How to Make a Life From Scratch
By Elizabeth Alexander
Dr. Alexander is a poet.
July 21, 2018
A few weeks ago, I attended an Eritrean Orthodox Christian and American Orthodox
Jewish wedding in New York. The Eritreans came from all over the globe, where war and
conflict had scattered them over the past two generations, and from all over the country.
The Eritrean women came in their traditional white dresses and shawls called netsela;
the men were elegant and grave in their dark Western suits. The wine glass was
smashed; the Jewish family linked arms and danced in a circle; the Eritreans danced a
circle dance called the kuda. The Jewish men hoisted the bride high on a chair; the
Eritreans ululated in the temple.
It was a complex, beautiful day. Centuries of tradition came together. The bride and
groom could meet in America because war had scattered African families as the
Holocaust had scattered Jewish families, and all made themselves anew in their new
The huppah is the canopy carried in a Jewish wedding. It symbolizes shelter for the
newlyweds. The sides of the huppah are always open, which lets in light and air but also
people, so that the home of the newlyweds is shared and the pot of stone soup is shared,
invoking the tent where Abraham welcomed visitors and angels. Let your house be wide
open, and open on all sides to welcome wayfarers.
My side is the Eritrean side, though I am not Eritrean; my late husband was. The bride
was the niece who became my daughter when she came to America at 16 to live with us.
War made it impossible for her to stay where she was, and her mother said to me, â€œShe is
your daughter now,â€ while I was pregnant with what I thought was my first child.
So life goes on, and families expand, and the blessings and responsibilities of others come
Critical thinking develops when you go outside of your comfort zone, when you eat a
different bread from the one you grew up with. Challah, chapati, hot-water cornbread,
pita, injera, baguette â€” how wonderful to eat a different bread, a differently spiced meal.
How wonderful to sleep next to someone who might be dreaming in a language different
from your own.
Picture this wedding photo: My 10-year-old great-nephew, Maxie, who is Scottish and
Eritrean, lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, and traveled to see his auntie get married. In the
photograph, he wears a kilt in the plaid of his fatherâ€™s clan, and atop his head is a tartan
yarmulke made specially for the occasion for him to wear in the temple. He has the
sweetest shy smile you have ever seen, and he is learning to dance an Eritrean dance
with the older men in the family.
This is the beauty of diaspora, of culture crossing, of not knowing what is around the
corner, of making life anew and something new after disruption. I think he may be the
only Scottish-Eritrean boy with a tartan skullcap in the whole wide world. But surely he is
not the last.
This family is my family because my husband came to the United States in 1981 from
Eritrea, a small country in East Africa, after decades of an independence war and a
scourge called the Red Terror. He was a refugee, a person who has been forced to leave
his country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.
What do you picture when you hear the word â€œrefugeeâ€? What are we being asked to
picture as we listen to the constant description of America as an unwelcoming place, a
house with doors and windows locked shut?
Ficre Ghebreyesus, my late husband, the refugee I married. He fled death squads, hid
from soldiers when they broke into his home, saw classmates disappeared. This was the
norm for every family he knew. At 16, he was sent away by his mother to save his life. He
journeyed on foot to Sudan, then Italy, then Germany, and from there, to the United
States, eventually landing in New Haven.
His full name was Ficremariam Ghebreyesus. In Italy he was called Marco. I do not know
what he was called in Germany. In the United States he was called Freddy by the owner
of the local Chinese herb store, who was named Li-biao and whom most of New Haven
called Bill. He was called Fiore by New Haven Italian-Americans, holding on to their own
mother tongue in a new space.
Here is what he did when he came to the United States: He worked, usually three not
particularly enjoyable jobs at a time requiring multiple bus trips, long and lonely nights.
And then he made friends. And then he became part of his community. And then he built
and enriched that community.
People from our Eritrean family came at different times of conflict. The last wave was
after the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war in 1998, when some Eritreans were rounded up
from their jobs in Ethiopia and put in jail. That war, which cost tens of thousands of lives,
formally ended only this month, closing over a half-century of conflict.
Ficre considered himself African-American, African, Eritrean, East African, Asmarino,
human. He lived in those identities. He had read more books than anyone I knew, spoke
eight languages, started a restaurant that fed a community for years and made 882
paintings, some of which will be shown at a one-man show at the Museum of the African
Diaspora in San Francisco in September.
He became a United States citizen, and we went to the ceremony in the New Haven
courthouse and I saw, in the world that was there, a premise and promise of America. I
thought about the phrase â€œradical welcome.â€
Ficre lived with anxiety that never left him â€” though he was the most joyful man anyone
who knew him ever knew. After the Sept. 11 attacks, when brown people and people with
â€œunusualâ€ last names were being rounded up, he would break into an anxious sweat most
days, worried that he was no longer secure in what was now his country. That he might be
separated from me, and from his beloved boys.
He once sat on a tree stump in the backyard of our home, so far from where he grew up,
and said, â€œBaby, it may sound funny, but this feels like Africa to me.â€
A 1989 photograph by Mr. Ghebreyesus, â€œMen Gathering.â€ Ficre Ghebreyesus
One of my sisters-in-law, also a refugee, began a new life from scratch in the United States
before her husband and remaining child at home could join her. She left everything
material behind in Ethiopia â€” home, car, furnishings, jewelry. A few things eventually
made their way back to her. Sheâ€™d get a call to meet a plane at Kennedy Airport and a
package of something precious would come: spices, fabric, a packet of documents.
The best was when her small coffee table came, with compartments for coffee cups, and a
small rug made of artificial grass. She did the sacred Eritrean coffee ceremony and for a
moment was no longer a refugee but rather a woman performing the rituals she had
performed all her life.
â€œI am home now,â€ she said, as she poured us cup after cup of coffee. She has since died. It
was her daughter who just married.
For what is the meaning of life, after all, than coffee and tea and talk with loved ones?
What is home, to a refugee? I never took home for granted. But it never occurred to me
that I might not have my home.
â€œI donâ€™t want the children to be refugees,â€ my husband would say, and weâ€™d share a dark,
knowing laugh. â€œBut I do want them to know what we refugees know: that you can make
your life from scratch. I want the children to have the strength and wile of survivors.â€
â€œWe refugees,â€ he said, by which he meant, we refugees who survive.
Ficre died unexpectedly, a few days after his 50th birthday, from cardiac arrest. Weâ€™d
thought he was healthy. Several doctors separately said to me they were not surprised to
hear he was a refugee. More than one cardiologist told me, the heart is a metaphor and
the heart is real. Sustained strain can break the heart. People who walk to freedom often
carry that strain for the rest of their lives, invisible, but ever-present.
Yes, he was mine and now I sing his song. But he was also no different from so many
other refugees who have to leave their homes, people with names that some make little
effort to pronounce who continue to build America. Nor am I any different from the
millions of people who fell in love and made family here.
Ficreâ€™s presence in my life reminds me of the limits and dangers of nationalism
everywhere, that families can be torn apart for generations and that in the words of the
poet W. H. Auden, â€œwe must love one another or die.â€
And in the story of Ficre is the lesson that we are impoverished if we remain strangers to
one another and that what makes this country unique is that the world is in it.
Ficre left this earth too early. So it is my job to tell his American story. I offer this story to
ask, will we build homes with open sides that welcome wayfarers into our lives?
Elizabeth Alexander (@ProfessorEA) was President Barack Obamaâ€™s inaugural poet in 2009. She is the president
of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the author of, most recently, â€œThe Light of the World.â€
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A version of this article appears in print on July 22, 2018, on Page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: How to Make a Life From