Ethiopia: In search of a better life

By IndepthAfrica
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Oct 31st, 2012
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Ethiopia: The search for a better life.

Students may have been holed up in dorms and apartments as Hurricane Sandy made landfall, but it wasn’t enough to stop Dining Services employees from coming to work.

To ensure students had food even after classes were canceled Monday and Tuesday, the department had its workers stay in local hotels and in the dining halls. About 75 staff members stayed in 30 rooms in two Route 1 hotels, said Joe Mullineaux, Dining Services senior associate director. Additionally, the Department of Resident Life provided the dining rooms with mattresses so another 25 or 30 workers could sleep there.

Typically, Dining Services employees receive overtime pay if they work when the university is closed; the university determines whether staff members receive overtime pay on a case-by-case basis, Mullineaux said. However, staff members who stay overnight are not paid for the hours they are not working.

Staff members decide whether they want to work through weather emergencies, Mullineaux said, and the department ensures they are taken care of. While the university was closed this week, Dining Services hired four drivers to transport the employees to and from the campus every day, either from hotels or homes if employees live close to the university.

job, it’s good life,” Medhen said. “Better than my country because my country, it’s too much war. … It’s much better here.”

It’s a hard job, sometimes an invisible and humble one — housekeeper Rachael Jordan said she used to harbor a negative perception of the work. But for many members of the university community, it’s a foothold that allows them to take one more step toward their aspirations.

“Coming into housekeeping, I have learned this is not a degrading job,” Jordan said. “It has opened doors for you to go higher.”

Medhen now lives in an apartment around Takoma Park, working to raise Ende, now 18, and a 4-year-old son. She wakes up at about 5 a.m. to start the day, and each morning comes as a race to feed and dress herself and her son, who can be a little picky.

“Sometime you cook something, he tells you, ‘I want hot dog,’ ” Medhen said with a smile, “You know? Too much problem.”

By 7 a.m., the pair are sitting in her car outside Sligo Adventist School, waiting for one of the day care employees to come in for work. Because day care and Medhen’s job both start at 7:30 a.m., she has to drop her son off as early as possible. Then, hoping traffic isn’t too bad, Medhen sets off for the campus.

While several co-workers said Medhen is quiet compared to other members of the department, they value her as a helpful resource and someone to turn to. Yanci Umana, a university housekeeper, said Medhen helped train her when she first started the job in April.

“She’s really nice,” Umana said. “She told me how to do everything and what to do first.”

And Veronica Stubbs, a zone supervisor, said it’s hard not to get along with someone who calls everyone “my friend,” as Medhen does.

When Medhen leaves work at about 4 p.m., her day is far from over. She picks her son up from day care and returns home to make dinner for her family. Her husband is usually on homework duty, but his hours are sporadic because he works for an air conditioning company.

“Sometimes he come midnight, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock,” Medhen said. “When work’s finished, he comes.”

She looks forward to having enough spare time to dedicate to one of her favorite activities — decorating around her home and for special occasions such as birthdays, weddings and other celebrations. Though she could have pursued a career as a decorator in Ethiopia, she said that route became complicated when she had to balance school, work and family in a country she barely knew. Medhen attended language school for about three years to learn English, and though someone suggested she get a degree, Medhen instead opted to focus on her job.

“Everybody tell me, you must have master’s degree or doctorate degree — I don’t have one,” Medhen said. With a sober laugh, she added, “I can’t because you need too much money.”

Eventually, she hopes to decorate her house the way she envisions. But for now that remains another dream, and she has a more pressing one — getting her children a college education. With a college degree, Medhen hopes, Ende will be able to work wherever she wants.

“If you quit your job, you got another job,” Medhen adds.

Though she hopes to give her children more opportunities, Medhen worries the move from Ethiopia has been hard on her daughter. Back home, neighbors and friends would often help people take care of their children if they were busy during the day — the “teenager problems” parents experience with adolescent kids don’t exist there, she said.

Despite these difficulties, Medhen recently gained another piece of home. After a visit to Ethiopia in August, she brought her parents back with her to the U.S. so they could live nearby in eastern Takoma Park. But the transition from a busy, bustling life visiting friends across different neighborhoods has been no easier on her father than it was on her.

“He don’t like it here, but he has green card,” Medhen said. “He tell me, ‘All day at home, I watch TV, that’s it. No friend, no working.’”

“Here, nothing. Nobody talk to you because this language is different,” she added. “In this country, you’re just by yourself. It’s hard for him.”

But Medhen can now take care of her parents, a responsibility she welcomes.

“My home is a big family  — I am happy,” she said with a smile.

And, Medhen remembers, when her father first came to the country, he shared his memory of her desires as a young girl to travel far away from Ethiopia.

“Your dream is true,” he said.

by Teddy Amenabar, newsumdbk@gmail.com

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