A very welcome addition to their union, my mother and father were overcome with joy at the prospect of raising me in a country that represented autonomy. After all, they had been granted asylum and permitted to create a new ‘home away from home’ in the ‘vast riches’ of Islington.
I recall the heart-wrenching moment when I clung to my mother’s skirt as she dropped me off at nursery for the very first time. As she desperately tried to free herself from my grip, I recoiled at the thought of spending a minute let alone half a day with this new sea of faces. Inconsolable at first, I was resigned to acclimatising to my new surroundings. I realised I was in mute mode. I didn’t understand a word of English! At the age 3, I had been reared like a healthy cow on green pastures to speak Tigrinya. Alas, my first encounter with the system that cloaked my parent’s cultural norms and practices and this was just the beginning! With no recourse to precedents for second generation Eritrean migrants, I was imbued with the task of skilfully navigating my way through a myriad of life’s questions.
Faced with cultural challenges, my days as a primary school student were somewhat taxing. Not only did I have to try and appease the largely Caucasian school population (for the sake of my sanity at least), I felt obligated to conform to Eritrean traditions as well as rules and regulations as set out by my well-meaning family. On a somewhat subconscious level, I grew accustomed to dealing with a myriad of situations that called for a hybrid response (an answer which incorporated elements of Eritrean and British codes of practise). Take the time, I tentatively requested a birthday party. It was my 7th birthday and I had persuaded my parents to honour this occasion by inviting a few choice school friends for a party. My mother appeared in a quandary as to how to satisfy my needs whilst respecting her traditions. In anticipation of this, I said that we should have a coffee ceremony and incorporate himbasha to the mix. I was eager for my parents to enjoy this celebration and not feel ambivalent or marginalised by the process.
What materialised was a ‘mash up’ or fusion of Eritrean practices and British cultural norms. Our living room had been adorned with balloons and ribbons. My friends were greeted with the sweet aroma of roasting coffee beans in preparation for a coffee ceremony; an integral part of social and cultural life in Eritrea. What’s more, alongside the centrepiece of our treasured birthdays – the cake- was himbasha; Eritrean bread infused with spices. It was to be effortlessly broken up on my back as I bent forward and my friends observed with intrigue and inquisition. All in all, this turned out to be a win-win situation for all!
With its innumerable challenges, my primary school set the scene. A stranger to most of my peers, where background seemed a crucial means of identification, I was pushed to the fringes of my class. What are Eritreans?! I’d unwittingly baffled my fellow pupils. In the 80’s and pre-independence, you’d be hard pushed to find Eritrea on a global map. Desperately, seeking acceptance, I was not inclined to admitting it was in Africa. With long hair, so-called western features and a caramel hue, the logical conclusion was that ‘you must be Indian’.
Well, transitioning to secondary school was a welcome relief and I settled in without much mayhem but certainly not without challenges. Hosting a greater number of second generation African migrants and refugees, I felt at greater ease as I exchanged humorous stories about our dear parents with my new found friends. Only much to my dismay, I later found that my new found ‘African’ friends were not so accepting of ‘us’ Eritreans as Africans. I was astounded but again, managed to navigate through some of the bumpier roads through a pattern of negotiation and communication. What ensued from this was a harmonious relationship with its beautiful twists and turns. Much later and as a university student in London, I was startled to be told that I was ‘British’ and have someone gasp when they realised I spoke my parents’ mother tongue. A discussion was inevitable after such a reaction. I did not have to be dressed in typical Eritrean fashion, whatever that may be, to be identified as one. I would set the terms as to how I would express my many facets including that as a fellow Eritrean.
These examples offer a snippet of my narrative as a British Eritrean born and raised in London during the 80’s; a time when Eritrean’s in the UK represented a minute but burgeoning community. In the midst of an array of cultures, traditions and habits, I have encountered many scenarios which have required a hybrid solution comprising knowledge acquired from loved ones and the rich tapestry of British culture. The response to the many complex questions that I was presented with was at times seemingly effortless and on other occasions, carefully mulled over for hours, days and months. Whilst, I can only confidently convey my own experience, I would like to suggest that it would be erroneous to categorise all second generation migrants as ‘lost’ between two or more seemingly conflicting cultures. In fact, some of us have found skilful ways of creating a system which satisfies our immediate surroundings and the one’s we are fortunate enough to have transmitted to us.
Eden Fessahaye studied Development Studies and Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Eden then spent a year with the Royal College of Psychiatrists where she was seconded to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Malaysia), before going to Queen Mary, University of London for a Masters in Migration and Law. Eden volunteered as an Audit and Research Volunteer for Medical Justice where she co-authored a report on the clinical care of HIV detainees in UK immigration centres before taking on various Programme/Project Officer roles in Higher Education institutions.