Issue 1:1 (summer 2008)



Identity by Hana Tesfaye-Berhanu / go back to First Issue

When I came to the United States I was very young, about five years old. I remember getting on an airplane and waiving to family members and friends as tears constantly ran down their faces. Many hours later, I remember landing in a new place where other family members were anxiously waiting for our arrival. Ironically, they too were frantically waiving with tears running down their cheeks.

In the beginning it was difficult to assimilate to the new culture. I didn’t like the food; the language was different; and I was taken, fascinated by the many different faces and colors of the people around me. My grandmother tends to tell the story of how I used to say, “Immaa lets go out and look at all the white people.” It was funny when I was young but now the story tends to be a little embarrassing—I’m sure you all have one of those stories.

When I started attending school, many of my classmates, along with the teachers, had difficulty saying my name. It was frustrating to repeat my name over and over again only to hear, “can I (we) just call you, Hannah?” With the involuntary change of my name, I became someone else without fully being conscious about the change taking place. In the beginning I wanted to tell the world where I was born and share with them the memories of my homeland. I wanted to tell them that I could speak a different language and share with them the other culture I knew. But, I soon began to hide that part of my life. I was tired of the questions I received from the classmates and even the teachers: Did you live in a hut? Did you have running water? Did you play with the monkeys and run with the Cheetahs? Why did you leave? And my favorite, “how did you get here?” Umm, I don’t know, we drove here!?

By the time I was a teenager I was completely frustrated by the level of ignorance and the lack of knowledge of anything ‘Un-American’ demonstrated by the people around me. Sadly, I soon began to neglect and hide the fact that I spoke another language, ate different things when I went home (which is why I smelled like ‘Shunnquerrtii’- Onions), and was not an American, amongst several other things. I didn’t want to be the “different” girl anymore and was determined to hide my difference. Although I learned the English language, assimilated to American culture, and made friends, it became a juggling-act to play both parts at different times and places. In the process, I realize now that for a time being, I lost my true identity.

Growing up in the United States (Minneapolis, Minnesota) has given me many opportunities and has allowed me to have the best of worlds; the American culture and the Oromo (Ethiopian) culture. As I’ve gotten older, more mature (although some may argue) and a little wiser, I find myself frequently reflecting on who I am and what I represent. As I reflect on today’s young Oromo men and women, I see several who have forgotten their true identity. In the struggle to understand and fit-in to America, we have forgotten who we are as a people, as a nation, and have neglected the traditions and customs passed down from generation to generation. I am convinced that living in an individualistic society has caused us to forget the values and morals behind helping one another and uplifting each other in times of need by demonstrating love and compassion. We have become so consumed by the ideas of material wealth that we’ve forgotten the rewards of giving to others. We’ve forgotten the sacrifices our parents—and maybe also our aunts and uncles—have made; those who were once doctors, lawyers, engineers and professors before immigrating to the United States are now janitors, cashiers and bank- tellers. We’ve forgotten about our grandparents who were never educated; the ones who never had the opportunity to have our many opportunities.

I believe the time has come for many of us to begin making the necessary changes in the image we portray to one another and to the rest of the world. Let us remember that we do not only represent our individual selves but that we represent our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. We are a new generation, the hope for our people to rise from bondage and oppression and into the light of freedom.


Hana Tesfaye-Berhanu was born in Nekemte, and moved to the United States at the age of five in 1990.  She is a 2007 graduate of Hamline University where she majored in English and minored in Education and Communication Studies. She has a passion of working with the youth and looks forward to becoming a teacher. She currently resides in the Twin Cities of Minnesota and is happily married to Ebassa Berhanu. In addition to this essay, she has also written a poem about identity for our first issue of Ogina called “I Represent.”