“I grew up not knowing a lot of Habesha people in my classes or in school, separate from my sister,” said Maraki Mengesha A. “A lot of times I felt really isolated whenever there’d be conversations about culture, because I’d look around, and there wouldn’t be a lot of Habesha students there too.”
Habesha is a term that unifies Ethiopians, Eritreans, and all tribes living in that region. Now, Mengesha A is one of four seniors involved in the creation of the Habesha Student Union (HSU) at Berkeley High School.
Sara Tesfai and Winta Tesfaldet were inspired to create the club alongside siblings Maraki and Makida Mengesha A., due to their involvement with an Eritrean community program in Oakland. “I feel like (the program) had such a strong sense of community, and I was like, ‘We should do that at Berkeley High too,”’ Tesfai said.
Unity is a key goal for HSU leaders. “You see so many Habesha communities in the Bay Area,
but in school, (even though) there are so many Habesha students, they’re not unified as other communities are,” Makida said. “We need to have a space where we can come together, share our experiences, our culture, talk about the history and have more of a connection with people in the same culture.”
Tesfaldet wants the club to be a space where members can learn from other’s perspectives. Growing up, “I didn’t know enough about my history and heritage, even though I am a first generation (immigrant),” Tesfaldet said. To her, it’s important to “be more aware of what’s going on and how … privileged (we are) to be here, especially since of what’s going on in (Ethiopia and Eritrea).”
The two countries have had a history of conflict, and war, political instability and unrest which continue to plague the region. “There are some really heartbreaking things that are going on between different regions, especially in Ethiopia … a lot of killing and horrible things happening to communities and villages,” Tesfaldet said.
The HSU provides a space for students to learn about Ethiopia and Eritrea’s past and present. “We have family back home,” Makida said. “To be more informed about the topic and to be able to understand is super important, so that we can see the issues and … try to bring awareness.”
Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s politics have impacted how the HSU leaders designed their club, down to the name they decided upon.
“At first, we wanted to call it the EESU, which means Eritrean and Ethiopian Student Union, because of a past club that one of my cousin’s had started at (BHS),” Tesfaldet said. However, “With politics and what’s going on back home, we decided that it’d be important to make the club name more inclusive, for people who might be close in culture and heritage, but might not identify as Eritrean or Ethiopian,” she said.
Community is necessary to the HSU’s future plans. “I almost feel like not even calling it a club, but more just bringing community together,” Tesfaldet said. “Sitting down, eating snacks and talking could be an amazing meeting for us because that’s kind of the whole point. We want people to feel comfortable in a school where they know there are people just like them there.”
To Tesfai, a more connected Habesha community at BHS could be as straightforward as greeting each other in the hallway. “(When I’m) walking in the halls and I see Habesha students, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I wish I knew them … I wish I could talk to them,’” Tesfai said. “Creating this space for (Habesha students) to talk is what I would want to see in the future.”
One of the club’s goals is to plan a cultural day where they can celebrate Habesha food, clothes, games, and more.
Overall, the co-leaders want HSU to be a place of connection and understanding. “When I was a freshman, I wish I had this club,” Maraki said. “Talking to other Habesha people, they’ve told me similar things where they feel like there isn’t a community of Habesha people that they really know to talk about their own culture … hopefully with this club, we can do that and create a community together.”