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Exploring Issues of Power and Identity Among Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis in the Pacific Northwest

Interview with Dr. Sandra Chait

Dr. Sandra Chait has spent the last 12 years working on issues of immigration and identity, with a particular focus on the experiences of Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalis living in the Pacific Northwest. She started exploring these issues while teaching African Literature at the University of Washington in Seattle and serving as Associate Director of the University’s Program on Africa. During this time, students from these Horn of Africa countries would often approach her to share their experiences as immigrants. -She found their accounts compelling, particularly because of the political/cultural differences that frequently contradicted one another’s accounts of the same events.

 

Sandra has conducted extensive research on issues of migration and politico-cultural tensions among immigrants from the Horn of Africa, living in the Pacific Northwest. Her contribution to this area is unique because she attempts to look beyond issues of political and cultural differences, to explore how these groups have attempted to weave a common identity and narrative as Africans.

Sandra makes two interesting observations in her book: * 

1) The role of the internet in keeping historical tensions alive: While earlier immigrants from conflict areas also lived amongst their enemies, the time it took for news stories from home to reach them eventually allowed for a certain distancing from the conflict.  Today’s immigrant groups -however, are acutely impacted by the internet’s immediacy. -New narratives revealing stark details of the conflict back home are aired as they unfold - and the - social media, by - sharing opinions and maybe even spreading propaganda, brings conflict issues to the doorsteps of diaspora communities in very real and tangible ways.  Together with narratives garnered through cell phone conversations, these different forms of communication keep animosity alive and prevent refugees and immigrants from moving on with their lives.

2) The power of storytelling in establishing powerful identities in the diaspora: The ability of a group to successfully create and popularise their own narrative and thereby shape their collective identity has a direct correlation to their power and superiority over other groups.  In America’s cultural marketplace, ethnic groups assume that they must compete for status and resources. 

In addition to the narratives of the main Horn of Africa groups, Sandra also explored those of minorities who have been marginalized within these communities. She discovered that historical prejudices against these minorities are very often carried into the new diaspora communities. Examples of these marginalized groups include the Somali Bantu -and the Outcast occupational groups of Somalia, plus to a less extent the Oromo from Ethiopia. 

What next in terms of research?

During her time working with Somali, Eritrean and Ethiopian communities in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Chait developed an admiration for the strength, agency and resilience of the women within these groups, and in particular for Somali women. She is currently working on a -manuscript focusing on second-generation Somali women-and the cultural values Somali mothers impart to their daughters that help them to survive and succeed in the United States.

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*Dr. Sandra Chait is originally a native of South Africa, and taught African Literature at the University of Washington, in Seattle. This feature article was based on her experience writing her book, Chait, Sandra M. Seeking Salaam: Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Somalis in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: University of Washington, 2011. Print; paperback, March, 2013.

 

 

 

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