Travel is usually synonymous with the joy of discovering new places, cultures, and expanding our way of looking at the world and seeing how beautiful it really is. Sometimes though, it can also mean having to face additional challenges and hardships because of the color of your skin, sexual orientation, or religion. Helena Alemu shares with us her experience of traveling as an Ethiopian woman and living around the world with her family.
Q. Could you tell us a little about you and your family?
A. My name is Helena Alemu. I was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I went to Addis Ababa University. Right after graduation, I started working for Save the Children as their Education Adviser and then as a Conflict Adviser. I left my home country in 2008 due to political unrest and moved to the US. I met my husband in NYC, got married in 2009 and in 2011 we moved to South Africa. A year later we moved back to the States to give birth to my first born, Senbi Menab Bish, who is 8 years old now. Our second child came in 2018.
My professional life had to take a pause when I had Senbi, so I stayed home for about three years after he was born. That is when I discovered my true calling is coaching and mentoring others. So, I took a Life and Leadership coaching course and got certified. Since then I have worked with a number of diverse women from the diaspora as well as in Africa, mainly focusing on women-owned businesses and enterprises.
At the end of 2018, we decided to move back to Ethiopia. We packed our belongings and left NYC on Dec 1, 2018. I have worked as an adviser for top senior government officials on trade, industry and women empowerment. As COVID 19 hit the world, we decided to come back to the States until things settled down. We are currently staying with my family in San Antonio, Texas.
Q. What goes through your head when choosing a travel destination?
A. I think the biggest question when we are planning to travel is budgeting. This is perhaps key because we want to stay in our budget, but we don’t want to end up dropping some of our plans due to budget constraints.
The second area of concern is the ability to network and find the local people. We always look for activities that will give us and our children the opportunity to be immersed in the real culture rather than the cookie-cutter tourist approach that travel agencies provide.
The third aspect is diversity and friendliness, especially towards women. I have been to places where a Black woman traveling with family or solo, would get easily discriminated against due to cultural and other factors. So I always look out for that kind of dynamism.
Q. Does race or sexual orientation affect how you choose your travel destination?
A. Yes it does. As I mentioned earlier, I look for places that are friendly to black female travelers as well as child friendly, if I am taking my children with me. For example, I took my eight year old to Egypt last year and we went to a beach resort that is entirely filled with Europeans. It was obvious that the people at the hotel were not happy to see Black people. There were several incidents and that was a lesson for me to do my research ahead of time.
Q. What are the things you love most about traveling with your family?
A. I feel fulfilled travelling with my family. I don’t feel guilty about the experiences because we are sharing it together. We get creative to accommodate everyone’s needs and our experience expands in that regard.
Q. What have been surprisingly positive experiences and what has been negative?
A. We traveled domestically when we were in Ethiopia. So in our trip to the North part of Ethiopia, our little one who just turned one did surprisingly well when we were hiking the mountains and crossing the Tana river with a local boat. We thought it would be hard for him.
International travel brings out some irritability and frustration for both me and my husband, due to long hours with cranky kids and no sleep. We always say, before we get on board, “leave your ego at the airport.”
Q. Have you talked to your child/children about how racial injustice could affect your travels?
A. Both my children can sense when we are in a place where they see people that dont look like them. My two and a half starts to ask “who’s that”, but my eight year old is well aware that we are “different”. I never had an open conversation with them about race and injustice because I don’t know how to begin that conversation.
Q. How do you prepare your child/children for it?
A. I don’t know. We are still trying to figure that out.
Q. What can we do to help with this kind of discrimination?
A. I think there are a lot of things. Supporting Black travelers from identifying places that they feel comfortable with, educating travel destinations like hotels, reports, aviations about racial equality.
Q. How can we be better allies?
A. Reaching out to identify the different needs of Black travelers through various means so that their questions and needs can be answered. Creating education platforms for the above mentioned institutions for them to be inclusive etc.
Q. What advice would you give to other Black female travelers?
A. I say don’t limit yourself to travel destinations that you think are not suitable for you because of your race. You might be that person that will change the perspective of others since a lot of times, racism is a convenient ignorance.
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