Hewan is a first-year student at UC Merced majoring in Bioengineering. After emigrating to the U.S. from Ethiopia, she attended Los Angeles High School for two-and-a-half years, graduating in June 2019. She participated in the RFX1 mural for her Leadership Class and Club at L.A. High, where mostly designed banners and flyers and fundraised for the school through selling snacks at athletic events.
Where is your hometown?
Ethiopia. The name of my hometown is Mekelle, which is in the northern part of Ethiopia. It’s a small town with she a lot of history—it was where the last battle for independence took place. King Yohannnes’ palace was in Mekelle and his kingdom was based in our town during World War II. It is also the capital city of Tigret, which has the common language of Tigrigna, which is also spoken in Eritrea. Tigrigna is a kind of dialect for people from Tigret, but Amharic is our national language.
I was actually born in the Sudan, a neighboring country, because my mom moved there for a better life with my father and then they moved back to Addis Ababa when I was a year old. And then we stayed there for three years and when my father died, we moved to Mekelle. I grew up there from the age of four to sixteen.
I lived in a house with my two cousins, my uncle and two other aunties, my mom and younger sister. And then my mom moved to America when I was 11 years old, and I stayed in Mekelle. In total, we were eight in that house. Me and my sister—she’s one year younger—got really close because we had each other. It was a little bit difficult to live without a mother and a father but we had each other.
I miss my grandmother. She lived in another city—Aksum—but she would visit us in Mekelle often. She just worries me a lot because she doesn’t have anyone to take care of her. Our father was her only son. He passed away in a car accident. I actually don’t know where—my mom doesn’t like talking about it. She also used to buy us clothes and shoes whenever she would come—every month or two months—I used to take her phone. She was really nice to us. We loved her a lot. She would tell us we were the only reason for living. I call her sometimes, but it’s difficult because there’s no connection in Ethiopia because of the bad situation in my country.
When did you first come to Koreatown?
When I first came to the U.S., I lived on Alvarado Street. We were not that wealthy. It was a studio for three people. It was a little bit difficult with school and that we were new to this country and lacked confidence in the language. It was difficult to be three people in the studio. I couldn’t do my homework properly so I had to go to the library. My sister would be watching TV and I would be studying and it was just a struggle.
So two years later, we moved to Koreatown. It was refreshing. I was focusing more on school. I had my own space and I didn’t have to go to the library. Everything changed. We were happier. We had a bigger apartment. I had my own room with my sister. I was in 11th grade focusing on passing all of my classes and succeeding. I didn’t want to go through what my mom has gone through.
What was your high school experience like as a student new to America?
I was new to this country so my English was holding me back, so I took AP English, but it was really difficult, and other AP classes like Chemistry and Biology. My counselor was against it. I worked hard and passed all of them, and my AP English teacher helped me a lot. I didn’t enjoy high school because all I did was study, hang out in the library, stress and sometimes cry because it was really hard. But I had to do extra work and be really fast because everyone was ahead of me. It worked out.
I spent a lot of time in the library by myself. I hanged out with everyone else, mostly with my Latino, Black and Korean friends. Everybody. It was actually a fair environment. There was not any racial tension. The only thing I didn’t like about the school was that there was a separation between the magnet kids and the regular kids. I was taking magnet classes, but I was not in the magnet school. Magnet kids have a bright future and they have goals and all that and the regular kids had a future, but the two groups didn’t get along. As a regular kid taking magnet classes, I was in-between. Hearing comments like, “I always love school and challenging myself,” so when I was in regular classes, teachers would make comments like, “It’s for the magnet students,” or the “magnet kids.” It would break my dreams or hopes. They already feel like the regular kids are good for nothing and only the magnet kids have a future. It was a good experience for me. I was happy not to get into a magnet because I knew how it feels to be regular kid.
What got me down was that my fellow friend who was Ethiopian and a senior got into a magnet. I was here longer than him and got straight As. All of this taught me to be stronger. I cannot look down on anyone, because I know how it feels to be looked down upon. It’s a good lesson for me. It’s a good lesson to learn.
What are your thoughts on Koreatown?
In Koreatown, I felt safer. Where I was on Alvarado, we would hear shots and sirens at night. It’s really safe here and clean, so my mom used to worry when we were there. But when we moved here, she felt more comfortable about everything, us going out, everything — just feeling safe.
One thing I like about the people was that they were really respectful. I have never met anyone here who is disrespectful. Everyone is minding their own business, no loud parties and all that. My apartment building is three stories and has 18 units. It’s mixed—there are three other Ethiopians in the building and they’re friendly and speak the same language. The other families are Latino and Korean. Everyone is friendly and minds their own business.
To tell you the truth, I love it here. I know that I have a future in America. In my country, especially right now, all of the children going to high school are not going to college because people are being racist. Even though we have the same tongue, people from my town are being killed. Everything is unstable. Ethiopia has 80 languages. There are three people—Oromo, Amharic and Tigret. They don’t like each other. The Tigret people have always governed the country—it’s a historical fight, so when the former Prime Minister died, all of the racial issues came back and there was a lot of killing and fighting. So with all this, I know that my future wouldn’t be that good in my country.
Here, I know for a fact that I have a future. I can live without worrying about my future. One day, I know that I will work for my country. I would love to help the kids—the weaker ones, the ones who don’t have any power—or older people, homeless. Charity.
I’m still not sure about what I want to become, but I am trying to go to med school. Hopefully, one day, I will serve as a doctor.
Does your family work in Koreatown?
My mom is a CNA. She works in Koreatown and near Alvarado. She takes care of elderly people, showering and feeding them, making their beds. Most of them are Koreans. The job is hard. They have to work 16 hours a day, lifting heavy stuff. Her ankle hurts. Her doctor has been telling her to take a break, but she wants to take care of the family in Ethiopia and us. She says working and living around Koreans—she feels safe. The other thing is that she has become more open-minded of the culture and new language. She is trying to learn Korean and Spanish. Her colleagues are Latinos, Ethiopians and Koreans.
My mom’s friends hang out a lot together, cook and eat together, they also go to work together. I don’t really spend time in Little Ethiopia, because I don’t live around there and we eat at home. I go to Fairfax sometimes to eat for family night. Sometimes we celebrate our birthdays there at Awash, definitely. One thing about Ethiopians, like any race or culture, there is a lot of manners we have to follow as a kid. Like respecting our elders, greeting them properly, giving them your seats and not talking when they are talking, only when you are allowed, because that shows the other Ethiopian parents that your are cultured and that your parents have succeeded in culturing you. Saying no is really bad, although my mom is really fair. The other Ethiopians will treat you like their own children. That’s how it goes.
There are a lot of Ethiopian people in Koreatown. They like Koreatown because it’s safe and clean. Ethiopians blend in well. They’re open-minded about other cultures, except for food. There are a lot of Ethiopians everywhere, but once you tell them you’re Ethiopian, you automatically become their family — they call you cousin.
Where is your favorite place in Koreatown?
I go to the mall sometimes, like every two weeks or so with my sister. It’s the one on Olympic and Western. The lights at night on the rooftop are my favorite. I like lights. It looks so pretty. I can see my home from up there. I can see parts of Koreatown. But because I went there at night, mostly I see lights and cars moving. I wish I went there in the daylight. I like studying there—I went there once to study with my sister—the air is refreshing and the view and the lights.