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Between Two Worlds

Submitted by on September 29, 2015 – 1:48 pm 2 Comments
Tigrai with flag

Tigrai has developed deep relationships both in her native Ethiopia and in her adopted home of America.

The thing about going back to the Developing World after you’ve lived in the Developed World is that it’s a rich, eye-opening, perspective-building cultural experience, and the other thing about it is that it sucks. I used to have a way of looking at the world when I first got here—a better way, safe to say. If I’m being honest, I hated America. I hated the people—not the people in particular but their lifestyle. There was a whole world out there that was suffering, but all they could see was themselves. They see themselves in everything and sometimes miss much of the world beyond.

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Danait and Tigrai at Operation Rescue, in Mekelle, Ethiopia.

I knew what it was like to have absolutely “nothing.” I put “nothing” in quotations because in America lots of people believe the more we have the “happier” we will be.

The thing is, I had very little when I lived in Ethiopia. I had three sets of clothing. One dress, one school uniform (red sweater and green skirt), and a pair of pink sweat pants with a matching jacket. But the trouble was not just that I had few possessions. I was also an orphan and spent my days in an orphanage. I had lost my mother due to a sudden illness when I was five months old. My father was very much alive—but he wasn’t in my life. He had left after my mother died. I did have a sister, but she was with my father’s family in Eritrea, a neighboring country that was at war with Ethiopia, where I lived. I never met her until my visit this past summer.

That may sound like my life was very difficult, but the truth is that I was the happiest I’ve ever been. In some ways this all seemed normal. In Ethiopia such things happen all the time, and I didn’t know there was any other way. Of course I was sad, and I missed them, but I had something back then that gave me courage and joy. I had faith and I had hope.

What I disliked most in America was me and the person I had become. In the years since I’ve lived in America, I had lost sight of what was important. I got used to living life like an American. I lost my faith and my hope, and to me that’s the worst thing I could have done.

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Tigrai with two boys at one of the orphanages in Mekelle, Ethiopia.

I had been living in the US for about seven years by this time. In that time a lot had happened in my life. I first arrived America when I was ten. I lived in Kansas for eighteen months with the family that had adopted me. I was less than grateful because I had never wanted to leave Ethiopia. There was never a moment when I had wanted to come to America, never a second when I thought I needed to be rescued. It was a difficult situation for everyone, and that placement didn’t work out.

When I left Kansas and was brought to Montana to be with my new “family,” it was emotionally hard starting over again. I remember the first night, making a vow to myself in my bedroom. I would be the ‘perfect’ kid, do as asked, but I’d never love them. I just did not dare love anyone, so I made a plan to not get my heart broken again.

It wasn’t easy. I had new people to call Mom and Dad. Sometimes I just got tired of hurting, feeling abandoned, or unwanted. I shut off my emotions. But even though I was unhappy, I pretended that everything was fine. I created a persona that I wanted to be at school. I was that girl—smiling and happy. I used to think, ‘I’m being fake,’ but I also thought it was better to be fake and happy than real and miserable. That’s how I would get through school—maybe life itself. And you know, there was a time when I was finally happy, no faking it. Oddly, my smile sometimes proved to be contagious, even to myself.

That is, till February seventeenth, at two a.m. in the morning, when I got the phone call from my oldest American sister.

Shirley Gipe with Tigrai

Tigrai with Shirley Gipe, “Mama,” at Glacier National Park.

It was about the woman I know that of as my mom. Shirley was strong-willed, hard-working, loving, caring. She was always extremely passionate about God, and she had a huge heart for the orphan. She was the mother of seven kids– three biological, and four adopted— including me. She was the kind of person who wouldn’t give up on you no matter what. I would test her, just to prove to her she’d be like everyone else in my life and give up on me. The harder I tried to keep my walls built up high, the harder she tried to tear them down. And she did. She was an amazing woman. I completely let her in. There were many things we didn’t see eye to eye on, but she had become one of “my people.”

So when the phone rang and I learned that my mom had died, I felt I had slipped back into that world where nobody or nothing could be trusted. For an entire year, Shirley had been fighting cancer–a horrible disease that just came out of nowhere with no warning at all. I never felt greater sadness or pain before that moment. My heart ached so much. I didn’t go to school for two weeks, I couldn’t eat. I was so angry, angry at God, angry at the world. I just wanted to blame someone. Anyone.

I lost myself when I lost my mom. She had structured everything about my life. With her gone I didn’t know who to make proud, who to do it for. The rest of that school year was a struggle to finish. I missed school so much that I was falling behind in all my classes. Truth be told, I didn’t care one bit. I’d given up. The worst part was watching everyone else move on while I was stuck in that moment. Everything I had been working so hard for lost every meaning.

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Tigrai and the kids at the Operation Rescue at Adigrat, Ethiopia.

After about a month passed, my older sister and I started talking about how the coming summer would be a great time for me to return to Ethiopia for a visit. She kept telling me how it would be a “healing” process for me. At the time I thought she was crazy to think that anything could heal my heart. On the other hand, I’d wanted to go back to Ethiopia for so long that I was ecstatic to even be thinking about it.

Any slight chance that I might be able to go home motivated me to finish the school year. I barely passed English and math. Meanwhile, we started fundraising. With the support of family and friends and the help of God we raised the money. It was amazing, and it was a miracle. I was worried about dozens of important details, but somehow everything worked out—sometimes just barely. My passport arrived only a week before I needed to leave. The fundraising provided just the exact amount of money to cover my expenses–not a penny less nor more.

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At Adigrat, Ethiopia.

I went with a group of people—eight of us, five teenagers and three adults. Four of us were adopted from Ethiopia, and for two of us this was our first chance to go back. All of us were dealing with some sort of pain. The leader of the group, Pam Zicker, founded Fields of Promise in 2006 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to support orphans worldwide. She used to visit me when I was a little kid in the orphanage in Ethiopia, and she also helped me when I was living in Lawrence, Kansas, which was also her home.

Our mission on this trip was to go to three different orphanages, one of which was my old one (Operation Rescue). We planned to spend four days in each orphanage, working with the kids, teaching songs, dance, arts and crafts. We also shared personal stories, including how God had changed our lives.

On June 27 we got to my home: Mekelle City, Ethiopia. It was such an overwhelming feeling, being back there—the smell, the air, the friendliness of the people. In that moment, getting out of the airport. I fell in love over and over again—the sights, the sounds, just being in Ethiopia. Walking on that street in Mekelle City was the first time I felt genuinely happy since my mom passed five months before. My smile and laughter were real. I had dreamed of this moment for so long—seven years, to be exact. And it was everything and so much more than I had hoped for.

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Tigrai meeting her sister Shewit for the first time at the church.

One of the biggest parts of it all for me was that I had prayed to be able to meet my sister, Shewit, for seventeen years. My own natural sister, who I had never met. She was also a connection to my mother. Shewit had gotten five years with our mother and I hadn’t gotten any. There were so many parts of me, of my life, of my family—it was all swirling and spinning at once.

I was six months old when Shewit and I were separated. I had “met” her on Facebook and we’d Skyped a few times, but all of that was nothing compared to meeting her in person! We hugged for ten minutes! We were both crying, the happiest tears of my life. I never knew you could love someone so much, even if you never knew them. I got to see my father and spend time with him, and my half brother. My grandmother and aunts and uncles—I had the family reunion I’ve been longing for for so long.

The rest of the day was spent with, renewing relationships and trying to catch up. Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There were some storms, too, but it was worth it.

The second day I went to the orphanage where I used to live. It looked exactly the same as the day I left it—the playground area where we played soccer and basketball, the staff that worked there, and the kids I grew up with. Ha, it was a little funny! They had grown up! I was almost expecting them to still look the same as I had left them.

I remembered all of them though. I grew up having boys as my best friends—and one girl, Danait, who was one of my greatest friends. The three boys and we two girls were inseparable. We went to the same school, and we did everything together. They were all grown up now. Getting to see them and spending time with them was one of the best parts of the trip.

While we were at the orphanage, we would spent the day there from the time it opened, which was at eight a.m., till lunch. From noon till two was our lunch break, and we could go spend that time with family, which is what I did. From two till five we would work with the girls at the orphanage, teaching them songs, dance—that was my job—and life lessons, about how it’s okay to talk about our problems with someone we care about, because if we keep it in, it hardens our heart.

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All the girls Tigrai got to work with, at Operation Rescue in Mekkelle, Ethiopia.

And every day one of us girls would share our story. That was probably the most healing part for me. It made me realize that even though I’ve had it hard for the most part of my short life, these girls had nothing, and yet they praised God. They were grateful just to be alive. They were happy, and they pray for us all the time.

We visited one house they called “the happy home,” because all the kids that live there have HIV, but they’re the happiest human beings you’ll meet. That’s the beauty about Ethiopia—they have so little of everything, and some have nothing at all, but they know the secret of life. They know true happiness, they know how to love, how to forgive, how to genuinely care about others. I used to know all of these things, but along the way I had lost sight of them. Going back gave me the greatest chance to be reminded of that again. That’s what I learned on my trip.

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Tigrai and the boys she grew up with: Zenawi Petron, Danial Yohanns, and Letemesgen.

It’s easy to forget that death is part of life, and it hurts very much when you lose someone very close to you. It turns your world upside down. That’s what it did for me anyway.

Returning home helped me get back more perspective. I see I’ve been given the great opportunity of experiencing both sides of life. I used to see it as a curse, but now I truly see it as the blessing that it is. My life is filled with amazing people—family, friends, and teachers. Because of my experiences, I get the chance to love more people, a chance I would’ve never gotten unless I had come to America for the great education I get here. America is one of the great nations in the world’s history, and being an American opens the world to me ways unavailable to most people in other parts of the world. I am grateful for America. And I still love Ethiopia.

I’ll never be completely at home again, because part of my heart will always be here and part will always be there. That’s the price I pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.

2 Comments »

  • Tigrai Gipe says:

    Thank you very much.

  • Sophia Speckert says:

    This is a beautiful piece. Reading this story was empowering; you did a fantastic job. It’s so vivid. You expressed really amazing points solely through the words you chose. It has a real emotional effect. All in all, this is really a great story and you did well expressing it.