It has taken me several months to work through some thoroughly unpleasant feelings about the way my time living and working in Ethiopia came to an end. In many ways, I’m still processing everything I learned in my time there…not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of life back in Addis and wondered what I might be doing if I was still there now. We’re coming up on what would have been the one year mark of my time abroad, so this has been weighing on my mind a lot recently. Back when I left Ethiopia in May I was feeling very upset, hurt, and disappointed by the circumstances that changed what should have been “see you soon” to “goodbye” to the people I had grown so close to over the course of my eight month journey.
If you are unfamiliar with the story of how I came to leave Ethiopia early, here’s what happened:
For months, I had been eagerly anticipating this trip. My bags were checked and I was at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport ready to board a plane for Munich to attend Prix Jeunesse, a festival showcasing the best and brightest of children’s media from all over the world. Whiz Kids Workshop was the recipient of the festival’s “Next Generation” prize for Tsehai Loves Learning back in 2008, so it was an honor to attend with the winners of one of the industry’s most prestigious awards (and as they were about to launch an amazing new project no less). I had high hopes that my attendance would further expand my worldview and help me build contacts in the industry, so I had spent ample time researching the work of people I knew might be in attendance and preparing my portfolio for the occasion. From there, I was to fly to Rome where my mom and sister would be waiting for me for a mini-reunion and mother daughter trip around Italy before I returned to Addis to complete my time working with Whiz Kids Workshop. Things were going pretty well at work- I genuinely liked my colleagues, I was passionate about the projects I was assigned, and with the emergence of exciting new opportunities I was even considering extending my contract with the company.
Imagine my alarm then when I excitedly presented my passport to board the plane and I was told that not only was I barred from my flight, but also that I had been living in the country illegally. Somehow, my immigration papers were processed incorrectly so until I went through immigration again I wasn’t going anywhere. My heart sank, thinking back to the month-long ordeal I had with customs just to enter the country. It hadn’t been easy, and I expected nothing less of what now lay ahead. My daydreams of electrifying conversations about children’s television, networking, gondolas, gelato, and time with my family were crushed in an instant.
And so ensued a hurricane half week of trials, tears, and tremendous disappointment as I learned that I would have to leave Whiz Kids and Ethiopia prematurely. Let’s just say it involved a lot of running between various offices within the government immigration compound and all over Addis, frustrating gaps in communication, rescheduled flights, uncertainty, stamped documents (Ethiopian officials loooooove their stamps), and a large fine to top it all off.
The short version of the story is that while I sadly missed out on Prix Jeunesse, by the grace of God I was fortunate enough to make it to Italy and then return home to the US in time to work a fourth year with my old summer job at Discover the World of Communication. I could write much more of a play by play retelling of the craziness I endured that week, but I just don’t feel it would be productive at this point. What I will share with you here is what I can safely say are the most important things I learned in immigration:
Unless someone died, things are probably not as bad as they feel.
In the moments where my chances in immigration seemed bleak, I felt truly devastated and let this lack of morale get the best of me. While we recognized from fairly early on that we couldn’t get the immigration paperwork processed in time for me to make it to Prix Jeunesse, there was still a sliver of hope that we’d make it in time for me to see my mom and sister in Italy. I now understand just how lucky I am to have had the problems I was dealing with in the first place- I was in a position where going abroad was even a possibility for me, I was well fed and had a comfy bed to sleep in at night, and had good friends supporting me throughout the whole ordeal. Many people dream of having such problems.
I also said some pretty cringeworthy things in my disappointment and disgust. One of them was a Facebook status saying that my situation trying to obtain an exit visa was just like “Casablanca minus two men”. While I would give anything to channel the lovely Ilsa Lund, the reality is that in Casablanca the main players were also up against Nazi Germany and the very real danger of being thrown into a concentration camp. Yeah, that was not quite my situation.
A more appropriate Casablanca reference would be one of the most poignant quotes delivered by Rick, the unlikely hero of the film- “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” If the problems of three little people are insignificant, then the problems of one are microscopic. Which brings me to my next point-
Maturity is just as much a learned skill as it is a trait.
I’ve been told that I am a “mature” person. That idea, that I might be somewhat wise for my age, has always been a personal source of pride. However, I don’t think such “maturity” is truly tested until you’re put into a particularly trying situation. When put to the test in immigration, I know I didn’t always pass the bar. When I expressed my shame for my panicked (and pretty self-absorbed) state, my dear friend who helped me through this process in more ways than I can count gently reminded me that it often takes going through difficult experiences to build maturity, and that it’s okay and normal to react to a stressful situation imperfectly. It was one of the most empathetic things anyone has ever said to me, and exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. While I’m far from perfect, I’m proud of myself for where I did carry myself with decorum through this process.
The value of a helping hand cannot be overstated.
I am incredibly fortunate to have had the support of so many wonderful people. There was my Amharic speaking American friend who stood by my side to help me make sense of everything, as most of the exchanges with the immigration officials were in Amharic. One of my colleagues from Whiz Kids put everything on the line to help me, even though that meant missing out on time with his girlfriend who was visiting from out of town. A friend from the U.S. Embassy, a random person waiting in line at the immigration office, and my friend and her family all lent me the cash I needed to pay the large fine which was issued entirely in USD (they sure don’t make this easy for foreigners). My good friends consoled me both from Addis and abroad. Eventually, my boss and her husband absorbed the burden of the fine. Someday I hope to make good on the sacrifices they all made for me and similarly support a friend in need.
Blame is an empty action.
In the heat of the moment it might feel good to pin your problems on something or someone else, but that satisfaction wears off fast and leaves you in the exact same place you were before you blew off steam. It’s much better to either spend that mental energy seeking solutions or to suck it up and keep your mouth shut. While there are many people who could have been responsible for this unfortunate event, ultimately who did what wrong is irrelevant. Blame can’t change the past, but left unchecked it can prevent you from moving forward in the present.
No problem. It happens.
Sometimes, life just really sucks. No person gets through it without episodes they would have rather skipped. There’s a fitting term I learned in Amharic for “no problem”/ “It happens”: “minim aydel”. Uttering this phrase was just short of a prayer during my last and most frustrating days living in Ethiopia.
So the airline lost my luggage, leading to hours spent trying to track it down through phone calls and visits to the airport? Minim aydel.
So they sent it to Munich without me? Minim aydel.
So all of my underwear was in that bag? Minim aydel.
So we decided I should get an exit visa with the hope we would be spared the hefty penalty fine, only to be charged anyway? Minim aydel.
So this shouldn’t have happened to me or my colleagues because we’re all good people. So what? Life isn’t always fair. It’s not anyone’s fault. Minim aydel.
No problem. It happens.
And so it happens that I write now from my family’s home in South Jersey, feeling a bit apprehensive about where I stand. Essentially, I’m in the same position that I was around this time last year– scared and standing before my next unknown.
I don’t know how long it will take to secure a steady job in my field in this highly competitive job market.
I don’t know exactly what that job will be or where it will take me. While I am generally open minded about where I pursue work opportunities, at this stage in my life I am also craving to move forward in ways that I know are largely inhibited by hopping from city to city (or from country to country). I am looking for longevity in wherever I move next and have focused my search accordingly.
I don’t know and can’t know exactly how the dominos of my life will fall, despite all my hopes and plans for the future.
Until fairly recently, I didn’t even know if I made the right choice in moving abroad. The tumult in which I left Ethiopia left me so full of doubt.
It wasn’t until August that I came across all the evidence I needed that living abroad was one of the best decisions I ever made for myself. Following the end of my summer job, I was freaking out because I had booked extra time out in California with absolutely no plans. Zilch. Nada. None. But suddenly, something inside me clicked: wait, I’ve DONE this before. Completely on my own, I had an amazing day exploring Vienna on my layover and then eight awesome months getting to know the incredible country that is Ethiopia.
It occurred to me that the girl I was a year ago would not have known that she had it in her to chart her own course with such confidence.
Wasn’t my quest for self empowerment precisely the biggest reason I chose to move to abroad in the first place? Revisiting everything I learned while living in Addis and working at Whiz Kids Workshop, I discovered that I learned so many new things about myself- things I never would have expected when I first moved to Ethiopia. Sure, I learned a ton about making media for children- but what was more important was the inspiration I found in the people behind the craft. I learned a lot about what happens behind the scenes to run a successful show, and found that above all else demonstrating respect and appreciation for hard work is what keeps a good team together. While I learned a lot about my long-held interest in international children’s programming, I found I was even more excited about using media as an agent for health education. Completely unrelated to work, I found that I do really want to have kids someday (I blame my boss’s adorable children for this). I met people from all over the world who taught me to embrace calm, treat everyone like a potential friend, recognize and run from red flags, look out for the new kid, and know that with drive and dedication, you can create anything you imagine if you work hard and work smart.
Everything that we know was once unknown. Every new exciting place, every new spice we taste, and every new friendly face holds the power to sweep out the corners in our mind that we never knew we left untended. In these corners relationships are forged, ideas are born, and lives are changed. All it takes to is the courage to board that plane, smile at that stranger, send that application, pick up that book, or pursue that passion project- whatever it means for you to take a step in your search for everything you hope to know.
This I now know- while I may not have all the answers I sought from moving abroad a year ago, I returned with more questions- and questions are what help us grow.