For Lithuanians who have met Eskedar Tilahun, 34, she is often the first refugee and even the first African they have spoken to. Since her arrival 13 years ago, she’s become a successful entrepreneur, an activist, a football player, and above all – a European citizen who’s learnt how to navigate exile and prejudice.
We’re meeting at this football field, a special place for you. How did football help you get settled in Lithuania?
When I arrived in Lithuania, I didn’t speak the language, so football became my language. I came across the professional women’s team, who took me in. My first trip in the country was with them, when we played against another city. I played football in college, and the scholarship I received back then paid for my studies.
But football is seen as a masculine sport. There is unequal pay and a lack of opportunities for women. The club wasn’t able to pay me, so I couldn’t become a professional player, [even though] I had the skills. It’s difficult to make a living as a female football player in many countries, so I had to let go of the professional part.
Now I’m playing in an amateur league, and it’s an all-men’s team. I’m the only woman on the pitch. My daughter also plays football at school. I love the sport and that love is something I’ve passed down to my kids.
Football isn’t very popular in Lithuania. Is it popular in Ethiopia?
It was, but not for everyone. I grew up in a village and I was the only girl playing. It was seen as abnormal, something a girl shouldn’t do. A girl should stay at home and sit nicely. But I was a different kind of kind, I fought for my space through football. I didn’t want to be an extra. Some boys would come and say, “Eskedar, get out, I’m coming in.” And I would ask, “Why?” “Because you’re a girl,” they would say. And I’d say, “No.”
I was raised by my grandfather. He wasn’t [formally] educated, but he was a very bright man. He would say, “This is my girl and she does what she wants.” So in a very patriarchal society, he raised me differently. People would say that I would never marry and never have kids, but I didn’t care. For me, life wasn’t about getting married or having kids. Especially when you’re a kid yourself.
I used to read a lot. I liked books by Agatha Christie or Sidney Sheldon, which were translated in our language. They gave me a certain understanding of life beyond my immediate environment. [Through them], I realised that there were other norms, other ways of living. Education was the key for me.
You moved to Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, where you studied business management. In 2005, two months before your graduation, the protests erupted. What were you protesting against?
The main reason for the protests was to protect the rule of law. The government lost the election, but they still managed to say they won. In order to silence everyone, they put political opponents in prison. We, the students, came out protesting this. The military started shooting at us and using tear gas. We hid in a church full of protesters, but the church eventually gave us away. We decided to flee. The nearest country was Sudan.
At the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, a man looked at me, a feminist student who believes in equality and the law, standing there with my rucksack, shorts and T-shirt. “Are you planning on entering Sudan dressed like this?” he asked. “You have to cover up, otherwise you’ll end up in jail.” I was running from a lack of freedom of speech, only to find the same… as well as a lack of freedom of expression.
Three weeks later, the civil war in Sudan began. We were caught in the middle of it as illegal migrants. We had to flee again, this time to Libya. We ended up in a private prison, where I had to eat dry bread that other people threw out. We were treated like animals. I was 19 at the time. When I think about that experience today, I ask myself, “Did that really happen? How did I survive, and stay sane?”
Eventually, after three months in prison, an Ethiopian woman helped us. We were bought out by some Sudanese people she was in contact with. I moved to Benghasi with this woman, working in a cafe. My boyfriend at the time worked as a welder. Other people from our group went to different places.
“For me, life wasn’t about getting married or having kids.”
How did you reach Europe?
I was five months pregnant, and we realised that we couldn’t stay in Libya, because otherwise we’d have a suffering child. So we decided to make the journey to Europe. We gathered all the money we earned and paid smugglers, Libyan policemen. They drove us to the coast, with some people in the boot of the car. It was a beautiful August night, the full moon was shining. It was the first time in my life that I saw the sea.
There were 26 of us at the shore, two of whom were kids, one only six months old. Then we saw a boat, a small fishing boat with a Senegalese fisherman in charge. He didn’t have much training at sea. I realised that that was the boat we were going to board. Only four of us got life jackets, even though they wouldn’t really save us. I didn’t know how to swim because I never had the chance to learn. The sea was rough, it was super scary. The journey lasted four days and three nights. At one point, we saw sharks circling around us and we were told they were dolphins. People were crying and praying for forgiveness. It felt like the end of our lives. I was trying to calm people down, saying that we would make it. “God wouldn’t give me a child who wouldn’t be born. That would be crazy. Why would I be pregnant if I’m going to die here?” I said. That was my hope. My daughter gave me strength. Eventually, we made it to Malta. That’s where Hana, my daughter, was born.
How did you reach Lithuania?
There was an agreement between Malta and Lithuania to transfer people, so as to share the burden. I didn’t care where we went because I was tired of moving. I just wanted to finish my studies. Lithuanian officers in Malta told me that I’d be able to go to university, and that’s all I needed to know.
When Hana and I arrived in Lithuania, it was winter time. Again, I was seeing something for the first time, but this time it was snow. I had the same shock as when I saw the sea. I needed to learn how to walk again. Walking on snow felt like gravity didn’t exist, it was quite an experience.
Eventually I finished my studies. I have a bachelor’s and master’s in business management. I’m still in contact with my family in Ethiopia. I’ll finally be able to visit them, because I’m becoming a Lithuanian citizen. I passed the citizenship test, I am no longer a refugee. Lithuania is going to have one more citizen. That’s cool I guess! (Lithuania’s population has been steadily declining for the last 10 years)
I eventually finished my studies, both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in business management. I’m still in touch with my family in Ethiopia. I’m finally going to be able to visit them, because I’m getting Lithuanian citizenship. I’m no longer a refugee, and Lithuania will have a new citizen. That’s cool I guess! [NB. Lithuania’s population has been steadily declining for the last 10 years.]
What misconceptions do people have about Africa here in Europe?
I always start from the fact that I’m an Ethiopian who came from a specific place in Ethiopia, and who speaks a specific language. Ethiopia is made up of 80 different tribes who have 80 different languages. There are 109 million inhabitants. So when people ask me if I’ve seen a lion, I say, “Yes, in a zoo.”
It’s as if a person would say they’re from Europe. But where exactly? Slovakia? Rome? I try not to be the cliché of what Africa is. There are people who live a Western lifestyle in Africa, and there are those who are very traditional. It’s a diverse continent. You can find the same things in Addis Abeba as in Amsterdam, even legal prostitution.
“Some people see every African as a victim of colonialism.”
What are your thoughts on Europe’s colonial past?
Some people see every African as a victim of colonialism. But Ethiopia was never colonised. It’s a symbol of freedom for Africa. Of course, the Brits should return stolen artefacts from Ethiopia that can now be found in English museums. But I was born in a free society. That’s why we, Ethiopians, maintain our own calendar, our own language, our own religion. Ethiopia is the second oldest Christian country in the world. There are many things that Ethiopia has preserved. People don’t really see that.
What does Europe mean to you? Do you feel European?
Europe is a geographic space for me, just like any other continent. Do I feel European? I feel more Lithuanian than European. Do I feel African? I think it’s kind of a cliché to call myself African. Yes, I come from that continent, I was born and raised in Ethiopia. I’m very much Ethiopian because I have consumed the culture and was raised there. I still carry the culture with me. But to call it African culture would be very limiting. Just like saying that Lithuanian culture reflects European culture as a whole.
I think ‘Western’ might be a better term. I feel Western, if Western means living in a democracy, respecting human rights and equality. But my Ethiopian heritage also means a lot to me. It’s built in everything that I do. I’ve learnt what it means to live in an Ethiopian village and what it means to rebel.
In 2015 you started the “Padovanok suknelę” (“Donate a Dress”) initiative to support local Lithuanian women in need. Why was that important to you?
I’m a woman who arrived in Europe by sea. I was held in a detention centre and I didn’t even have underwear. I was in the same state as I was at sea for four days, salty and smelly like a fish. After I showered, I had nothing to wear. People gave me my first new clothes, which had been donated to the detention centre. That was my condition at the time. But I believe that your present status doesn’t determine what you’re going to become in the future. It’s just a part of your life, it’s something you’re going through.
What do you see are the main issues that women face in Europe?
We are a generation of transition. Not so long ago, women were told what to wear, how to behave, who to marry, how to speak, how to act in public. Women in the Western world now have a right to education and to the labour market. They can pursue what they want to achieve.
But I think the biggest problem is that we still live a stigmatised life. Now it’s not so much about society telling us how to live, but rather us telling that to ourselves. It is because of the way we were raised: how a woman has to be or what is her purpose of life, or definition of success. It pulls women back from achieving their potential.
What policy change would be the most important to improve women’s lives in Europe?
I believe in women’s education.We need to raise rebels.Not those who aim to destroy, but those who could create harmony by bringing a sense of understanding and consciousness to society. That is what I’m trying to do with my life, telling people my story and living the life that fits me. I am a woman, an educated woman, a mother, a refugee, a woman who came up from a developing country. I came from a village where a lot of women didn’t have an opportunity to seek education. So my duty is to raise awareness and raise my own children to be self-sufficient, compassionate, confident, loving and not afraid, not ashamed of who they are and what they want to be.
What do you think about #MeToo?
Sexual violence is a taboo topic, especially for those who experienced it in an early age. Sometimes women feel responsible for a situation or they feel guilty for wearing certain clothes. A man uses that as an excuse for being nasty towards a woman. It’s good that women are coming out.
Do you feel feminist? What does feminism mean for you?
I do feel feminist. I think every woman and man should be a feminist. For me, feminism is a right to be seen as equal human beings. Feminism doesn’t mean becoming a man. My kind of feminism was formed in a culture where girls were not allowed to play football. I would raise the question, “But why? If she likes it? If she has a talent?” And because my family couldn’t find a logical explanation for me, they let me play. That was feminist on their part. They accepted my behaviour, which was seen as boyish.
Feminism also means having equal rights at home and having relationships based on respect. Where I come from, a man needed to do physical work. In the society where I live now, we don’t really have that. You don’t have to plough a land in Vilnius to be a man. And I don’t have to clean or cook all the time to feel like a woman. Yes, there are certain things that a man can’t do like give birth. In that sense, I will always be a woman. But that shouldn’t be seen as a disadvantage.