“Everything my parents did was a sacrifice for us.”
LILY ZERIHUN is on the road to becoming the first physician in her family – a path that is leading her straight back to her Ethiopian roots. The summer after her first year at Columbia University’s medical school in New York, she returned to her parents’ hometown in Addis Ababa to intern at Tikur Anbessa (Black Lion) Hospital and explore her heritage as a first-generation Ethiopian American.
As college friends, we had a chance to reconnect in Beijing, the first stop on her backpacking trip to Ethiopia. Between bites of roast fish, we discovered that our paths would serendipitously cross again just one week later in Krabi, Thailand, during my own family reunion!
It was during our tropical rendezvous that I learned this fun fact: In Ethiopian tradition, your father’s first name becomes your surname. Or in Lily’s case, Zerihun, which actually means “Let your offspring be plenty” in Amharic. With her grandmother’s name as her middle name, Masarat (“foundation”), Lily is a living testament to her family's hard work and dreams. In our #ChrysalisConvo, she shares her gratitude for their gift of a global education and her commitment to multiply opportunities for future generations in Ethiopia.
So here we are, on journeys to reconnect with our roots. Why are you taking time to explore your heritage?
Growing up Ethiopian American, I felt like I was between two worlds. I was immersed in the Ethiopian community, but I was also seen as black, African American, first-generation American, even just American. So it was weird figuring out my place, without losing track of Ethiopian culture. Until I was four, I spoke only Amharic with my mom. Then in preschool, I started speaking a mix of English and Amharic, like “I want watet!” to ask my teacher for milk. So I can’t read or write Amharic, and I have a lot to learn about the nuances of Ethiopian culture. I’m really hoping to spend these two months just being an Ethiopian person. Figuring out what that actually means. Living in Addis Ababa. Seeing where my grandma grew up. Finding places connected to my family history. Finding ways to document all that!
What sparked your curiosity about your identity?
College was the first time I connected with a lot of first-generation Ethiopian Americans my age, through the Ethiopian and Eritrean Student Organization. Just talking to people who shared my experience of identity confusion really helped me gain a lot more clarity and security to embrace who I am. Meeting other Ethiopian Americans helped me see that my identity could actually be all of these different representations of me – not just one or the other. I became more interested in my culture and history, so now I'm playing “catch up” to regain things I missed growing up.
What family history are you curious about?
It's really important to me to talk to my grandma. She’s such a storyteller, and she has so many stories to tell! She lived through a lot of political transitions in Ethiopian history, from monarchy to a communist government. I want to learn what life was like for her when she was my age or younger. She has five sons and daughters, but she got married super young, like 13-15 years old. Knowing that I don’t have much time left with her, I want to learn as much as possible, so I can pass down her stories. She’s the only grandparent I've ever known.
I want to reconnect with distant relatives as well. My mom lost both parents super early, so she instilled in us an appreciation for the time that we have with family. Most of my closer relatives live in the capital city, but when I was fourteen, I remember meeting extended relatives in rural Ethiopia. Since we didn’t grow up together, I’m hoping to re-cultivate those relationships. Perhaps I'll see what my life could have been like, without the opportunities to have an education in the U.S., or to have an education at all.
How would you describe Ethiopian culture?
Ethiopian culture is amazing! It's very founded upon family and community. Neighbors and family, even in the U.S., will always look out for each other, even at the expense of the individual. One person’s success is the whole community’s success. Even meals are shared. The way you eat injera [a traditional sourdough flatbread], everyone eats from the same giant plate together. Then, instead of dessert, we drink coffee, and there's a huge ceremony around that.
Life is just slower in Ethiopia. People enjoy the moment a lot more. They spend time just connecting with each other, versus a culture of working constantly. We tell time in 15-minute intervals, so there isn’t a huge emphasis on being on-time within a minute. When I had birthday parties growing up, we always started two hours late! By the time everyone’s leaving, that's when we'd start cutting the cake.
There’s also a ton of rich history that people don't know about. The first human beings allegedly came from Ethiopia, and the Kingdom of Aksum was the first ancient African civilization to adopt Christianity. So there’s a rich faith tradition in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
Have you ever traveled to Ethiopia by yourself before?
I actually did, the summer after sophomore year. I brought a tape recorder because I wanted to write an auto-ethnography about how Ethiopian culture is shaped by religious identity, especially the Orthodox Church. I was there for just three weeks, but the trip helped me become more aware of biases I've picked up from my family. My parents both come from a Protestant background, while my grandma is Orthodox Christian. I remember there would be battles in my household about faith. So the trip helped me keep an open mind and form my own point of view.
It also helped me see medicine from another lens, from what I’m being taught in the classroom. I visited a bathhouse that people go to when they are sick, since they believe the water comes from Mary. In school, I wouldn’t necessarily learn how people see faith as healing, unless I'm there experiencing it.
How did your summer internship come about? What are you hoping to learn?
In a global health class, I happened to sit down next to a researcher who trained six of the seven pulmonologists in Ethiopia. There’s a huge need, so I’m really excited to work with his team. I’m hoping to learn how Ethiopian doctors and traditional healers practice medicine. Just see how things don’t work exactly the same everywhere you go. A big problem in medical development is when people come in trying to change what’s already there, like “Oh, this Western practice is more advanced” or whatever. The way people have lived for thousands of years has a lot of merit to it. Just because alternative medicines don’t necessarily have research to back them up, doesn’t mean they don’t work. So I wonder, how do you keep old traditions alive, while leaving room for expansion and growth? How do you develop practices that don't change what’s already in place, but instead adapt?
Do you see yourself staying longer term in Ethiopia?
After I graduate, I definitely want to use my education to go back to Ethiopia. A lot of first-generation Ethiopian Americans want to give back. We want to carry forward the opportunities we’ve been given. Because I know where my parents came from. Hearing their stories, I know the struggle it took for me and my brother to live the life we have. To get an education, my dad left home when he was eleven, lived really far away from his family, then went to college even though the Ethiopian government was imprisoning university students. My mom grew up very poor in a family of ten brothers and sisters. Both of her parents died really young. Understanding my parents’ stories has instilled a desire in me to carry forward my own opportunities, which aren’t necessarily based on anything I did to deserve what I have in life.
How do your parents inspire you?
Everything my parents did was a sacrifice for us. When they moved to the U.S., my mom went from being in this huge family to basically being by herself. But they saw many opportunities for us here that we wouldn’t have had in Ethiopia. They wanted us to receive the best education possible. Whenever we moved to a new place, the first thing my parents factored in was how good the school system was. And we moved around a lot! I went to three different schools for fifth, sixth, and seventh grade. My dad is a chemist and did post-docs in Texas, Alabama, and Tennessee. Then his passion for teaching moved us to North Carolina, and we’ve been there ever since. My parents are actually thinking about retiring in Ethiopia, but until my brother and I are more settled in our lives, they’re continuing to work and provide for us. They’ve never really drawn attention to it, but their entire story is based on sacrifice for us.