Entering this same world as a refugee, you know that “home” is never really home. Home becomes wherever you feel safest, where people speak the same language as you, where you can stop code-switching and feel free to be yourself.
That home changes based on where you are in life. That home becomes a choice.
I was born in a refugee camp in Sudan, and grew up in the United States. In 2003, for the first time in my life, I got to visit my homeland of Tigray in Ethiopia, the region where my entire family is from. I got to see where my parents grew up, to meet my grandparents and so many other relatives in person — all for the first time. That trip changed my life. I finally felt like there was a place on Earth where I belonged.
But I hadn't returned home to Tigray in 20 years.
During the 1980s, Ethiopia was at war with its own citizens, specifically targeting Tigrayans. The Ethiopian government famously used starvation as a weapon of war, a policy which has since been restarted. Up to 1.2 million Ethiopians from the north, especially Tigray, died of a famine many academics classified as government-sanctioned. My parents fled to Sudan during this time, like many thousands of Tigrayans, and met in the refugee camp where I was born.
I was raised with Tigray as my North Star. Wherever we lived — be it our first apartment in the US, a cramped two-bedroom in Denver full of donated furniture and clothes, or a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house in the suburbs that my parents saved for 10 years to buy — home would always be Tigray. Everything we did, we did with the mentality that we would go back there and live in Mekelle, Tigray's capital city.
Instead, life happened. I moved to New York City, had my oldest son when I was 22, and my future started to look a little more blurry. One son at 22 became three sons by the time I was 32. Even just visiting Tigray was out of the question, as all my time, energy, and money went to making sure my boys were living the best life possible.
But I still dreamed of my homeland, wondering if my aging grandmothers would ever meet my boys, and what relationships my boys would have with my father, who moved back to Tigray in 2013.
Then November 4, 2020, came: the day my life completely changed. Suddenly Tigray was at war — a war that quickly became genocidal.
The first act of the renewed ethnic cleansing campaign was a full telecommunications blackout. This meant phone calls, FaceTime, and text messages with family members in Tigray were all out of the question. I would have to to wait months before I could confirm which of my family members had survived.
Just as the war-turned-bloodbath was reaching its two-year anniversary, after 600,000 people had been killed and a government siege threatened to kill millions more of hunger, a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed between the Ethiopian government and Tigray’s regional government, halting fighting and slowly opening up telecommunications, thus allowing us to call home.
This summer, after two and a half years, Tigray became accessible again. I could visit my family, I could see my father’s face, touch my grandmother's hand, smell the tesmi, or clarified butter used for many things like cooking and beauty treatments, in her hair. I had to go to Tigray as soon as possible. The probability of another war was too high. If I didn't go now, I thought, who knows when I would have the chance again?
In August, I hopped on my first of three flights headed to Ethiopia. My physical journey back to Tigray started with 30+ hours of travel. My children remained in our little apartment in Brooklyn, with all the conveniences and comforts of America.
When people visit Tigray, the first stop for many is Mekelle, the capital. While in Mekelle, it was easy to forget that a war had just ended. The remnants of conflict had all been cleared out, conversations about tourism and investments were happening everywhere I went. I was reminded of the war only by the huge influx of internally displaced people — and the level of fear and paranoia that had become rooted in the city's culture.
I even became numb to the many children and elderly people begging for food or money, until I realized the majority of these children are internally displaced persons (IDPs) who often have no other option.
In my mother’s hometown, my mother, sister, and I slept with my grandmother in her bedroom as she prayed over us, asking God to protect us and give us lives full of peace and ease. My grandmother at 94 years old was more independent than any of us. She lived alone and did everything on her own. Her children and grandchildren went in and out of her house as they pleased. We loved on her, kissed her every time we walked in and out of a room, gave her gifts, danced with her, ate anything and everything she offered, enjoyed coffee ceremonies with her, came up with games to entertain and engage her. We spoke our broken Tigrinya, and she impressed us with her knowledge of English and American culture, knowledge she gained due to having three of her four daughters live in the US, thousands of miles away from her.
My grandmother never married, she never learned to read or write, yet she ran — and continues to run — a shop, where she raised all of her seven children. She has survived wars, displacement, famine, her children dying, and being forced to leave home. She is the matriarch of our family. She is the embodiment of my goals.
I come from a line of women who are resilient, smart, quick-witted, fiercely independent, clever, entrepreneurial, silly, and beautiful. To us, men are not necessities. My lineage values family, with or without husbands. Children are our legacies.
But since the war, my grandmother has become nervous, and there are now locks on every single door. She has a nightly routine of locking everything before she is comfortable enough to sleep. She won't allow us to walk outside on our own, or even sit outside for long.
I wonder if she’ll ever return to being the trusting, faithful women I knew her to be. Now that the ICHREE mandate has ended and may never be renewed, making it even harder to seek accountability and justice for the many crimes committed against Tigrayans — especially Tigrayan women — I wonder if Ethiopia will ever again be a safe place for women.
During my return to Tigray, I realized Tigray has always meant family, and maybe I’ve been confusing that with home. Home is where my children are, where I feel free to dance naked in my bedroom, where I play my music as loud as I want, where I create magic from thin air, where I speak to God the most.
Home is my choice.
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