattle’s Ethiopian community understand this fundamental truth, and embrace their role in the future of their children. For the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association, the Ethiopian Community Center has become a place where Seattle’s Ethiopian community can come together with a common vision for their youth and battle the challenges of a new home with a new culture to create the places where their youth can flourish. They have actively sought out young adults within the community to join with the older generation to carry the vision of the ECMA forward. They recognize how critical a holistic approach is to successfully addressing the challenges that their youth face, and they understand that the key to this success lies in their ability to connect the Ethiopian community from all parts of the Seattle metropolitan area to fill commonplace gaps within the diaspora.
Antin, Mary. 1912. The Promised Land. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Beyers, W, and F Cok. 2008. "Adolescent self and identity development in context." Journal of Adolescence 31 (2): 147-150.
ECMA. 2013. About Us. http://ecseattle.org/about-us/.
Gutierrez, Scott. 2010. Local Ethiopians seek help to open a community center. August 5. http://blog.seattlepi.com/thebigblog/2010/08/05/local-ethiopians-seek-help-to-open-a-community-center/.
Tadesse, Kirubeal. 2011. Seattle honors Ethiopian community Center founding stars. June 7. http://ethiomedia.com/andnen/2569.html.
Turner, Victor W. 1995. The ritual process : structure and anti-structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.