The young versatile returnee
Heldana Tekeste is an Ethiopian-American who returned home in 2016. She has been involved in many areas, including the issues of startups and some humanitarian work. She reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on her journey so far, the recent politics of the United States, on the issues of migration that has consumed a good part of her life and something that has personally affected her and finally explains a few things that needs to change in Ethiopia to make the society more welcoming to your returnees like herself. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You are an Ethiopian-American who recently returned home. As a diaspora, what has been your experience like so far?
Heldana Tekeste: Interesting to say the least! It didn’t feel like that grand of a decision at the time because I grew up here and wasn’t a stranger to the country. But I came to realize that living in Ethiopia as a working professional is an entirely different experience from whatever I was used to, and I’m grateful for (almost) every moment. I’ve been here for a little over a year now and my experience can pretty much be summed up like this: trying to adjust/resettle in a place I’ve always considered “home” after being away for over ten years while also trying to not sound completely diaspora every time I speak Amarigna.
I’ve been exposed to a lot of truths I didn’t know/realize about Ethiopia by moving here, but I know I haven’t even scratched the surface. I have a long way to go. More importantly, I’ve been able to learn a lot about myself – and we all know how fun that can be. If it weren't for my mom living here and being my support system, I probably couldn't do it. Living here comes with its challenges of course – but I’d rather be challenged in my own country than anywhere else.
You must be observing from a distance on what is happening with the politics of the United States.
Indeed. It’s like watching a poorly cast House of Cards spin-off. I can't wait for this season to end.
You have spent a considerable amount of time exploring the issues of migration. Share with me why the issue has been important to you?
I’ve seen the people closest to me suffer because of it. Well, not because of migration but the regulations that surround it. I remember being a lot younger and wanting to become an immigration lawyer so that I could help people live and work in the US legally. But it’s a lot more than just living somewhere legally. It’s about not grouping people by their passport types, and understanding that the world has changed a lot and we have to learn to adjust.
Migration is important to me because it’s inevitable. People move around. Some do it voluntarily, and some are forced. The feeling of arriving in a new country and attempting to make a home out of it is an experience that most people share. In 2017, that experience is most likely also welcomed with stricter border regulations, bigotry, and people that genuinely don’t want you there. I hate that. And I don’t want to do nothing about it just because my passport gives me a free pass. The work I’m most interested in doing now is migrant integration – with a focus on the recent Ethiopian returnees from Saudi.
Share with me the highlights of your Kent University graduate school dissertation thesis that was on the “Transnationalist Understanding of Diaspora Engagement in Ethiopia”.
So as part of my research, I spent some time in Addis interviewing Ethiopian diaspora returnees from the US, and asked them questions regarding their experiences moving back home, some of the challenges, and also their reasons for doing so. I ended up changing the argument of my thesis entirely because of what responses people kept giving me. Almost all of my interviewees detested the fact that they were referred to as a ‘diaspora’ due to its associated stigma.
And most of them didn’t exactly plan to move back home – it just happened. I went into the research hoping to find that the government’s increased diaspora engagement initiatives are what led to so many Ethiopians returning. My research instead showed that the decisions to return stemmed not from top-down mechanisms, but more so from a grassroots phenomenon rooted in their ties and attachment to “home".
You have also been an activist of sort, an advocate for vulnerable children. In 2015, you decided to mark what was a milestone birthday for you by asking friends to donate to a charity of your choice instead of giving you presents. The recipient of the generous gesture was Project Ethiopia. Why this particular charity?
I was supporting my friend and helping her raise money so that she could supply X amount of textbooks and uniforms to underprivileged children in Ethiopia. I have to admit though – I now have a huge problem with “clicktivism” aid. I understand that people try and do what they can by posting these social media campaigns as a means of raising money for charities in developing countries, but how many of us have actually followed up with where our money has gone long after the “campaign has ended”?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t even remember this campaign until you brought it up. It's easy to filter a few pictures of kids in developing countries, come up with a moving caption, and ask people for money. I'm not discounting these efforts, but how about we also do a bit of research as well? If you’re going to raise/donate money to a charity, look up the charity. What have they actually achieved? Do they seem legit? Once you donate – make sure that you keep track of the allocation of your funds and that the people who need it actually get it. A child's life isn't automatically made better because you donated USD 25. I guess I didn’t really answer your question. Here's to hoping my friend got those kids their schoolbooks and uniforms.
You once reflected how you wanted “to help build a sustainable future for these children by empowering them through education”. Now that you have been back in Ethiopia for a few years, how far have you gone to fulfill that dream of yours?
I don't even remember saying that – but, I'll take it. Somehow I still managed to find work in youth empowerment years later! Since moving back, I’ve worked solely on youth entrepreneurship, employability, and the likes. More recently, I’ve been able to do some work on understanding the perspectives that Ethiopian youth have on the education they’re receiving. To be honest - It’s disheartening to see how much work needs to be done in order for these children's’ futures to be sustainable. But it’s also pretty amazing and inspiring to see how determined these kids can be if given the voice and opportunity. So, have I fulfilled my ambition? Not even close. But I will keep working on it.
You seem to be a fan of Western Africa – the culture and the people. You recently twitted to WizKid welcoming him to today’s concert and have also twitted about an interest to move to Ghana. Why this interest with this region?
To be honest, I’ve never been anywhere in Africa other than Ethiopia and Eritrea. My interest in moving West is basically me wanting to experience the differences in African culture, people, and day-to-day life. Also I hear that Ghanaians are the nicest Africans ever - so why not move to Ghana? In other news – I’ve been annoying all of my friends this week with my excitement for WizKid! I tweeted him in hopes of getting free tickets….. To no avail, however.
You have worked with young people on startup projects, a new concept in the country as well as advocated on a slew of issues from the perspective of youth.
I hate to sound like a cliché, but if you are dedicated and passionate enough - you can actually make your dreams happen. I learned this from the BegaBatch17 blueMoon startups. Seeing their business ideas go from an "online application" to legitimate companies that contribute to agro-development gives me so much more hope than I had before I started working in Ethiopia. Even though the concept of incubation seemed fresh at the time, it's definitely in the buzz now.
The fact that youth entrepreneurship is being encouraged and supported by so many organizations and donors says a lot about where our country can potentially be in a few years. So many young Ethiopians have shared their desires to create something impactful for their own country and they’re ready to do the work for it! So we need to keep empowering them and giving them the tools they need to do better than we did. Let’s continue to create more opportunities to invest in our youth because they know what they’re doing.
If you could change one thing in Ethiopia to make the society more livable for young returnees like yourself, what would it be?
Just one thing? How about we start with encouraging men to please show respect (and not talk) to women who walk past them on the street? Contrary to popular belief – we just want to listen to our music and go about our days. I know this seems trivial but when these little things add up, it's enough to deem a place "unlivable".