Posts Tagged ‘Ethiopian memoir; refugee memoir; Ethiopian Canadian’

Fire Walkers – a review

April 25, 2017

by Janet Nicol

Fire Walkers, a memoir by Bethlehem Terrefe Gebreyohannes. Mawenzi House Publishers, Toronto, 2016.

Fire Walkers, a memoir by Bethlehem (“Beth”) Gebreyohannes, provides a valuable female viewpoint of an Ethiopian-Canadian’s refugee experience. The author recounts fifteen months of her life in vivid and heart-felt detail, beginning in 1980 when she was 14 years old. Beth’s father and step-mother reluctantly organized their family’s secret escape out of war-ridden Addis Ababa and across the Ethiopian border to the port city of Djibouti. Realizing they were not on a family holiday, Beth and her two older brothers, Yared and Asrat expressed shock, confusion and anger at their parents. Still, the family remained united as they endured several days traversing the Danakil Desert on foot, wary of roving soldiers, scattered land mines and unpredictable terrain.

Dangers and hardships also included long days enduring the hottest desert in the world. Beth’s step-mother Meskeram, especially agonized over temporarily leaving her baby daughter behind in the care of others. The family encountered strangers who were both unscrupulous and amazingly generous. They coped with theft, sickness, sexual predators and separation, underscoring their vulnerability—and stoicism.

The landscape and people of the east African region are otherworldly, as the author depicts: “The camels’ gurgling sound woke me up from the sheet of sand I slept on,” and on another morning: “….I saw that everything blended together in the desert—the camels, the shrubs, and even the sky.”

Beth’s family were Christians, descended from Ethiopian royalty but encountered diverse peoples, including Somalians, nomadic Afar tribesmen and Djiboutians who spoke French, Afar, Somali and Arabic. Men chewed the stimulant known as qat, one of the author’s many fascinating observations. She shares many other cultural experiences ranging from dining on sweet tea and goat stew in the desert to the joy of swimming in Djibouti’s Red Sea.

When Beth and her brother initially arrived at a refugee camp in Dikhil ahead of other family members, the reader glimpses the harsh life and prejudices refugees experience. Beth’s family however, found sanctuary for several months in a home offered by a woman who worked in the home a wealthy man. As the author noted: “The kindness we received from strangers had made all the troubles, wars, homelessness, statelessness, and hunger more bearable.”

Family bonds were valued above all else. When Beth is reunited with her father—for whom she dedicates this memoir—she writes, “I fell into his arms, smelt the scent of his cigarette on his white shirt. If only I could be around my father all the time.”

In the afterward and acknowledgements the reader learns the fate of Beth and other family members since re-settlement in Canada. Many individuals and writers’ classes inspired the author to tell her powerful story, resulting in this vividly written and insightful contribution to memoir literature.

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