My Life as an Arab Muslima in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Maintaining one’s identity and integrating into another culture are not mutually exclusive

Two women cross the street in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on April 9,2017

By Shamia Ali


I am a 22-year-old Yemeni who has lived in Ethiopia for seven years. Like many other Ethio-Yemeni families, we left Yemen in 2015 when the war escalated. Expecting to stay with extended family in Ethiopia for one year at most, now we’re not sure whether we’ll ever go back.

As an Arab Muslima, I experienced some culture shock in Ethiopia. For example, Yemen is an Arabic-speaking Muslim-majority country where social life is quiet and very private, even in the capital. In Ethiopia, however, the federal government uses five official languages — Amharic, Oromo, Afar, Somali and Tigrinya — and Christians and Muslims each make up about 30-35% of the national population. According to the Ethnologue entry, Ethiopians use 41 languages in institutions nationwide and speak 77 local languages.

Ethiopia also has about four times the population of Yemen. Almost 6 million people live in Addis Ababa alone, a very busy international capital with tourists and businesspeople from around the world. Our community of refugees and asylum seekers contains youth from many countries.

Most Ethiopian people are religious. The azan is called, and the Christian Orthodox chanting starts at dawn. Alcohol is widely available, although drinking is prohibited during many weeks of the year due to the church’s fasting seasons.

Believing that I could maintain my values while integrating, I immersed myself in Ethiopian culture and society. How else could one succeed in our educational and professional pursuits? Al-hamdu lillah, my open-mindedness has helped me learn Amharic and English far better than many of my peers.

Sadly, my efforts sometimes elicited judgment and slander from my own community. For example, in school and at the youth center for refugees I would talk to my male and female peers about education and social issues. Because of this, insulting rumors began to surface that I had no family to control me and my behavior wasn’t halal.

Many Yemenis here struggle with English, and so I believe that these rumors came from jealousy over my academic success. The combination of critical gossip and hypocritical behavior eventually led me to distance myself from my Yemeni community for a couple of years.

This was possible partly because I was in an English-language private school with predominantly Ethiopian classmates. I also stopped wearing the hijab in an attempt to downplay my faith — my mother’s Ethiopian Christian family hadn’t really accepted her choice to marry a Muslim in Yemen. I was also trying to fit in at school, where I was profiled as a foreigner and bullied. Many days I was forced to give away my bus money and walk home.

After one particularly long hot walk, I thought, “Enough is enough. I should do something.” I complained to my teacher, and the mean students got suspended for a week. They respected me after that, and school was peaceful again for some time.

As my self-confidence increased, I focused on regaining my own consciousness and started wearing the hijab again. The school principal called me to his office and said that wearing it wasn’t allowed. When I pointed out that other Muslima students were wearing it, he said they were allowed to do so because they had worn it ever since starting school. He wouldn’t back down, and I was devastated.

When I related this conversation to my mother and asked to change schools, she was supportive and enrolled me in the Islamic Yemen Community School in the Merkato neighborhood. Unfortunately, as that school only went up to grade 10, after one year it was time to transfer to a government school for grades 11 and 12.

 Al-hamdu lillah, the students were good to me. I started to speak Amharic well, and my classmates were impressed to see an Arab speaking it so fluently. I had both Muslim and Christian friends, and the vast majority of them had no issue with my faith.

However, one girl in our class would say things like, “If you all go get food, count me out, because I’ll never eat together with a Muslim.” She claimed that Muslims and their food are dirty, that it’s disgusting to eat with non-Christians and that Christianity is the best religion. Her closed-mindedness and bigotry were eye-opening experiences for me.

Thankfully, my other Christian friends would stop her by saying that they didn’t need to associate with someone who insults other religions. They were very respectful of Islam and defended me many times. With their support, I finally told the mean girl, “We’re all humans, and that’s what makes us one.” She started crying and apologizing, and I accepted her apology.

My last story is the heaviest. My mom and I faced some hardships because of her family’s negativity toward Islam. They blamed me for my mom’s decision to continued practicing Islam even after returning to her family home. My elderly grandmother treated me with cold contempt while showering love and care on her other grandchildren. This was particularly heartbreaking, and I used to cry every night after we first rejoined my mom’s family.

I sought to prove myself by dedicating to my mom’s family. Being hardworking and independent, I started working as a moderator and interpreter for NGO events, workshops and meetings. I bought everything for myself and my mom. When I entered the university, I worked to pay my own fees and cover the expensive costs of printing and transportation. Whenever my grandmother desired something, I would buy it for her so she would love me and see me as her grandchild.

But since all of my efforts made no difference, I learned that we must stand up for ourselves and our beliefs. We must demand respect and dignity, because we can’t buy it or beg for it.

At a family gathering during my last year of high school, I went to the kitchen to politely offer my help. My aunt exclaimed loudly, “Hey girl, did you forget that you are Muslim? How dare you enter the kitchen!” Totally humiliated, I left the kitchen.

I wasn’t allowed to participate in the cooking or touch the uncooked food, but I was allowed to eat with everyone else. As is customary in Ethiopia, after eating we sat around drinking rounds of traditional coffee and talking. The family was discussing life, success and family affairs. They brought up my mom, and at that point my aunt asked her directly, “Why don’t you return to your Christian faith now that you’re back in Ethiopia and living long-distance from your husband in Yemen?”

My mother replied, “It’s my personal choice to be Muslim, and not because I married an Arab Muslim. I chose it because Islam is the religion that called to my heart. I am not disrespecting Christianity. I would like to be respected and not insulted for my choice.”

The family then turned their attack on me, saying that my mom had made the worst choice of her life because of me. They asked me, “Why don’t you convert so that we will love and respect you? If you convert, then your mom will also convert.” I replied, “Would you change your religion if you were me?” They said they would, but I replied, “Well then, you are either lying to yourself or you don’t know true belief, because no true believer would ask another to change his/her religion.”

I am proud of my mother, her choices and the strong woman she raised: me. The lessons and trials I’ve undergone as a refugee have strengthened my faith and equipped me with many skills to advocate for myself and others.

There’s no perfect society or community in which we can isolate ourselves, and we can’t stop the forces of globalization and migration from bringing us together. We just have to keep on working to understand each other so we can fight for justice. Insha’Allah, my next “Letter from Addis” will discuss the experience of Yemeni refugees from a policy perspective.

Shaima Ali, a fourth-year student in marketing management at Unity University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is a youth association leader at Jesuit Refugee Services. She speaks Arabic, English and Amharic.

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