I used to hate self-help books. I hated walking by the cluttered sections at bookstores cradling titles beginning with “How to ____.” The lack of authenticity seemed glaringly clear. It wasn’t until I asked my father what some of his favorite books were this past December that my perception drastically changed. I listened intensely as he went through his list but stopped him at the title “How to Stop Worrying.” A smile cracked through my face, and I lost it.

Courtesy of Jerusaliem Gebreziabher
Courtesy of Jerusaliem Gebreziabher

“Dad, you did not just list a self help book.”

“Yeah, I did, so what?”

He started to laugh with me. He later explained that “How to Stop Worrying” by Dale Carnegie was the book that got him through his time as a political prisoner in Ethiopia during the Red Terror, a violent political campaign led by former President Mengistu Haile Mariam, who has since been convicted of genocide. My father was fortunate enough to survive: He escaped prison with some of his comrades and fled to Sudan. An estimated 500,000 did not make it out alive.

My parents’ narrative is hard for me to talk about without getting a lump in my throat, a burning in my chest or a throbbing on either side of my temples. Their stories and their wounds gave them a daughter with a fire in her belly and a whistle around her neck. It is because of them that I will never ignore social injustice, why I have always spoken loudly and clearly about preserving human dignity, preserving our humanity. My parents are beautiful; they are warm; and they are whole, despite wounds that they may harbour. Their journey fills me with pride and a sense of responsibility because this freedom, our freedom, was certainly not free.

My mother is one of the smartest women I know, though she may not believe me when I tell her. A woman who speaks four languages and has the capacity to carry her entire family, even if it kills her, is worthy of the most prestigious degree any institution has to offer. She never got to finish high school because of her precarious circumstances in Ethiopia, but her wisdom and knowledge, the breadth of her heart, spans farther than I could ever hope for myself. She is soft spoken, often smiles with her mouth closed, and is extremely kind. She would never let you leave our house in Denver without something to take with you and a mouth full of something savory or sweet. Shukorina, sugar, the name she calls me everytime I come home. So when I see her struggle to find the right letters when writing things down, or the judgemental gaze of a store clerk if she can’t read a document, I make sure to meet their gaze with my own. She will not be your doormat; I will not be your doormat.

Chiru, little bird — that’s the name my Dad would call me with a smile that makes his eyes crinkle. My face can be matched to that very same grin. I was always chirping at him, talking nonstop about everything I saw. His eyes are always happy to see me– that beautiful, warm, honey hue. My father is extremely intelligent, well educated, with a deep love of learning. Despite his academic accomplishments and incredible character, he had to start from scratch. The American dream, the facade, the illusion, the sinkhole — I will never comfortably understand why he didn’t receive the credit he was due.

The blood within me is hot and the awareness in my body never seems to cool down, but I’ve found that I am OK with that. Like most parents, mine raised their children in hopes that they could protect them from harm while teaching us all that they know. In a family of immigrants, the concept of safety is different than just making sure you get home from school. I am a sacred vessel; I am the product of a country that was torn apart by war, of resilience through illegal jail cells, of torture, tears, blood and cries for mercy. My soul belongs to a place that pushed against the forces of Italian colonialism, one of the only countries in Africa not to be colonized, and yet the residue still remains in my veins. My life is like that of a flower that bloomed through careful handling, from rubble, loss and dreams broken but carefully sewn back together. We are connected to countless others in our tight Ethiopian communities and these people become family, not necessarily by way of our genes but by way of our shared love for our homeland. Together, we listen to our parents recount their memories. They are our Abyssinian Kings and Queens, our Solomons and Shebas.

I want to buy my parents a house. One large enough to fit their memories of days warm and cold, of the cities they called home. I want a house with floors that glide their aching feet effortlessly towards the people they love. I want a house big enough to bring our full family, scattered across the world, together at last. I want to sit at a dinner table next to my grandfathers, joke with my aunts and uncles, the kin I didn’t get the chance to meet. I don’t want to be separated by bodies of water, borders, or even walls. The last time I saw most of them was almost a decade ago back in Ethiopia, and I cling to those memories with everything I have. I close my eyes and trace the outlines of my grandmothers; I etch their faces into my consciousness, replay my cousins’ laughter in Addis Ababa, in Axum, over and over in my head.

Thank you, for every hour you work each day for me. Thank you, for your immeasurable resilience that I feel pulsating through my being. Thank you, for pushing back against war in 1987, for fighting for your survival today, yesterday and tomorrow. Thank you, for giving me life and endless love no matter where I am. Thank you, for loving relentlessly, fiercely.

There are times when I feel weak, yet each day I wake up with your smiles on my lips, your love creasing my eyelids, your spirit giving me the air I breathe. I know where you have been — a prisoner, labeled an other, or not deserving, but know that I love you more. Ambessa, my lion, my hagos, my happiness. My father’s laugh melts me; it breaks me; it fills me with a warmth I don’t think anyone will ever understand. My parents are gifts, heroes I may never fully comprehend. Today, I stand as a graduate, thousands of miles away from home, hundreds of thousands of miles away from my homeland, but I am hopeful. My life has been sculpted with wise hands, glowing souls, and convicted hearts. There is so much work to do, for them, for myself, for each other, and I am glad to do it. I am ready to give back my thanks.

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