The Ethiopian and Eritrean Student Association (EESA) has spent the past year finding creative ways to host events celebrating and educating about Ethiopian and Eritrean culture, while operating online due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Additionally, the club has collaborated with other campus affinity groups to teach and raise awareness about issues facing Black and first generation students.
“We aim to foster a sense of service towards different issues in Ethiopia and Eritrea and our communities both respectively and together because the two countries have had a long history,” co-president Sarah Legesse said.
D.C. is a hub for Ethiopians and Eritreans, according to co-president Arsema Paulos, who said she joined the organization due to the encouragement of her older cousin Bethlehem Sisay, who was on the executive board.
For Legesse, the DMV was a place where she participated in Eritrean cultural events even before coming to AU.
“I come here a lot for the Eritrean festivals over the summer,” Legesse said. “It was definitely a family event, and it would usually be in a big open park somewhere, and there would be music, food. Artists from back home [Eritrea] would come, different exhibits for fashion, cultural clothing from back home would be sold, fashion shows.”
Before the pandemic, the club’s biggest event of the year was EESA Fest, which includes Ethipoian and Eritrean artists and operates around a central theme each year, according to Legesse.
The last EESA Fest took place Oct. 18, 2019 with the theme “The Diaspora’s Legacy Beyond the Continent.” The club wasn’t able to hold an EESA Fest in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“It’s such an in-person thing,” Legesse said. “We didn't think we’d be able to capture the essence of it if it was virtual, and a lot of it is in-person interaction, and that kind of exchange was really important to happen for us in person, so we didn't want to dilute any of the meaning or the event itself by putting it virtually.”
Despite not being able to host an EESA Fest 2020 because of COVID-19, the executive board has found creative new ways to keep members engaged.
One innovative activity the board created was language lessons. Members have been able to learn Amharic, Afaan Oromoo and Tigrinya, three of the most commonly spoken languages in Ethiopia and Eritrea. In the lessons that have been held so far, attendees have been able to learn useful words and phrases taught by members of the executive board, according to Paulos.
Paulos, who speaks Amharic, and Legesse, who speaks Tigrinya, taught an in-person language lesson in the spring semester of 2020. Since AU moved online due to the pandemic, the club added the teaching of Afaan Oromoo, according to Paulos.
In addition to language lessons, EESA has participated in and hosted many virtual events.
The association participated in an online fundraising campaign called The AU Freedom Fund from Aug. 10 through 21. The two-week fundraiser allowed 20 AU organizations to raise money for three nonprofit organizations in the DMV area: Sanctuary DMV, Black Women’s Health Imperative and the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.
EESA partnered with Caribbean Circle on Aug. 12 for The AU Freedom Fund, and the two organizations posted infographics and Instagram stories about the Black immigrant experience. The Instagram posts were intended to raise awareness, and viewers could donate to the Freedom Fund Venmo account, according to Legesse.
EESA also hosts discussions, known as “Bunatime.” “Buna” means coffee in Amharic, one of the official languages of Ethiopia. The organization co-sponsored a virtual Bunatime with AU South Asian Student Association on Sept. 28 titled “The First Generation Experience.”
The AU African Students’ Organization (ASO) has hosted several virtual discussions, called tea talks, over the past several months that EESA has co-sponsored along with several other clubs, according to Paulos.
One ASO tea talk on Oct. 22 was titled #BlackLivesMatter in Africa and was co-sponsored by EESA, AU Black Student Union and AU NAACP. Another, hosted by ASO on Feb. 23, was called “Being Black at American University. This tea talk was co-sponsored by EESA, AU NAACP, AU Caribbean Circle, The Blackprint and the Nu Beta chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
The club co-hosted an event with Eritrean-Ethiopian Student Association of North America titled “Dialogue on Turmoil in Eritrea and Ethiopia” on Dec. 12.
While the University continues operations online, EESA is also taking advantage of using its social media accounts. EESA highlighted Black creatives on Instagram in collaboration with ASO during the last week of Black History Month.
“We wanted to highlight Black creatives of every different medium and different disciplines, so we had artists, jewelers, we had podcasters, different musicians,” Legesse said.
EESA does more than talk about Ethiopian and Eritrean culture and language. The club also discusses current events in the two African countries. Legesse said that while the association didn’t commonly discuss events occurring within and between the two countries in the past, it has begun to more since the two countries signed a declaration ending the years-long war in July 2018.
“Now I think we're doing a lot more discussion and a lot more dialogue on internal politics — how the diaspora and people back home [in Ethiopia and Eritrea] interact,” Legesse said. “In the past couple years there have been a lot of significant events both between the two countries and in the two respectively, and so we’ve kind of made it a point to create a safe space for our members and for ourselves to kind of have a conversation about everything going on.”
Moving forward from a virtual club format, Paulos and Legesse both said they hope to be able to hold an EESA Fest 2021 as long as it is safe.
Both Paulos and Legesse agreed that EESA has had a large impact on their time at AU. Paulos said that the club gave her the opportunity to grow as a student and leader.
Legesse added that the association enabled her to connect with the Black community at AU and discover other Black affinity clubs on campus.
“EESA has definitely opened those doors for me to dive deeper into the different cultures of Black people everywhere, and that's something that I'll always be grateful for,” Legesse said.