Meet Denait Gebretsadik, your neighbor from Eritrea. When she was eleven years old, her family fled their home country into Ethiopia, seeking safety. In 2007, when her family left, Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia were involved in intense border disputes. She remembers sneaking into Ethiopia at 3 a.m. with her mother and three sisters and listening to the hyenas as they made the dangerous journey in the dark.
Her family stayed in an Ethiopian refugee camp for two years before coming to the United States. “It was hard for us because it wasn’t our country,” Denait said in a recent interview. “And it was hot.”
In 2009, her family resettled in Harrisonburg. Denait’s first impressions of Harrisonburg were positive. “[The people] were really nice. They were so friendly when we first got here, the community. They helped more than the refugee office did. They would take us to church, give us rides, and those kinds of things.”
Upon arrival, Denait jumped right into the Harrisonburg City School system. School was hard for her at first, juggling English classes with graduation requirements. At first, the school told her she would not be able to graduate on time because her English as a Second Language (ESL) classes conflicted with the classes she needed to graduate.
Denait pushed herself to prove them wrong. “I had to work extra hard,” she said. “I took after school classes, summer classes. I had to work really hard in order to graduate on time. I ended up graduating on time with an advanced diploma.”
Denait now attends Eastern Mennonite University where she majors in history and minors in Spanish. Denait chose to focus on history because she loves to learn about the past, how things were, and the stories that make up the past.
Along with loving to learn, she also loves volunteering. In fact, she loves volunteering so much that her parents thought she would want to major in social work at EMU. “I want to help people, but I don’t want to get paid for it,” Denait explained. “I feel like it would take the fun out of it if I study to help people.”
Denait acts as an interpretive bridge between the school system, parents, and children in her community, helping them to overcome both language and cultural barriers. “When I was interpreting for the schools, I kept seeing the same conflicts between kids and parents. Every time I got called into school to interpret, they all had similar conflicts. I feel like it’s more of a cultural barrier that needs to be broken down.”
When she works with people, she usually serves as a dual-interpreter of language and culture. “This is because in America, this is how it’s done. And the kids that have come at a young age and don’t understand much of the Eritrean language. The parents know Eritrean language and the kids know American language. So, between them, it was a lot of conflict going on.”
Over and over, similar themes emerged in the conflicts between parents and children. She decided it would be helpful to give classes for the parents as a way to teach them about the culture their kids are experiencing. Every Saturday last summer, Denait sat down with a group of Eritrean parents and talked about what their kids are going through. “I don’t know a lot about the American culture, but I know more than they do, so I kind of helped break that cultural barrier.”
Next summer, Denait will hold similar classes for Eritrean children. “I’m planning on teaching them the alphabet of Eritrean, and also some of the culture, teaching them the culture of their parents and why their parents are acting the way they’re acting.”
Both the United States and Eritrea feel like home for Denait in different ways. “I would like to visit Eritrea, but I don’t think I want to live there. I love the place, but I’ve been here for so long now that I also feel that this is home.”
For her parents, on the other hand, Eritrea is still home. Denait described their struggles to adjust to life in the United States. “They don’t really speak English. They’re working hard jobs. They’re just living for us. They’re not involved in the community,” Denait said. “Back in Eritrea, both of them were really involved. Especially my mom, she was always out with the community. She was important to the community back home, but here she’s nobody.”
For Denait, cultural barriers are like being stuck in a box, disconnected by a lack of complete understanding of American culture. Her parents are in an even tighter box than she is, she said.
“I can’t imagine how that’d be, to be by yourself, so isolated. I just see that from their faces, they don’t say it because they don’t want to make us feel bad, but I can tell. They always say that they’d love to go back [to Eritrea], but they want us to get educated.”
Denait encourages her neighbors to get to know people’s stories instead of assuming stereotypes, especially in light of the current political environment. “Everyone has their own unique story to tell. You just don’t know where they came from until you ask, you know?”
— Liesl Graber