Habte discusses his experiences as a refugee in his book, "Gratitude in Low Voices." Photo by Alex McKenzie.
Dawit Gebremichael Habte, an Eritrean author and refugee, shared his story during Refugee Awareness week, exposing us to the realities of life as an immigrant. He left us with the message that context is always essential. His book not only discusses his experience in Eritrea during civil unrest, but his life in America and the complexities of identity.
During the talk, Habte set the stage by disclosing statistics, quotes, and media from what led to the Eritrean-Ethiopian war. To provide context about his life, we were taken through the emotional journey of how one becomes a refugee. Through accounts from imperialists, clips of tragedy, and a timeline of devastation, we tasted a hint of the grief that consumed him as he left his country as a teenager.
Habte’s book, “Gratitude in Low Voices,” envelopes his experiences. The reader travels along with him as he steals into Nairobi, feels his anxiety as he is arrested in Kenya, and treads in his uncertainty as he enters a new land. During his confession to us, he revealed that even when he was detached from his homeland, he still managed to upkeep his Eritrean pride by joining communities with other Eritrean immigrants and tending to his Eritrean roots.
Before his talk, Habte played the audience videos of traditional Eritrean culture. We watched music videos from Tigre and Kunama ethnic groups. Throughout the event, Habte was welcome to interacting with the audience and sharing the richness of his culture with us.
When asked about his adoption of an immigrant status, Habte mentioned he did not assimilate. He managed to emphasize the Eritrean part of his identity, and tacked on the American suffix.
Habte told us that while there were the difficult parts of his life, he had also experienced wonderful joys. He was sponsored to enter the United States, where he attended Johns Hopkins University and met some of his highly-esteemed mentors. The author shared a story about a mentor who promised him and his colleagues that she would be available for them, for anything. He doubtfully took her word, and landed a job working for her that was influential in his life.
While Habte revealed his origins and who he was to the audience, he managed to maintain an element of secrecy. His books, on display adjacent to him during his talk, were constantly referenced. He spoke of his review from one of New York’s former mayors, Michael Bloomberg, which described it as “a candid, inspiring memoir of cultural and historical importance.”
Given the current state of the nation and heavy decisions regarding individuals of immigrant status in America, Habte’s talk and the events of Refugee Awareness Week are not only on-time, but critical to transform UMBC into a place where meaningful conversations that uplift our differences and celebrate our commonalities can be held.
To truly understand where someone else comes from, we must allow others to have the floor and talk, uninterrupted, about their experiences. We must show them that here, they are safe. Here, they do not have to run for their lives.