Finding home in the written word: Reflections on We have Always Been Here

“Maybe home was simply any place where you felt seen and welcome.”
– Samra Habib, We Have Always Been Here

As someone whose concept of home was closely associated with a country, the idea that home is anywhere that set me free to be who I am was liberating. Reading Samra Habib’s book We Have Always Been Here was yet another confirmation that I had indeed created my home as being separate from the country of my birth. Her intersecting identities – Muslim, queer, immigrant – are markedly different from mine. She lives in a place where it is not illegal to be queer although having to constantly navigate queerphobia and Islamophobia is its own small death. But yet her struggles and her experience mirrored mine so much that I – an atheist, queer, living in my birth country – kept seeing myself in her experiences.

Queerness is seen as being incompatible with being Ethiopian – as if, my intersecting identities are a faucet that I can open and close on demand.  As if, who I am can be made to fit some notion of a “pure Ethiopian”. I refuse to be split into a million pieces and that refusal distances me from Ethiopia, the place that is supposed to be home. I saw myself in Habib’s struggle of making sense of being Muslim and queer and as she reflects back on the state-sanctioned persecution that her family faced in Pakistan as part of the Ahmadiyya community. That reflection made me think of the current war in Ethiopia and the persecution of certain ethinic groups and how that makes me feel even more vulnerable as a queer person. 

But perhaps what spoke to me the most was Habib’s continuous resistance. She would not allow others to define her and to assume that they knew what was best for her. She fights every step of the way. Claiming all aspects of herself, embracing herself and surrounding herself with people who have got her back. She names herself despite not having had a home that offered “stability and encouragement and the space to learn and grow as an individual”. It was a lesson in how we should never give up for our search of “home” and to have the wisdom that home is separate from a geographical location. My home, in the sense of the geographical location, has always claimed that I – a queer Ethiopian – do not exist. I knew I existed. But I needed to create my own home, unlike the automatic right of citizenship given to all Ethiopians, I had to create my own country, a place that accepted me without demanding that I edit parts of my identity to receive that coveted passport. I found my home in a resilient and powerful queer  community. Risking it all to connect with others and to continually work to widen its reach even as it constantly comes underattack. I found myself in my chosen family, a group of allies – my family of birth included – ready to defend me, a group of progressive queer people in Ethiopia and queers in other countries who choose to write books and essays about their experiences. Intentionality and unintentionally, they give us permission to be who we are and remind us that, despite the risks and the efforts of the majority to erase us, “We Have Always Been Here” and will always be here.

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