What is your story of strength?
The answer to that is about life experience. I’ve seen a lot. And while I had a privileged childhood and never wanted for anything thanks to my incredible parents, I also had a lot of exposure to real, raw life experiences. Whether I learned myself or saw other people go through things, I experienced a lot. I lived in Ethiopia until I was twelve. You see a lot of intense things that truly open your eyes. When I was ten, there was a war in Ethiopia. I saw dead bodies in the streets, I saw five year olds being carted off to fight, I saw a mother being torn from her child. It didn’t directly affect me but it really changes your perspective on life. Not long after that there was a civil war in Sierra Leone where people experienced huge tragedy , including close relatives. All those life experiences over time particularly watching people survive them and seeing people’s resilience is where I draw my strength from. While I’ve been blessed, my parents grew up in absolute poverty, with nothing. They never knew if they’d have shoes on their feet. That story has always been told to me. I have seen where they’ve come from. Seeing how far they’ve come and seeing what they’ve accomplished has been hugely inspirational to me.
Can you tell me about a time you overcame a significant obstacle in your life?
There are two that came to mind. The last two years have been a huge learning experience for me. I moved to Dubai with my husband and my daughter. When you’re married, you don’t think about the consequences of moving abroad and a marriage breaking down, especially when there is a child involved. When I finally understood that I wanted to get divorced, I understood that I couldn’t leave the country unless I didn’t want to take my child with me. If my husband doesn’t consent to me leaving the country with my child, we can’t go. This isn’t specific to this country. Most countries around the world, including the UK, require that both parents consent to a child leaving the country. Mentally coming to terms with that was difficult. On the surface, I have a job, I have a good salary, I have a very good life but in a weird sense, I am completely trapped. I would have never believed I would ever accept that, but I’ve found my peace with it. I focus on the positive, that this my choice, and that I was completely authentic to myself.
Second, during the war in Ethiopia, we were evacuated. I was sent to the US, to Texas, to stay with family. I had a very sheltered life in Ethiopia in the expat community. When I moved to Texas, about twenty six years ago, it was a huge shock and change for me. America at that time, especially the south, was still a difficult place to grow up in as an African child. A lot of experiences I had weren’t stereotypically racist, per se, even the black community would tease me. In terms of strength and life changing experiences, it was a huge challenge. It was the first time I really felt like an outsider and as a child it was hard to rationalise. America was intense. People, including black Americans, asked me if I went to school on a zebra. People would say, “go back to where you came from” and what they didn’t understand is that this was exactly what I longed for.
What’s a gender norm or expectation that you wish didn’t exist?
It is a strange thing to say, because historically women have been in the home. That was the gender norm for so long. Now I feel that the gender norm is that we have to be able to do everything. More and more, women have the pressure to not be in the home, to be working and to be successful. Women are now supposed to be a provider, a mother, a wife, a daughter, all while looking amazing and being fun and living life. The way that is happening and the way society is pushing in that direction of expecting us to be everything is tough. Women can do anything they want. But I don’t like this new expectation, because it’s like a completely new kind of constraint. As a single mom, I want to break free. If I wanted to stay at home, I want that to be okay. Society always buckets people into specific categories with specific norms. I don’t want there to be any buckets, I just want everyone to be who they want to be.
What is your most persistent dream about the future?
Freedom. There’s a Bob Marley song that says, “emancipate yourself from mental slavery.” I feel that as human beings, we are trapped by many things; society, perceptions about wealth, work, etc. I feel as though I am living within too many constraints. I hope I can break them soon. This is my dream. It is about feeling liberated. It’s about knowing that I don’t need to be tied down in a 9-5, not feeling like I have to make a certain amount of money to live my life, not feeling like I have to live my life in certain place under certain expectations. I don’t want my daughter to have to live the same life as mine. I don’t want to have to love in the way everyone else dictates love should be. I have been following a specific path for too long, and I my dream is that very soon, I will be able to veer off onto my own path.