This spring, Meaza Petros ’19 from Boston, Mass., presented at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Portland, Ore. Petros, who designed her own Colby-Sawyer major focused on global affairs, shared the stage with Associate Professor of Humanities and poet Ewa Chrusciel; their panel proposal, “Hoopoes and Dybbuks: Immigrant and Refugee Voices,” was one of 500 selected from more than 2,000.
Professor Chrusciel grew up in Poland and is the author of, among other collections of poetry, Contraband of Hoopoe, which explores issues of dislocation, immigration and desire. Petros grew up in Eritrea; her parents were taken as political prisoners and have not been heard from for more than 18 years. In 2009, she and her grandmother escaped the country and sought asylum in the U.S.
Their panel considered what stories can be told and explored immigrant and refugee voices, questions of who is able to speak and who speaks for whom, and ideas of (always porous) borders between migrants, communities and narratives.
It’s a tremendous achievement for an undergraduate student to present her own story at such a well-known conference, and after their travels, Professor Chrusciel had some questions for Petros about the experience.
Tell us about your time at the AWP conference and how it’s affected you.
The AWP conference was a perfect introduction to the writing community. Writing has always been a private relationship for me, so I was somewhat intimidated by the prospect of having to integrate myself into a community of accomplished writers. What I found, however, was a community of individuals who created and recreated boxes of their own when it came to defining what writing meant to them and how they contributed to the writing community.
I loved my time at the AWP because I had been craving a creative energy that fed into what I was grappling with, and at the conference, I was able to tap into, interact with and process ideas that constantly lit up my brain. It was overwhelming in the best way.
You were a student in four of my classes, and I invited you to others to share your story of displacement; the austere regime you lived under in Eritrea; the loss of your parents; and the treacherous journey you undertook to escape your native country. You touched many students while showing them the value of courageous resilience through the strength of your testimony. Could you share some of your story? How has it evolved?
I am the daughter of Petros Solomon and Aster Yohannes, two guerilla warriors who were instrumental in the war for Eritrea’s independence. I am the daughter of two political prisoners, prisoners of conscience. My parents have been in jail for more than 18 years, and no one in my family has seen them during that time. Before his arrest, my father was a government official.
My grandmother and I crossed the border in 2009 when I was 11 and she was 69; I got separated from my three siblings for the next five years because they were caught trying to cross the border and arrested. I started telling this story from the moment that I stepped onto foreign soil, and I have continued telling it like I was still the only non-white English speaker in the room, and I was telling it to UNCHR agents who would determine whether or not I got to live with the family that I had not left behind. Going to the panel helped me understand that I have not developed my own way of telling my story. I talked about how the narrative of a refugee is determined by its platform, and although that is true, there is also the additive platform of a storyteller. In a larger context, I think that the panel helped me name the limitations within my story that I can change, limitations that have to do with how I understand my own power outside of the context of the things that have happened to me.
Do you believe that sharing your story may serve as a motivation? Is there a small hope that you will affect people’s hearts to the point at which somebody will take an action, even if a small one?
It is my responsibility to share my story. Not because I believe that it is the best way to make change, but because I am in a position to fight for my parents’ freedom, and at the moment, my testimony is the only tool I have at my disposal. Whatever combined efforts will eventually be responsible for the end of dictatorship in Eritrea, I am adding to those efforts. People ask me to share my story because they are interested, and more often than not I am happy to learn that by the time I stop speaking I have in some way changed their perception of what immigrants, refugees or Africans are supposed to act, sound or look like. But I am at a point where I cannot deny that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.” I don’t want my impact to stop there, I want people to care enough about my parents to add to the pool of effort so that it does make a difference. It’s been 18 years. I don’t have the answers as to how I am going to best help my parents or my people, and while I continue to criticize my actions so that I can better understand their points of improvement, I will keep telling anyone that is willing to listen that my people, my parents, need help, and that they need it urgently.
And finally, what are the most valuable learning experiences you will carry with you from Colby-Sawyer?
I learned a lot of things that helped me with my writing and character development, but if I were to pinpoint moments in college when I felt like I had learned something that helped me make better sense of the world, it would be classes that completely redirected my point of view - a combination of history, political science and sociology helped me rename my bottom line and better identify the obstacles I would face.