The dress was knee-length, frilled, and made of a blue material that resembled a shaggy carpet. In retrospect, it was hideous. But in that very moment, I felt like a princess.
My parents left Ethiopia equipped with an artillery of stories. The stories held a common theme—overcoming adversity. Instead of glass slippers and Prince Charming, my princesses were leaders of tribes, strong women, sweeping in to save their village from impending threats. As a child, these stories embodied who I wanted to become.
As I entered elementary school, my outlook was challenged. Going to a culturally homogenous school, I was yanked out of the comfort of my home and catapulted into an unfamiliar position—being visibly different. I was left to watch my peers from the sidelines, from classroom Christmas celebrations to the food served in the cafeteria (the closest I got to eating pig was through animal crackers).
But by far, the most disheartening occasion to sit out of was Halloween. Every year, my elementary school held a costume parade. Unfamiliar with the holiday, my parents never bought me a costume. Thus, every year, I was forced to sit and watch my peers transform before my eyes, from frenzied 6-year-olds to some of my favorite characters.
By the third grade, I grew tired of having to sit out of the Halloween parade. I decided that it would be the year to convince my mom to buy me a costume.
It wasn’t an easy feat. After my unrelenting protests, she came back from our garage with a dress in hand. The dress was a traditional Ethiopian garment from her childhood, disheveled from years of neglect.
“Here, a costume,” she said grudgingly, tossing me the dress. “You can go as an African princess.”
I was overwhelmed with excitement. Prancing into the school with my new outfit, I held my head high, the stories about valiant princesses coming to life within me. However, as I walked past the procession of Cinderellas and Power Rangers, my excitement quickly diminished. Nobody else was wearing a costume like mine.
My attempt to “fit in” backfired. It struck me that even while in costume, I couldn’t escape the reality that I would always be different.
So my days in elementary and middle school became what I had so desperately wanted, a costume. I began concealing my accent by remaining silent. The intricate braids that I once wore with joy were chemically treated away. The pride that I grew up feeling for my culture turned into shame. I rejected my culture, and rejected the stories that came along with it.
And as my attitude about my culture shifted, so did the stories I heard from my parents. No longer was I being told innocent tales about princesses. The stories became strikingly visual. Stories of my father, held captive and tortured by the military, came to life by the scars on his body. Stories of escaping war-torn areas by foot, captured by rough soles and damaged toenails. Stories of family members being forcibly silenced, leaving my parents shaken by the echoes of the past.
Like my family, I also lived in silence as I concealed this part of my identity.
It wasn’t until I entered high school that these negative feelings disintegrated. I realized that unlike my parents, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a country that protected my rights. I lived in a country where I could have a voice.
I joined my high school’s speech team, initially with fear, and turned it into my platform to speak up for the voiceless. Despite my reputation of silence, I went on to become my school’s most decorated speaker. Gradually, I got louder. I spoke at school board meetings about equity in education. I spoke at my local party meetings. I became appointed to represent my congressional district on the Minnesota Youth Council, the only legislatively mandated youth council in the country, dedicated to amplifying the voices of young people like myself.
And I plan to continue speaking, because here in America, I have the chance to write my own story. A story that doesn’t require a costume.