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It was a warm spring evening in Addis Ababa. Under a shimmering, starry sky, the capital city of Ethiopia was blanketed in stillness.
My parents and I were returning home from the drive-in theatre. I loved the drive-in because burgers and fries — my favourite duo — always followed. That evening we watched Titanic.
As a curious six-year-old, I had a lot of questions about the movie: How did something so gigantic float? Why did the ship shoot fireworks into the sky? My mother chuckled, pinched my cheeks, and promised to answer all of them in the morning in exchange for my secrecy.
She didn’t want my brothers to be jealous of our outing. She wrapped her pinky around mine and sneakily kissed my hand. We had struck a deal.
We pulled into our peaceful home in the chaotic suburbs of Addis Ababa. Our sky-blue house was wrapped with a white veranda and sat in the middle of the large yard I once loved.
In the backyard was my mother’s garden. It was beautifully lush, fragrant, and colourful. More importantly, it was an abundant source of fresh fruits: papaya, mango, sugar cane, and my favourite, guava — a gift I’ll forever cherish.
That night, I got ready for bed with a heart full of gratitude for my family and a prayer for the safety of the Titanic’s passengers. I wrote down all my questions, brushed my teeth, and knelt bedside for prayers.
“Thank you, Father, for my family. Please make my middle brother nicer to me. Please save Jack. He’s drowning in your ocean. Please make school stop so I can hang out with my grandpa. Amen.”
Four hours later, I was jolted awake by a loud noise.
Someone kicked down the gates enclosing our property. I ran out into the upstairs hallway. My father was standing there. He was loading a pistol. “Grab your brothers, quickly!” he shouted.
My father rarely raised his voice. He was usually a calm, collected man. I’d never seen him so scared. His hands were shaking. Sweat covered his body as he muttered a prayer.
I ran back into the bedroom I shared with my siblings. My brothers, Same, 4, and Eyoel, ten months old, were awake. They, too, had been startled by the noises. I picked up Eyoel, grabbed Same’s hand and ran back into the hallway.
This time the sound was closer. It was downstairs. The intruders kicked in our door, and just for a second, it felt like time had stopped.
Ethiopian soldiers stormed our home, shouting for the surrender of two Eritrean nationalists — they had come for my parents.
Deflated, my father looked over at my brothers and me. His eyes welled up with tears as he raised his arms and went downstairs. He was immediately apprehended.
My mother refused to go downstairs. She bravely stood in front of our room. Shielding the door, she shouted, “AWET NEHAFASH,” which translates to “Victory to the masses” in Tigrinya, Eritrea’s official language. A soldier struck her head with his rifle and dragged her away.
For the next two months, I lived in an empty house, caring for my brothers, consumed by fear and uncertainty. I often wondered if I would ever see my parents or have a place to call home again.
The memory of my mother’s bravery stayed with me, providing a small but vital source of comfort and hope amidst the chaos.
Although culturally intertwined and often jointly referred to as Habeshas, Ethiopians and Eritreans haven’t always seen eye to eye.
After 72 years of colonization by European powers, Italy from 1882-1940, and Britain from 1940-1950, Eritrea wasn’t necessarily free. Instead, it was declared a federation of Ethiopia by a commission of UN and US delegates.
In the ten years that followed, an opportunistic Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, dissolved the Eritrean Parliament and seized Eritrea in 1962. He formally, forcefully, and illegally annexed Eritrea declaring it the fourteenth province of Ethiopia.
Selassie’s ambition began a bitter 32-year war for Eritrean independence. My family, especially my mother’s side, was very prominent in Eritrea’s struggle for independence.
We lost 17 family members over three decades of resistance.
But their sacrifices were not in vain. In 1993, the Eritrean peoples’ quest for independence was finally over. Eritrea was recognized globally as a sovereign nation, and it’s people were given back the land they called home.
In May 1998, a border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia broke out, lasting until June 2000. It resulted from a disagreement over the border location between the two countries, which was left undefined after Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, following a 32-year conflict.
Arrests like those of my parents were frequent for Eritreans in Ethiopia and Ethiopians in Eritrea during the period referred to as “Sidet,” meaning expulsion. Ethiopia expelled 77,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin, which it deemed a security risk, compounding Eritrea’s refugee problem. Most of the people expelled, like my family, were considered well off by the Ethiopian standard of living. Many faced deportations and had their belongings confiscated.
The war escalated into full-scale combat, causing widespread damage and forcing thousands of people to flee their homes. During the war, both sides experienced heavy losses and saw their infrastructure significantly damaged during the conflict. In 2000, the Algiers Agreement ended the war by establishing a ceasefire and a Joint Border Commission to define the border.
Despite the agreement, tensions remained until 2018, when the two countries finally moved toward peace.
The 1998 border war between the two countries had a profound and lasting impact on their citizens and reminded them of the destructive consequences of unresolved conflicts.
Fleeing or being deported from our home country wasn’t exclusive to my family. It is a widespread occurrence. According to the UN’s 2020 International Organization of Migrations (IOM) report, 89.3 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, or events seriously disturbing public order.
For the first two weeks after our parents were torn from our lives, our housekeeper Abaynesh would sneak into our property to check on us. She was a kind woman — the type to risk her safety for the well-being of others. She brought food, advice, and, most of all, comfort.
Then one day, she stopped showing up. As a six year old, it was hard to rationalize why. Did she get caught? Does she not like us anymore? Her sudden disappearance added to my paranoia. Those who aided Eritreans during Sidet were detained — or worse.
Nearly two months had passed since my parents were torn from our lives, leaving my brothers and me to fend for ourselves.
We lived in hiding, huddling in a secret nook in my mother’s garden come nightfall, where we could keep watch over what was once our house. We only dared to venture into the house during the day when we didn’t need to turn the lights on. I credit our survival to my incredible hide-and-seek skills, but it did little to ease the fear that consumed me.
One day, I heard the unmistakable sound of the gates opening. I sprinted to where my brothers and I had taken refuge, ready to hide again. As the footsteps drew closer, I couldn’t resist a quick glimpse.
Standing before me was another person I thought I’d never see again — my beloved grandfather, my best friend and hero.
In that instant, I was allowed to be a six-year-old child again. I held onto him for dear life and wept. At that moment, I was not a lost and scared child but a grandchild safely and tightly held in the arms of family.
My grandpa carefully loaded us into my father’s trusty green Toyota Corolla and started our journey. That ride was the best sleep of my life. After what felt like an eternity, we finally arrived at our destination. There, a female figure jumped up and down like an excited child.
Another surprise. It was my mother.
I ran to her, tears streaming down my face, and hugged her tightly. I immediately reminded her I’d kept our secret and that she still owed me answers regarding a certain ship.
My mom broke the news that my father wasn’t there with her, but he made preparations to ensure our safety. I can’t disclose details to protect those who aided us, but he had a contingency plan in place.
The political climate was tense, and the war had reared its ugly head again, I felt a sense of relief knowing that although we hadn’t physically reunited with my father, he had thought ahead and taken steps to protect us.
After eight months in hiding, we received a letter from my father with instructions to gather our belongings and make our way to an airfield. He had successfully escaped from Ethiopia and found refuge in Kenya.
Nairobi was a thriving city with bustling streets and vibrant energy. The people were proud of their city and its cultural heritage, and there was a palpable sense of community and togetherness.
For my family, Nairobi was truly a sanctuary. My middle brother and I could finally resume our education, and we cherished it. We marked special occasions and holidays with our loved ones.
Within a year, our friends and relatives from across Ethiopia and Eritrea came to join us, forming a tight-knit community in our new home.
On October 14, 2000, the Eritrean government enforced a crackdown on freedom of expression and the media, targeting journalists and private papers. But their reach extended far beyond the walls of newsrooms. They began an exhaustive search for anyone who dared to oppose their regime, and my family, with our military background, found ourselves in the crosshairs.
Even though we were in Kenya, a sovereign nation, miles, and miles away, we were scared. Our time in Ethiopia left irreparable scars latent with paranoia and feelings of uncertainty. We had to leave.
Our search for a home continued.
Canada was our preferred destination — a place that had built a reputation for welcoming immigrants and valuing multiculturalism over the last half-century. Foreign-born people comprised about one-fifth of Canada’s population — one of the highest ratios for industrialized Western countries.
We began preparations for our move.
At the time, in 2000, we were told by an immigration agency it would cost $10,000 US a person to move here. So, for our family of five, we were looking at $50,000 US if we wanted a new home which guaranteed our safety.
After the lengthy application process, we reached the final stage: the interview.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck the world just days before we were set to board the flight to Canada. Two Boeing 757s crashed into the World Trade Center buildings.
The terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, immediately and profoundly impacted Canada. Twenty-four Canadians died in what became known as the “9/11” attacks. When the US closed its airspace, hundreds of planes carrying thousands of passengers diverted to Canadian airports.
The sudden halt of immigration delayed our departure. We began to wonder if we’d ever be able to settle in a new, safe home.
Three months later, we finally received word of our interview date. When the day came, with bated breath, we presented ourselves before a gruff, burly immigration official.
The official huffed and looked over our papers skeptically, clearly bothered by the idea of speaking to an 8-year-old child — unfortunately, I was the only one who spoke English in my family at the time.
“You know we have adult translators,” he said dismissively.
I refused to back down, unwilling to let anyone else speak for my family. Despite the official’s objections, I made our case with determination.
We were approved on August 29, 2002. We would officially call Winnipeg, Manitoba, our new home.
Growing up in Ethiopia as an Eritrean was a constant struggle. I was often forced to conceal my identity for the safety of my family, making it nearly impossible to feel at ease in my skin. The situation was made even worse by classmates and friends who participated in insulting Eritrea and its people, belting out songs that aimed to dishonour Eritreans. I would alter the lyrics in my head to blend in, but the feeling of disconnection from my heritage never faded.
Canada was seemingly perfect, a place where you could be yourself, but despite being in Canada, I couldn’t shake off my paranoia. One day, I stepped into an elevator with an Ethiopian stranger, and he tested my facade. As the man started a conversation with me, the elevator felt like it was crawling up the 14 floors. When he asked if I was Ethiopian or Eritrean, fear for my safety took over, and I impulsively claimed to be Ethiopian.
However, after sharing this experience with my parents, my mother reminded me that I no longer had to hide who I was. The burden of hiding was lifted, and I felt a sense of safety and belonging that I hadn’t experienced before. At that moment, a decade into my life, I finally proudly embraced my Eritrean heritage.
As I rushed down Corydon Avenue, cigarette smoke trailing behind me, the aroma of burgers caught my attention. The irresistible scent wafting from Daly Burgers was a staple in my life for nearly 17 years. The warm and savoury aroma of smoky meat and crispy fries filled me with a sense of home. I stopped for a moment to take it all in.
But as usual, I was running late for work, so I quickly stubbed out my cigarette and stepped into Bar Italia, one of my many “second homes.” Familiar faces and friendly greetings welcomed me. This bar was more than just a place to grab a drink — it was a community, a sanctuary where I felt a sense of belonging and was treated like family.
I took my place behind the bar and poured myself an espresso. Two of my regulars, H and Ben, approached me, broad smiles and hands outstretched, a quick handshake, and it was time to get to work.
“One more each,” Ben gestured, pointing at their half-full bottles.
As I put their drinks down, H asked, “Is today the day?”
“What day?” I answered, confused.
“20 years, bro. Is today your twentieth anniversary?” H continued.
Patrons had a way of remembering things you didn’t expect them to. This was one of the many things that made me feel at home at Bar Italia. It was the twentieth anniversary of when my family relocated to Canada – three days early, but it’s the thought that counts.
Then came a question I anticipated but wasn’t ready to answer.
“Do you ever miss home?”
I didn’t know how to answer H’s question, not because I didn’t know if I missed home, but because, as someone who left Africa two decades ago, the idea of home is steeped in nostalgia and longing.
A familiar uncertainty started to loom over me. Confused and unable to shake off the feelings evoked by H’s question, I decided to visit my father.
The strong scent of roasting coffee wafted into my nostrils as I approached my father’s suite. In the Habesha culture, coffee holds immense significance, steeped in ritual and hospitality.
The coffee is expertly roasted over hot coals. The coffee maker grinds the beans using a mortar and pestle, infusing each granule with traditional flavours. The grounds are then brewed in a clay pot known as a “jebena” and served in small cups known as “finjal.” No ceremony is complete without incense to purify the air and create a peaceful atmosphere.
According to folklore, coffee was discovered in Ethiopia by a young shepherd in a region known as Kaffa, thus the name. Legend says the young shepherd noticed his goats and their inebriated states after eating a specific bean and decided to try some himself.
I sipped my coffee and posed the question that had been nagging me.
“Babi, do you ever miss home?” I asked.
My father shot me a skeptical glance.
“Of course I do. What a silly question,” he said.
“But it’s been twenty years. Don’t you think of Canada as your home?” I asked.
My father told me to stay seated where I was as he slowly got up. He went into every room, turned the lights off, put all his blinds down, and closed the curtains. With a flick of one last switch, my father plunged the room into darkness.
“Okay, come to the kitchen,” he called out to me.
“I can’t see anything,” I said, annoyed by his lack of an answer.
My father turned the lights on and joined me in the living room. His brows furrowed, he leaned in and took a deep breath.
“Canada is a good place, but it’s not our — my home,” he said. “The language, culture, and climate are all foreign. For your mother and I, it’s like constantly being in the dark. It isn’t easy to navigate. You and your brothers are the only things that make this place feel like home.”
When my parents left Africa, they left the place where they grew up, where they formed their earliest memories, and where they developed their sense of self. It was the place where they felt a deep understanding of belonging and connection to their culture and community.
This conversation with my father helped me better understand my parents’ experience, but H’s question still nagged me.
We fled Addis Ababa more than twenty years ago and left Nairobi not long after. But even now, as a full-fledged Canadian citizen, I’m stumped by my inability to reconstruct a sense of home and belonging.
I used to fight my desire to live in that sweet spot. That secure, communal, familial place in which loved ones — by blood, choice, or circumstance — look out for one another.
As I walked home, I lit a cigarette and passed the Manitoba Legislative Building.
As I looked up at the Golden Boy, a memory struck me.
The Justice 4 Black Lives protest in Winnipeg was a defining moment in my life, a day that will forever be etched in my memory.
I remember feeling nauseous, my palms were sweaty, and my jaw refused to unclench. I gathered with friends and Eyoel, strategizing about what we would do if things got dangerous.
The media’s portrayal of the ongoing events in the United States and the reputation of the Winnipeg Police Service only added to our fears. But as we walked towards the Legislative Building, those worries slowly faded.
The streets were filled with people — a diverse group of supporters, all marching together for a common cause.
The crowd’s energy waned as we headed toward the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Memories I’d been trying to suppress swarmed my mind — there was no room for the violence of racism in my home. I began to chant, my voice echoing through the streets.
“NO JUSTICE,” I’d scream.
“NO PEACE,” the crowd screamed back.
The chant grew louder. A circle formed around me, and I found myself at the center of the protest.
With my brother by my side, our voices became stronger with each passing moment. We weren’t hiding anymore, and the camaraderie I felt was overwhelming.
Twenty thousand Manitobans gathered to support one another and fight against the injustices faced by my community, both near and far.
I felt safe. I felt heard. I was proud of my city. Proud of my home.
As I reflect on the past two decades, my mind goes back to myself as a six-year-old, huddled in my mother’s garden with my brothers, seeking refuge and safety. His home was ripped away, but I’ve known many homes since then. I knew home when my grandpa came through the gate, I knew a version of home in Kenya, and I knew a version of home once we settled into Canada.
Today, I’m at home behind the bar at Bar Italia or when I visit with my dad, and we sit for coffee. I’m at home roaming the Osborne and Corydon neighbourhoods with my friends. I’ve built a home here — a home where I need to protest sometimes and other times a home where I feel held and nurtured.
So do I miss home? It’s complicated.