Sometimes I catch my mother gazing at the ground. I’ve never been back home, but I imagine that grass is grass everywhere, that dust stings your eyes just the same no matter the continent. But when Ayyo looks out the window, it’s like there’s something wrong with the skyline.
Don’t look so sad, Ayyo. You’re still under the same sky.
She knows this. I’ve told her often enough. But sometimes, I wonder if the color of that sky looks a little different somehow.
Upon realizing I knew nothing about my people’s history, I decided to research them for a school project. After trying and failing to list every massacre, I came to two conclusions ― one: that violence is effective. Ethiopia wanted the land. They killed those who were on it. They now had the land. Two: that we could not use violence to get what we wanted. Then we would be like those who hurt us.
Oromo Liberation Front. Whispers of terrorism and insurgents ghosted through the back of my mind like a warning. No, the right path was with peace, head down, eye on the prize. King and Gandhi were splayed behind my eyes like the sun’s afterimage and I felt all the conviction one can at 13 years old. My logic was solid, not a contradiction to be found. I chanted that like a prayer, eyes and ears closed to that word, that question ― liberation.
It’s funny, the things that change travel plans. They were supposed to cut the tickets to Finfinnee that afternoon, but a phone call put a stop to all that. It was too late; she passed away. In between feeding mourners and watching stray children, I wondered if Baba regretted not bringing Akko to this country. One visit in 23 years is not enough time for a son to see his mother. But she was stubborn as he is. As I am. All her ancestors were buried in that soil. She saw no reason to start breaking that tradition.
When I grow up, I want hands like yours.
My mother took her hands out of my reverent grasp to scold me. No, you don’t want hands like these, these worker’s hands.
I always thought my mom was embarrassed about the oddest parts of her body. She thought her hands weren’t lady-like. I loved them because I knew the callouses were from all the housework she’d done for our family and others. Knew the way her nails never grew too long was because she used to work in kitchens and was used to cutting them down. Knew those barely-there scars were from cuts when paying bills, trying to understand fine print in a foreign language. And at seven years old, I promised I would have hands like those because all that she endured she did out of love for us.
Now I think I rather hate her hands.
I hate how they never stop trying to find work, even when there’s nothing to do. I hate the way she doesn’t flinch when burned from the stove, skin too used to the abuse to protest. I hate how they’re so quick to wash dishes, but bring food to her mouth at a reluctant pace. And I know. I know. I know all that labor was survival, was necessity, was something she did for us, but I can’t help but wonder why love always looks like pain on my mother.
Oromia bilisummaa. That’s what they always used to say, that Oromia would be free. Ayyo and Baba never really told me what we were trying to free ourselves from. My people have been beat down, harassed, killed in droves and forbidden to speak their native tongue in public. It probably would have saved Ethiopian regimes time and effort to know that a little U.S. soil was all it took to strip me of my language.
Perhaps grass isn’t grass everywhere.
My parents always talked about freedom for their land, but never of what made them leave it in the first place. I never learned that the year after a massacre the trees would still grow taller, black blood feeding brown earth. I knew nothing of the small planes and embassies with wide marble hallways but very little room for refugees. How they learned to say ضابط, ufficiale, officer, in whatever language their tongue could be contorted into that day. Until we had to take salt out of Baba’s food and measure his blood. Until Ayyo found she couldn’t stand after a few hours during my sister’s wedding. Until I heard them talking about mortgages and who the house would go to after they’re dead.
Then I realized just how much they survived and just how much it cost them.
I can’t recall all the different times my mother told me how to move in this world. With her smile to placate those who startle at scarves. With the voice she uses on the phone with people from the government. With the way her eyes never really left me and my siblings, like she could sense us, always wary, always waiting. Don’t jaywalk, Tamira, kiyya, they’ll see your hijab and drive faster. In all my childhood memories, I can see my Ayyo’s brow strong and high. I never could have guessed how far her head was pushed down to survive.
History books of black and brown people read a lot like obituaries. I’ve been trying to remember the dates, but every once in awhile I think I see my birth year among the headstones. Sometimes counting up bodies feels a lot more like counting down to something. But I’ve never been too good with numbers.
Ayyo likes watching the evening news on the couch and sometimes I accompany her. When the protestors fill the street, fill the screen, she clucks her tongue. Don’t be like those people, Tamira, wasting their futures. Don’t go out there. I promise and swallow the memories of my feet on asphalt. Bite the tongue that tries to tell her of how it felt to be with people who were trying to answer that question of liberation. Fight the part of me that wants to show her, the way she showed me, how she can move in this world – head truly high, laughter as loud as she pleased, smile unrestrained. How I’m not wasting anything, how I’m trying to grab, steal, cheat, take back a little of that dignity that was denied her.
Look at us, they used to say. We came into this country with nothing and now we’re living like the people who went to college. Like the white people. They took pride in the two car garage, the wide refrigerator, always competing with the neighbors to see who could get the greener grass. This, of course, was before we had to move because the mortgage seemed more like a grave than a promise. Before Baba’s mother died 7,660 miles away. And Ayyo’s father. And countless aunts and uncles I’ve never met. My mother’s mother is now 96 years old and wants to live back home again after 30 long years on strange earth. I wonder if she senses, like I do, that perhaps in that soil we can claim something the world above it robbed from us.
In California, we used to have a garden. It was one of the things I didn’t think I’d miss when we moved. Mint and thyme grew side by side, but what I remember the most were the sunflowers. Rows after row, without fail, they would swivel, seeking out that which would sustain them. In the morning hours, the fence would cast a shadow over the entire plot. The sun was very far away, but they knew intrinsically that if they just faced it, perhaps they’d find the energy to keep growing in the shade.
tamira amin is an undergrad at the university of minnesota twin cities. she was the editor-in-chief of the online publication fresh u minnesota and is currently getting ready to launch a podcast. in between classes, tamira spends time performing spoken word and developing a chapbook of her written poems to publish.