By Seble Teweldebirhan
Addis Ababa, March 26, 2013 (Ezega.com) - Wherever they might be, Ethiopians, have a deep love and connection to their families. Even with all the faults and unnecessary responsibilities they carry, Ethiopians all over the world scarifice their time and money to support and change their families. In fact, supporting family in financial terms is the reason for many to go abroad by whatever means necessary, to work hard, to pursue education etc. While all of this, in the long run, benefits the individual (since working hard and attending school for whatever reason is a good thing), there are some unfair sacrifices Ethiopians pay just to ensure the survival of their families and in some cases raise the comfort level of their relatives.
How do their families feel about spending the money sent from abroad by their children who work eighteen hours a day, live in intolerable conditions, get treated like semi-slaves, lose all their self-respect, and compromise their principles and dreams just to make sure the pay check keeps coming? How about parents at home, who know that their children’s precious time is wasted while cleaning somebody’s kitchen and never be able to enjoy freedom to move or to choose their life style and their destiny? How about many Ethiopians coming from abroad who hide from their own families just because they are ashamed that they failed to meet the financial needs of parents and relatives?
Grum’s* family heard very little of their son during the last four years. The only concrete information about him was they sent him to London eleven years back and he was in contact for three of the first years. After that, few Ethiopians who have seen and met Grum have told the family that he was well. He never called or communicated with his family directly for almost five years. I met him in London in a small Ethiopian restaurant. ‘They expect a lot. Even the neighbours want this or that. I can’t do it. I hardly make enough for my own survival. I have been working as a daily labourer, and all my time I could have gone to school and change my life has passed me by,’’ he says. ‘At times I feel like my family don’t even love me. They don’t care about me and they keep asking me for money. They don’t know how I make it, how hard I work and all the things I lost after coming to this country. When I tell them this, they will say that this is to be expected,’’ he added.
After all of this, Girum decided he is better off without them. ‘If they really cared about me they would have encouraged me to go to school. For that I was supposed to save money. I couldn’t do that because they kept asking me for more money,’ he says.
Hanna* left Ethiopia when she was only seventeen. ‘I lied about my age so that I could get a passport. I told the Kebele administration I was twenty and they just believed me. My parents were there when I tell this lie. That is one of the things that make me laugh about Ethiopia. You can just change any fact about yourself and you get away with it since there are no proper records,’’ she laughs. However, underneath her smile, one can sense Hanna experiences extreme sadness that she says left her with a broken heart. The first country she went to was Lebanon. She hardly keeps her emotion when she talks about it. ‘‘I have spent fourteen years in Lebanon. In all those years I went to Ethiopia only twice. The rest of the time I was there locked in my employers’ house. I was not allowed to go out and there were times I used to just miss the streets and the people outside. I was imprisoned and my family couldn’t care less. I was too young and truly expected them to advise me and show me another way. They were always happy to collect my money and my cries went unheard. That still hurts me when I remember it. I have older brothers and there were times when I wish one of them will just call and tell me to come back home. I even had dreams where my brothers telling me that I should just go back and they will help me figure another means of living. That never happened. Instead the calls kept coming requiring me to send more and more money,’’ she says.
Today Hanna* also lives in London. I met her on a train and she was very happy to share her story with me. ‘‘My employers brought me to London on their vacation so that I will look after their small children. I disappeared. I didn’t know anyone but I just did it. I was fortunate that I met some Ethiopians who helped me. It was like freedom from slavery,’’ she remembers. ‘‘Can you imagine spending all your late teens and twenties locked in some strangers’ house who never treat you like a real person? I have seen the children of my employers grow up, go to school, enjoy their life and pursue their dreams. I have seen them being loved and taken care of by their families. That never happened to me and it has broken my heart,’’ she said.
Now Hanna* thinks she has grown a lot. ‘‘I still love my families and I like to think if they did have a choice they would have loved to keep me and give me a better shot in life. But today I know that first and foremost, I have to look after myself. I try to take a good care of myself and I only do what I can for my family,’’ she says.
Stories of this sort never end. However, the conclusion is one and the same. Many Ethiopians are pressured to compromise their feature and lower their expectations out of life and keep sending the money home regardless of how they made it. ‘‘I used to work in a garage,’’ Tadesse told me. ‘‘And I was really good at it. I really understood cars and I made good money. When I was in Addis Ababa I was the richest of all my friends. Everybody came to me to borrow money. I didn’t have to go to work because sometimes people bring their cars to my house so I can fix it for them. Now when I think about it, I have no idea how I chose to live this life instead of my career that was filled with freedom and success,’’ he said.
When an opportunity appears for him to go to Europe, Tadesse said he was not really trilled by it. ‘‘I had doubts. I mean it was not like I had any financial problems so I was not much excited. But everyone around me was. That included my parents who specifically told me this was a golden chance. My friends celebrated my visa as if it was an award. The night I left Ethiopia it looked like a wedding. I was convinced by all the sounds around me and now I understand that I didn’t really listen to myself and I made a terrible choice. If I had to do it again, I will not choose to come here’’.
Now, Tadesse* has a deep pain when he thinks that his friends who learned how to fix cars from him managed to make a good life of their own in Ethiopia. ‘‘Some of them are married with children and others are doing really well. I am really happy for them and sad for me. I mean even if I get more money here, I still feel they have better self-respect and they lead their lives in a direction they want to,’’ he says.
Tadesse does not blame his parents. ‘They just didn’t know any better. By the way, I gave them more money while I was in Ethiopia than after coming here. Life here is tough and I feel like I am not helping them as much as I should do,’ he says.
Back home, there is still very little awareness about the conditions of Ethiopians living abroad. Though, to some extent people are realizing the hardship of life abroad and the sacrifices many Ethiopians pay for the sake of families and relatives, still many parents never stop dreaming to send their young children abroad.
Some blame poverty and others consider it as a reflection of the Ethiopian culture that uses children as another means of resource and consider them a mere extension of themselves whose main duty is to ensure the survival of the family. In fact, both are valid arguments. The deep rooted poverty, unemployment, and several other societal problems make parents want to relay on their younger children for a better future. To make sure that their children bring the financial support needed, parents and relatives are forced to push their children to make different choices than they did for themselves. That indeed includes getting out of the country and go to a place with a better pay.
In fact, there is a strong tendency of emphasizing communal benefits in Ethiopia and disregard of personal needs, especially in rural areas. Everybody works to support everyone else and that includes the children who might be forced to look for other ways of supporting the family than by traditional means. Still, when these Ethiopians suffer from losing hope and deteriorated self-esteem, they will definitely wonder where the family and the community they served fit in their world.
Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Columinst for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form