Tewodros Aklilu

Transcript of Tewodros Aklilu
Interviewee: Tewodros Aklilu
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Place: Edgewater Historical Society, 5358 N .Ashland Avenue, Chicago, IL
Time: July 11, 2014
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren
Total Time: 37:07 minutes

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is Friday July 11, 2014. This is Dorothy Nygren at the Edgewater Historical Society and I’m interviewing…. Could you say your pronunciation correctly?

TA: Tewodros Aklilu.

DN: He’s very kind in his busy schedule and agreed to have an interview with us about his experiences as an immigrant in Edgewater. Thanks you very much for being willing to share with us. To start off with, can you tell me what country you were born in?

TA: I was born in Ethiopia in Addis Ababa.

DN: And what was the closest village or town?

TA: The biggest city in Ethiopia is called Addis Ababa from the middle.

DN: And can you share a little bit about what your childhood and growing up there, and what your mom and dad did, and playing around and just your normal everyday stuff.

TA: OK. So I was born in 1961. My father is an educator. He has a PhD from Ohio State. My mother has also a social work degree from a college in Ohio. The two met here and then they got married in Ethiopia. And then me; I am the oldest child. You would consider them middle class. We lived in a villa. There was one car in the house. My father didn’t like TV so we never had a TV. We had it in the end… the last few years. We grew up…. I had a happy childhood. I went to a very good school. And when the Ethiopian revolution came, that’s when everything got disrupted. And we all moved here in 1977.


DN: Do you have any brothers or sisters?

TA: There is four boys in our house. I am the oldest and the next one is one year younger than me. The next one is one year younger than him. And the next one who lives in Chicago, the last one, is eight years younger than me.

DN: When your parents were living in Ethiopia, did they both work? And what were their professions?

TA: My father was an educator in the university. My mother was a librarian at the university. So….

DN: Now you said that you left because of the disruption in Ethiopia? Could you describe that a little bit for the people who are listening or reading this?

TA: OK: We had a monarchy that was headed by aillHHH hhHaile Selassie. I think he was a very great leader. And when…. There came a time when the population was not happy with him and there was agitation inside and outside. There was a big oil crisis over that period. And it all came together to create those conditions that were ripe for revolution. And Ethiopia had a real revolution where everything changed. If you owned land, that would be nationalized. If you owned extra houses, you could be left with one house and everything else would be confiscated and divided up. So there was a real reshuffling of wealth that happened.


DN: How old were you at the time this happened?

TA: I was aged thirteen…twelve. I was old enough to understand most of what the movement of the revolution encouraged.

DN: So up until that time you were going to school and playing soccer after school? Could you talk a little bit about what your life was like before?

TA: Yeah. I would play soccer before school, during recess, a little during lunch and after school. Then when I would get home, it was time to calm down, so….

DN: And then would your mother prepare food or….who was the cook in your family?

TA: In our house, there was help and that’s how most people in households in Ethiopia are. They would have help. Somebody would cook. Somebody might guard the house. At least you would have those two things. And there was a lady who cooked for us all through our lives and she is still our family.


DN: Then you said once the revolution came your life was totally disrupted, so what happened?

TA: In the sense the disruption… in the sense there was a youth rebellion against the soldiers who took over the revolution. There was a very popular youth led rebellion, who stood up in rebellion. And then the soldiers came in and took over the revolution and the youth rebelled against the soldiers. And then the soldiers started killing them. I’m talking about high school kids and university kids, tens of thousands. So my father decided that, rather than losing one of his sons, we would move away somewhere until things died down.

DN: When you came to the United States, what was the process for coming for you?


TA: My father got a job. He got a job with an international organization based in Washington D.C. He was lucky enough because the government thought it could use him in this position, so they let him go. It was very rare that they allow people to go. A week after he left, there was a discussion within the government, “Why did you let him go?” And the issues about that…but that was before us. My family got the chance to go that way. So they let him go to a neighboring country. There were a lot of hardships. Consider my family lucky.

DN: When your father came here, did he come on a work visa or an immigrant visa?

TA: Work visa.

DN: Did you all come with him at the same time?
TA: Everybody came together; four boys and my mother.

DN: And then once you came here, I think you said you came to Washington, D.C. first?

TA: We moved into Maryland. It’s called Bethesda, a suburb of Washington, D.C. We went to public school there. It’s a very good public school; played soccer all the way through, played for our school, but our school got state championship. Both of my brothers were on the team at that time, so they ….


DN: How did it feel to you making this big change? Did you speak English before you came, from Ethiopia?

TA: I realized how good my English was that I was learning in Ethiopia because I tested out of seventh grade English when I arrived here. I was put in a regular class right away.

DN: When you came to school here…when you first came to school in Washington, did it feel a little strange? What kind of adjustment do you feel was going on for you?

TA: Well growing up in Ethiopia, I had confidence. So I came here and I was just being myself. I did not really experience trouble. I just made friends easy once I played soccer. And done with the immediate family.

DN: So you didn’t feel you had any discrimination issues when you came?


TA: Well there might have been, but I don’t see it. I didn’t see somebody with a character issue. That’s all I see. I don’t see like institutionalized…. After I lived here for awhile, I started seeing what is behind it, historic reasons. Me, as an Ethiopian coming here, somebody’s mean to me, he’s a mean person. Somebody being nice to me, it’s a nice person. First I’m a nice person. Maybe sometimes I’m not nice. I don’t know. But I try to be nice and ….

DN: So you didn’t feel you were being discriminated against because you were Ethiopian or Muslim or because or your skin color or….?

TA: It might be, but I don’t see it….

DN: You just see it as an issue of the heart of a person; whether they are a good person or a bad person inside?

TA: Yeah, well it’s my level of consciousness at that time or it’s my upbringing. Maybe it’s a good idea that we don’t see it. I don’t know. But I didn’t see it. And my experience, when did it start? It was there though. And later on I reflected back and I said,” Wow. From the ‘60s?” People even said, “Nigger” to me and I really didn’t know the word. I didn’t get angry at that word because I didn’t know what it meant. You know? So…yeah, I don’t know. It’s a different experience I think from black people who were raised and brought up in this country. Or even my kids ….both born in Edgewater.


DN: So how did you get to Edgewater from Washington?

TA: Well, Washington…. I went to college there; I went to George Washington University. And in 1986 I had already started playing music in the neighboring community there. So between soccer and music, that was consistent throughout my life. Then at some point, the music won out and I left soccer to play music for money. Also I studied economics. I have a degree in it and Political Science; a double major.

And then I graduated. I just put my degree away and went to play music full time. So at that point, the Ethiopian family… created Ethiopian family happened. And I just don’t like playing music and the TV was showing different stories about America. I don’t like what the TV is showing the kids. So that’s how it went. My conscience woke up and I could not play music anymore. We were playing in clubs and Ethiopians …a lot of refugees had come to this; people drinking, laughing and the TV was showing (unintelligible). I just couldn’t play anymore. So a friend convinced me to go to graduate school. So we went to Michigan.

DN: To Michigan?

TA: I moved to East Lansing, Michigan and I went to graduate school to study natural source [of] economics. I spent six years there and more or less did all my courses. I had issues with graduate school. The Ethiopian family was fresh in our heads. And the way the graduate schools are dealing with this, I had a guttural reaction, I guess, because they were selling seeds, like improved seeds or modified seeds. And they thought that it would remove our problems through fertilizers, chemicals and pesticides. That’s what they were pushing. I didn’t know much, but my heart rebelled against this. I said, “I don’t want to be a specimen for you guys. So I left graduate school and continued my education independently.


And then I had a couple of trips to Chicago during the last year of my stay in East Lansing, Michigan and I liked Chicago. We were coming weekends to play at the Ethiopian Village on Clark Street. We would come and play and go back Sundays. We would come Friday and go back Sundays once a month. And I liked it so much, I decided to stay. I left Michigan. And then I discovered Northwestern University. I really liked East Lansing because of the rich African library there. When I saw the library at Northwestern, I moved immediately. I think I moved within a month. I just got up and packed a bag and moved here. I’ve been here ever since. Well I’ve had to move, but I’ve stayed here twenty years.


DN: What prompted you to move to Edgewater, as compared to Northwestern?

TA: I have friends who live here. You know that pink building? On Bryn Mawr and … In front of it there was a gas station and next to it a short building, four stories? I had friends who lived in that building and we moved into a studio there. I moved straight into a studio there. I first moved to their apartment sleeping on the floor. And in a couple of days I talked to the landlord and I moved to a studio apartment right on the same. That apartment, I got married. I got two beautiful daughters. So Edgewater holds very good memories for me. It’s the first place I moved to in Chicago and was right by the lake. I used to go to the lake. It would be easy. That’s s another reason I love Chicago. I used to play jazz all night. (Unintelligible) It really impressed me.

DN: How do you find the people in Edgewater? Do you find them welcoming, or do you find them off-putting?


TA: Oh it’s beautiful. I find everything beautiful. The whole world is there. It’s positively the best place you can move to if you want to first come to Chicago. I like Evanston too. It’s very nice. Good people, very liberal.

DN: So in thinking about what you like about Edgewater and why you came here, you said at first your friends were here and you visited and you liked the area and the neighborhood. Once you came here, you found it was very welcoming; that the whole world is here. So the diversity of Edgewater, the lake – the proximity to the lake and the transportation were all factors in why you find Edgewater such a home for you. How old are your daughters now?

TA: My oldest one is nineteen. Yep. I had them the year I came. The second one is seventeen.


DN: So what schools do they go to?

TA: The oldest one; she goes to Northwestern now.

DN: Before that, in grammar school.

TA: She went all the way to Chicago Public Schools. They went to Alcott [School]. Alcott is grade A. Alcott is between Diversey, Clark, and that area.

DN: Yes. Did they go they for kindergarten, first, second, and third grades?

TA: Preschool, they went to the Lake Shore School.

DN: Um hmm. On Clark Street over here.

TA: The oldest one and I realized I couldn’t afford it.

DN: Yes.

TA: So I said, “There’s two daughters (unintelligible).” So I looked for alternatives. And God provides. I was driving cabs at the time. A woman came in the back of the cab… told me she got a new principal at her school. She was a preschool teacher and she said, “We have a new principal and it’s going to be better.” (Unintelligible) I put my daughters in. I think God puts these people in our path. And what my daughter did and she’s now on a Fulbright scholarship to Northwestern - the youngest one. They went to [Walter] Payton [High School] after Alcott. It gives them good background. I mean Edgewater gave us a good choice.

DN: Now you’re on your way to Ethiopia now.


TA: I moved back. I have now been there five years.

DN: I see. So what prompted you to leave Edgewater and move back, do you feel?

TA: I started touring with a musician from Ethiopia. He’s very popular. He gets to travel all over the world, wherever there is Ethiopian [music]. All my life I always have loved Ethiopia a lot. I used to go back for two months every two years. It was hard to afford that. Now it was a free ride with the music. I would so and play music. I would stay three months, four months. And during that time I got to appreciate the life. Politically it’s not the best country, you know, but it’s a work in progress you know. And I want to be part of that work.

DN: Do you feel more at home in Ethiopia than you do in America?


TA: I lived here longer than there. I came here when I was fifteen. Right now on August 15, I will be fifty four. So I stay most of my life in America. So I would say this is more of a home to me than Ethiopia. But all my brothers are in America. My father and mother are in Washington, D.C. There’s nobody in Ethiopia. I fought with that. I did not like that. I felt so disconnected and torn up.

DN: Do you have American citizenship?

TA: No. I fought that. I wasn’t interested in that.

DN: Oh this is interesting. Why did you decide not to become an American citizen?

TA: Because I always knew I would go back. Because this is a very good place, a very comfortable place. And I have two very beautiful children here. It’s very good to me. I have no complaints. And if I just wanted my own comfort, this is the best place to be. But it’s not where I’m from, you know.

DN: You feel as if you want to go back to Ethiopia to help your people there?


TA: Always. There is no moment that I say I am not coming back.

DN: Did you talk a little bit about the impulse to go back and where that comes from and what you hope to do?

TA: When I moved here, it was not voluntary; a fifteen year old. My father one day said, “OK. We are leaving.” So we all got together and in two weeks, we are leaving Ethiopia. I said, “Where?” “America.” I heard about it but it was one country out of many for me. I never thought of America differently or anything. So there was an encyclopedia in the house and I looked it up and looked at the map and at the pictures. And I did not want to come. Ethiopia at that time was for me, I just started…. You know we have a very protective household and we’re not allowed to leave our house compound.


So when the revolution happened, there is something called the Knaverist (?), a neighborhood council. And kids are forced to go … required to go and move and have meetings and acquire political education and a purity theme. We have to clean the neighborhood and plant. There is a gardening project. We were required to go and mingle and that is how I discovered Ethiopia. And I… we blossomed in that environment. I guess our house… within our house was not so different from outside; the way we were. And so we fit right in right away. There was a lot of fighting we had to do, but immediately you establish your rank. And then there is peace. It was [a] lovely time and it was actually interrupted. I didn’t want to come when we came. I had two brothers who did not feel so much that. I was the oldest and I was the one more adventurous. Our whole world was just shaping and it was…. We were on top of it and that was interrupted. When I came here it was not voluntary. I think that matters. I came here. I went to the school and you know…

DN: Does your wife feel the same way that you do about returning to Ethiopia?

TA: She also… My wife is in Ethiopia right now. I remarried in Ethiopia. I have two beautiful daughters there too, aged seven and five. I’ve established my household there now. My wife lived in this neighborhood twenty years and moved back. We are all the same.


DN: What do you hope to do when you get back to Ethiopia? What are your goals?

TA: Right now, I’m fully involved in education. I believe in universal music literacy. I go the elementary schools and teach little kids. Just like they know their ABCs, they need to learn their music. I believe it. It improves the brain. It makes them better people. It’s good for society. I want to form an NGO that does that. Right now I am in two schools in Ethiopia and hope to get my friends together and cover all the schools. That’s our dream.

DN: What about your daughters that you have here? Are they still here or in Ethiopia?

TA: They’re here.

DN: So their lives are in America?

TA: Me and their mom are divorced. We still are very good friends. The kids are very well adjusted, I feel. They say they are Americans.

DN: I feel your story is so interesting because you came here, as you said, not voluntarily, and you didn’t have a great deal of trouble adapting to America. But somehow a piece of your heart was always in Ethiopia. Now you feel almost a mission to go back and do something in Ethiopia. Is that correct, would you say?


TA: It’s not a mission. It’s just a continuation. I feel there was an interruption. So I went right back to it. Later on I feel that…. It’s a different society now.

DN: I want to go back to something that you said about when the Revolution came, and how you grew up protected in this compound, in this household, protected from the outside life in Ethiopia. But then with the Revolution you were forced to go and do things with other people, other children. But it didn’t terrify you. It didn’t bother you. You felt you could adapt to that as well.

TA: Yeah, because in our school, in our household, it wasn’t so different than outside. It wasn’t like contrary different.

DN: So because it was the same culture, even though your socio-economic status might have been different, you still felt a kinship with who you were mingling with at the time.


TA: Yeah. You see education creates cults, and Ethiopia’s experiences of education won’t be that long - meaning Western education. Ethiopian experience with traditional education going back thousands of years all the way to ancient Egypt. But Ethiopia’s experience of modern Western type education is not even one hundred year old. So we have not yet developed cults based on whether you have a PhD or…. It’s coming, but it’s not yet solid. I hope it will never solidify because it’s not (unintelligible).

DN: So you see social justice issues as coming with advanced capitalism, maybe, here?

TA: Oh…. I studied economics and political science.

DN: That’s why I’m having this conversation with you. Because one of the things we’re examining is social justice issues and whether immigrants and refugees have different social justice issues than say people who are born and raised here….gender, race, socioeconomic – all these different divisors that separate people – religion. And I think what I hear you saying is that in Ethiopia you don’t have as many social justice issues as exist here.


TA: Oh there is many, but the one thing in my (unintelligible) is that Ethiopia not yet have time to solidify to become (unintelligible) as you have here.

DN: So you see Ethiopia as being more in fluctuation?

TA: It was very traditional type. I would say 80% traditional type. In a way it’s good because people here are finding out all the side effects of that solution, of that pollution and going back to more Ethiopian peasant kind of…. That’s the kind of (unintelligible). That was discovered here. So I go back and say, “Don’t change much. Don’t.” Because people, who went through it, went through that change and found out all the defects it has. We need to learn from it, and we keep coming back to it. Why these people in our society are saying, “The peasants are alright.” So let’s not be too quick to judge them and learn from them – actually the peasants. Learn from the mistakes that advanced societies made.


DN: What other values and ethics do you think Ethiopia could share with the United States besides not to be too in love with technology and see it as being the cure all for everything? What other traditional Ethiopians values? It may stem from the culture. It may stem from the religion. I know I didn’t send you this question to ask you or think about, but….So I’m really asking you on the fly.

TA: In Ethiopia, there are many different experiences and I probably didn’t have the same experiences; the same sense of confidence or whatever…. or the same separation from the rest of the world. The thing is…the one thing that I feel this society….Growing up in America I found myself, for example, in high school, I found that life style. There would be a group of African American kids all together. And there would be a group of international students all together. And there would be a group of the smart kids with their calculators on their belts, many little groups. And I was a smart student so I would get along with they call them the “geeks.” I was a soccer player so I would get along with – they call them the “jocks.” I don’t know what it’s called now.

DN: Yes, that’s right.

TA: Then I like music so I got along with – they call them “stoners” but they all loved different music and I got along with them too. There is a huge international community there and that was really the group I had lunch with. But every group that I felt I did fit in, or didn’t want to fit in completely to the exclusion of the others. And I found that other Ethiopians had this kind of experience, even [those] born here. I don’t know if it’s the culture or….Even my daughters, when I see their group of friends it’s not one kind. It’s all kinds. It’s not all white. It’s not all black. It’s not all Africans. It’s not all Americans. It’s all kids. Maybe it’s the generation. But I feel that it’s our culture in Ethiopia where you have to accept everybody. I don’t know. I think the social thing…like people…. A rich social life for us…here will make this country a better society. There’s a rich social life here too, but it excludes people. People are only in their comfort zone, I feel.


DN: So you feel that Ethiopia is more inclusive?

TA: I don’t know if the word is more inclusive. Maybe in Ethiopia now it’s not so inclusive. But I’ve found that a lot of Ethiopians have that character when they come here. So it interests me.

DN: I’ve asked all the questions that I have. I know your time is limited. Is there anything else you would like to share with me because this is your story, Teddy?

TA: You asked me a lot of questions and I cannot….Except the music, I want to answer about the music scene in Chicago. It’s the kind of place where…. You know, I’ve seen so much. Chicago is the place where everybody can look to…. Chicago is not the place to embrace you. Chicago is the place that looks at you sideways when you are struggling. It doesn’t ignore you completely but it doesn’t cheer you on too much.


DN: Could you just say something about why music is so important?

TA: I found that I developed my music here, because in D.C. I was accepted. We were getting a lot of gigs and we were the top more or less in ’84,’85. But it’s not the same as here where we are struggling musicians. There are very many musicians. There are Ethiopian music circle here and American music circle and… very good musicians and genius musicians. It really was a very school for me musically. And when I went back to Ethiopia, it was like I can’t wait. I didn’t know that when I was here. But when I saw how committed to all the experience here and I saw how rich it was. Only you have to leave Chicago to know it. So that’s why people leave Chicago.


DN: Now you want to take the music and take it back to Ethiopia to work in schools because music is universal in teaching people what…..?

TA: Yeah.

DN: It’s the language?

TA: It tis the language. In fact, I am currently working on a book in which I am convinced that the first language before the separation, The Tower of Babel, had music in it. It was torn down. I really believe it. Because it’s the one language that all humans speaks. It’s in every language, everyone. So the language must have had some music in it before the separation and that power is between music and language.

DN: Well I’m going to look forward to seeing that book because I think you have a very good theory going for you here. And I thank you so much for your time.

TA: Thank you.