Covid-19 has taught many (for the first time) that one person’s illness is a threat to all. We are told that to beat the virus, we need to beat it everywhere. We all have a responsibility to protect others and prevent the spread of destruction. This idea of helping oneself through helping others is a marvellous aspect of life. It has encouraged me to meditate and think back to past challenges and how I have allowed myself to support others. A flaw of the human condition is that our thoughts are often focused on the future – what we want to or will do next.
The following is a brief account of my past, some challenges I have faced in my homeland, my education and how I diverted my attention to those who were in harsher conditions. I hope that these facts of my life will encourage others to look back at their own lives and gain reassurance and confidence in themselves to tackle the various strains on everyday life and society caused by the pandemic. I also hope to encourage people who lack the support to overcome their present challenges and not to fret. Instead, I want to encourage people to divert their energy from anxiety to helping others. Helping others is not a one-way transaction – it is not just giving but also receiving in it. The biggest lesson to learn from the pandemic is that there is much to gain through helping others and protecting ourselves – and to help ourselves we need to enable and protect others.
In 1999 I was unexpectedly trapped in the UK. At the same time in Ethiopia, my family (my elderly mother and three children) were thrown out of our home. They had to flee 500 miles to the safety of a family friend. I was part of the women’s struggle for freedom in Ethiopia. That struggle, to this day, continues in every society – it is here in the UK too, and it is this which keeps me healthy. The sight of women determined to fight for themselves, their young and others. It is incredible how we women feel courageous and empowered when we do something to help others. Although it may be challenging and frightening, and often others may tell you it is a lost cause and you have not accomplished any good, you feel better if you try. Freedom needs no permission; it is a fundamental human right. Success is there in you.
Yet there are so many setbacks. So many problems work to restrict our freedom, our right to live in peace. Our response is to work harder, the answer is not to be frightened, and the retort is to fight back. But never through violence. Sometimes it is enough to be bold and say ‘the world is not right’! Question things! – ‘Why are these people killing each other?’ – ‘Why are people so cruel?’ – ‘Why are we in hunger?’ – ‘Why are we not free?’
The communist regime imprisoned me in my country, accused of being part of the underground struggle against the government. When I was released from prison, I said to myself that it is for a reason – there was a reason that I was spared. It might be for my family, and it might be, I think, to change a lot more people’s lives, not just my own family. The ambition of changing things has stayed with me since. Not only of matters in my native Ethiopia but also here in England. I cannot change people, but maybe I can help them change how they feel about themselves and believe in themselves. I can help them achieve justice for themselves because the thirst for life is in every individual.
When I was a little girl, I played putting blocks of wood and stones in stacks as if it were a library shelf, and there was no library at all in my area. The rocks were my imaginary books. My dad was a policeman, one of the first trained personnel in the Kings guard. He was chosen for the role because of his educational background. As a teenager, my main hobby was immersing myself into many books and as a young adult, I pursued my education. Simultaneously I volunteered to teach literacy to people in rural areas. I worked as a primary school teacher while studying part-time to finish secondary school. I did not have formal training, yet I became an admired teacher and helped improve literacy among the farming communities. Through this, I managed to engage with even more women.
I also helped in hospitals. I was engaged with missionary doctors as a care worker and it was bliss to help people who needed help. I created spaces for youths to get together. I managed to convince the Kebele committee members to build a bakery which catered for a community of around 4000 people! We had public meetings once a week to discuss challenges with education, health, employment, early marriage and arranged marriage, FGM, and other pressing cultural and community-specific problems. I became the assistant headteacher for the elementary school in Alamata and at the time I was the only woman associate headteacher of elementary school within the Wollo province of Ethiopia. I was granted an opportunity for further training to become a headteacher and I was subsequently promoted to elementary school headteacher.
My father is one of my biggest influences and he supported me when my mum did not. Perhaps she was terrified because of all the cultural norms I was breaking as a woman, striving to empower myself and other women like me. She would always disagree with what I wanted. She thought that I was mad. She believed in an arranged marriage. When I was young, several men started coming to ask my family for me to be their wife, but I refused every time. It was challenging to go against your family’s wishes in those days, no matter how bizarre they were. Yet I said no! My father argued: let her be whatever she wants. I told my mum that I would introduce my future husband to my family when I chose a husband. When I think back to that period, I ponder how I was no longer afraid precisely due to my thirst for freedom.
I later managed to get a scholarship to study Library and Information science in education, in the Soviet Union. It was challenging leaving my son behind to go to a strange country. I had to be strong through all this. Yet I stomached it and I decided to face this challenge with all I had. And so, I was victorious in the end, fulfilling my education dreams. After I gained my qualification, I went back to Ethiopia. I became a librarian at the University of Bahir Dar.
Receiving credit for your work gives you encouragement to do more and a sense fulfilment. Without close ones boosting your courage, you miss all the positive things you do. Through the loved ones that encouraged me, I realised that I was positively impacting others. I was practising and inspiring kindness and hard work. The importance of all this is the impact of mutual support. It gives you strength and raises a question about yourself, and it helps to know who you are.
When I claimed asylum, I felt humiliated, as a person without a homeland. I let myself melt. When I first came to the UK, I was not a refugee. I came to Huddersfield University as an official representative of the Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia as part of an experience exchange program. My aim in coming to England was to link Huddersfield University and my former university in Ethiopia. I had dreams to fulfil my hope of gaining more experience from a more advanced institution and returning to my people. I did not want asylum, but I had to survive. My life was threatened and I needed protection. I wanted peace, freedom and to be treated as a human should be. I sought a place which will be my own. Not land or bricks and mortar, nothing material and mundane. I wanted a free and humane society, and I wanted to be accepted as a human being.
I have worked with various organisations in the UK that assist refugees and asylum seekers. As a settled refugee, I know and understand the problems they face in accessing services. I have worked with a long list of colleagues, students and clients from many different ethnic groups and religions. I have always had a good working relationship with them and have even absorbed aspects of their cultures. My personal experiences incited an urge to fight for the social inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers. Feeling isolated and lonely is poison to one’s life. It causes stress, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Therefore, I worked to set up inclusive organisations, where women can be free.
The lesson I have gained from all these life experiences is that I have been able to overcome my problems and create opportunities for myself and others through helping others. At this age, I have learnt not to be comfortable in any condition. One is always in a challenging situation, coming out of one, or on the way to one. What helps a lot is to look back at personal experiences and see you have it in you to fight again. There are, however, plenty of advantages to reap from looking back at times passed and reviewing our experiences. In the present we are often anxious about minor challenges. However, when we look back at our lives, we see how trivial current challenges are compared to what we have overcome to get here. If we do not take time to look back, we will not have the encouragement and confidence to tackle the challenges at hand.
In love and solidarity, Zenebu.