East Africans in Oakland: Identifying as an Eritrean and an Oaklander
on April 16, 2012
Many of the 20,000 people from Ethiopia and Eritrea living in the Bay Area call Oakland home. Oakland North is taking a look at the culture and history of the Ethiopian or Eritrean communities in Oakland with “East Africans in Oakland” a series of profiles on everyday people living in the city.
Over time, Senai Kidane has found his identity and identified Oakland as the place he calls home. But it’s taken time, because for Kidane, it’s complicated.
Today Kidane is a doctor in the emergency room at Oakland Kaiser hospital in North Oakland. But his life began far from Oakland, in Dessie, Ethiopia, in 1976. His parents, Abraha Kidane and Kidest Araya, both native Eritreans, had met at the university in Gondar, Ethiopia, and the year before had moved to near Dessie, where his father worked as a public health officer and his mother as a nurse. Kidane said his parents grew up in neighboring villages in Eritrea, and both were the kids chosen by their families to receive an education. “Not too many children from rural areas attended schools,” Kidane said. “Education was looked as a way of economic and social advancement, but not every family had the luxury of sending every child to school.”
A few months before Kidane was born, his family was separated when father had to flee Ethiopia. Eritrean forces were fighting Ethiopia for Eritrean independence, and the war was heating up. Kidane said his father felt he was no longer safe in Dessie and wanted to join the battle for independence, so he left for Eritrea to join the Eritrean Liberation Front, which was fighting Ethiopian troops in Eritrea. Kidane and his mother, meanwhile, stayed in Dessie, and lost touch with his father for several years. “But she never gave up the idea of looking for him,” Kidane said. “She never gave up on being reunited.”
With the goal of trying to find his father, Kidane and his mother moved to the capital of Eritrea, Asmara, in 1979. Kidane said with the closer distance, his parents were able to get back in touch even though his dad was still fighting as a soldier in the ELF. His father alerted his mother that he and other ELF soldiers were crossing the border into Sudan in order to escape and become refugees, and the family should join him. Kidane and his mother were soon off to be reunited with Kidane’s father, riding in the back of a truck to the Eritrean side of the Sudanese border. “We worked with some smugglers to basically get us out of the capital and to the Sudan border, where we were reunited with him,” Kidane said.
Though he was just under 5 years old, Kidane remembers the fear he felt living in a war-torn environment for those few weeks in Sudan, especially when planes flew overhead. “I remember that sound vividly, and how it felt to have a plane fly over you, and the fear that it instilled,” he said. “I’ll never forget that, that sound, and how it made you feel.”
It’s also where he met his father for the first time. Kidane recalled that although he’d constantly asked his mother about him, he was excited for the meeting—until it happened. “I remember feeling guarded,” Kidane said. “Here was this man I was supposed to love and be my father I didn’t know him.”
The family spent the next year-and-a-half moving around Sudan, as they waited for their political asylum application to the United States to go through. Kidane remembers long waits at the embassy in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, as his family completed the application process, although a he didn’t really grasp what was going on. He remembers extended family seeing them off when they left for the US. “I didn’t know where we were going, or why we were leaving,” he said. “It’s just those things you don’t understand as a child.”
The family moved to Modesto, where they lived for their first four years in the US. Kidane remembers Modesto fondly, especially attending Sunday school and summer camps at church. His father began working as nurse, and studied to become a physician’s assistant. His mother, though, was not working and felt “very culturally isolated,” Kidane said. “There were no other Eritreans in town, and my father was commuting [to San Jose] for school.”
Kidane shared some of his mother’s feelings of cultural isolation. “No one looks like you, there weren’t too many blacks,” he said of Modesto. Those feelings intensified when the family visited relatives in Seattle, and he saw what it was like to be among people who looked like him, spoke the same language and ate the same food. “I did not want to leave,” Kidane said of the trip to Seattle. “I felt like I had kids I could relate to. It was OK to be me, or where I came from.”
Halfway through Kidane’s year in third grade, his family moved to Oakland, where his father had gotten a job as a registered nurse at Highland Hospital. The family moved into an apartment building on 8th Avenue and East 18th that was home to a few other Eritrean families, most of them recent immigrants. “For the first time, I was immersed among other Eritrean kids,” Kidane said. “It was great.”
Kidane remembers the Eritrean community as “tight knit” with a community center that helped recent immigrants help find jobs and offered classes in Tigrinya, the native language of Eritrea, for kids on the weekends. “That’s how I learned to read and write Tigrinya,” Kidane said. He said the adults had a “strong sense of wanting to preserve Eritrean culture.”
While he was learning to identify as an Eritrean living in America, Kidane also started to learn about diversity in Oakland. He attended school at Franklin Elementary, where students from all over the world were in his classes. His best friends were African American, Filipino and Vietnamese. (Kidane can still count to 10 in Vietnamese, which he learned in the sixth grade.) “It made me realize we all aren’t that different,” Kidane said. “We all want the same things out of life. Those were my earliest memories of Oakland.”
At that time, Kidane also started to develop his identity as an African American. He didn’t feel as isolated because in Oakland there were other people that looked like him, “even if they didn’t come from the same place.”
“It gave me a strong sense of pride in who I was as a black person,” Kidane said. “I can credit that to Oakland, there’s a strong sense of black culture and tradition that comes out of Oakland.”
High school, though, was a difficult time for Kidane, he recalls. Though he excelled in the classroom and competed on the cross-country and track teams at Skyline High School, he was sheltered at home by his parents, who were strict and didn’t allow him to go out or date. He listened to pop music in secret. “Other kids my age were doing, I couldn’t do. I felt very restricted,” Kidane said. “So track and cross-country were this outlet, something to do besides go to school and come home.”
When he was 16 years old, Kidane and his family visited Eritrea for the first time since he was a boy. He said “it felt like home” right away. He had been told by elder Eritreans in Oakland when he was growing up that his real home “was somewhere else.” Now that he was in Eritrea, it “felt like a homecoming. The instant emotion after you get out of the plane, the instinct, is to kiss the ground.”
When Kidane graduated high school in 1995, he decided to attend UCLA, instead of Stanford or UC Berkeley where he’d also been accepted. “It was a way to go far away from home and be independent and on my own,” Kidane said.
UCLA was the perfect atmosphere for Kidane’s outgoing personality. He studied pre-med and got involved in community service projects like the Black Hypertension Project, where he helped do blood pressure screenings in predominately African American neighborhoods. He also participated in anti-Affirmative Action demonstrations on campus.
Kidane said he was “seeking a sense of identity” at that time in his life, and UCLA didn’t have many African American students. He remembers being the only black student in some of his science classes. “I think you identify with the people that look most like you,” he said, “or most identify where you come from. For me, it was the African American community there. (UCLA) was kind of like being in Modesto for me.”
However, there was a group of Eritrean students at UCLA that Kidane befriended. They would get together to speak Tigrinya, and eat at Eritrean and Ethiopian restaurants. “For the first time in my life, I really remember wanting to learn my language and speak it and have pride in it,” he said.
For Kidane, that was the time when he truly formed a sense of who he was. “There wasn’t this feeling of, ‘Am I this? Am I that? Am I Eritrean? Am I African American?’” Kidane said. “I had a strong sense of my own identity, and there was no longer this kind of dichotomy in who I was. I could be many things, and be me.”
While applying to medical schools, Kidane completed a master’s degree at UCLA in African American Studies with an emphasis on public health. He then moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan for six years while he attended med school at the University of Michigan. He remembers having to devote himself to school over those years, with only a few breaks to have some “hit or miss” Ethiopian food at a nearby establishment. He moved back to Oakland in 2005 to do his residency at Highland Hospital, where both of his parents were working by this time. He worked in the emergency room, the same department as his father. “They were extremely proud,” Kidane said.
After graduating from medical school in 2009, he began working part-time at Kaiser and at Paramedics Plus in San Leandro, an emergency medical system management company that supplies ambulances for Alameda County, where he’s the medical director.
Moving back to Oakland has made him feel like he’s come “full circle,” Kidane said. He said he’s grateful he’s able to work in the community where he grew up, though it can be difficult to work with the first-hand the results of violence, which he encountered at Highland. “It’s hard seeing young people inflict violence on each other constantly,” Kidane said.
Kidane said that after visiting Eritrea, and moving back to Oakland, he now feels like he has two homes. “I’m very much invested in the vitality and improvement of my local community here,” he said. “This is just as much my home.”
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