by Vivian Wagner
Gratitude forms the heart of Dawit Gebremichael Habte’s new memoir. Gratitude for people, for opportunities, for everyone and everything that helped Habte get to where he is today. As a refugee from Eritrea, Habte had a long, complicated journey to America. Gratitude in Low Voices: A Memoir documents that journey, and in so doing it describes and recreates the journey of many immigrants who have come to this country before and since.
I must admit, first of all, that I have a personal stake in this book’s story. My father was a refugee from Hungary after World War II. His family lived in displaced persons’ camps for a number of years after losing everything during the war, and they finally got the opportunity to emigrate to America in 1950. I grew up with the story of this displacement and emigration, with a deep understanding of the process of losing one home and creating another in a strange place. It was my father’s origin story, and so, by proxy, my own.
Reading Gratitude in Low Voices, therefore, felt familiar, as if I were communing with my own family’s fractured and difficult history, gaining access to the thoughts and feelings of a refugee who might, in a sense, be seen as speaking for all refugees. This memoir gave me insight into the experiences of my father, and it helped me, ultimately, to develop my own sense of gratitude for everything he and his family did create the world I now inhabit.
So many of us in this country are the children and grandchildren of immigrants, of refugees, of people who braved treacherous and chaotic conditions to create new lives for themselves and their families. Gratitude in Low Voices tells the story of one particular refugee’s journey, and it’s likely to reverberate with the stories many others tell and know, as well.
“I was born into war,” one of the early chapters of this book begins, and it’s a common refrain for refugees. In Habte’s case, that war was in his homeland of Eritrea, a country in eastern Africa shaped by a fractious history of colonialism, annexation, and revolution. This war, in its various permutations, ends up forcing Habte out of the country of his birth, on a road of displacement through Kenya and ultimately, as a high school student, to the United States.
At first, Habte has a goal – even after making his way to America – of returning to Eritrea. He thinks of America as a temporary home, where he can get his footing, be educated, and muster the resources to go back. He gradually realizes, however, that the process of immigrating and assimilating and learning has changed him – and he realizes, too, that his homeland itself has changed. This is the old story of becoming an American, of discovering an identity in this new place, of finding that a new home can be built from the ashes of the old one.
Habte attends Johns Hopkins University and eventually gets a job working for Bloomberg. With a passion for computers and software engineering, he begins to realize that there are ways he can help his home country even as he continues to create a new life in America. He returns to Eritrea, not to live there permanently, but to help promote the creation of locally-based information systems and computer networks. He realizes that he has much to offer the place of his birth – largely because of the opportunities he’s found in the country he’s adopted.
This is, at times, a rambling and disjointed narrative. It goes in many different directions, telling the stories of all the people Habte encounters along his journey, and weaving those stories in with his own. There’s a kind of truth to this structure, however, reflecting as it does his experience in making sense of the unpredictable, in traveling toward unknown destinations and a mysterious future. This book is a story about storytelling, about the process of creating a narrative out of disorder, and about all the people that help shape that narrative along the way.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music and a poetry collection, The Village.