COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: ETHOPIA


Alem Terefe first left her home in Ethiopia on a college scholarship. She was 19 years old and headed to Almaty (formerly Alma – Ata) in Kazakhstan, now part of the former Soviet Union. She arrived speaking only her native language, Amharic, a tiny bit of English, and no Russian.

She spent the first year of her college career studying the Russian language. The school had over 700 students, many from around the world, including Alem’s roommate from Madagascar, who she couldn’t communicate with until they both learned to speak Russian.

Alem spent a total of seven years in Russia. She completed her veterinary medicine training (entirely in Russian) before immigrating to the U.S. in 1994. She then came to New York, where her sister was living and where she was able to work as a veterinary technician. During this time, she also worked hard to learn English, converting all of her Russian to English. She defines this as her biggest test when it comes to emigrating.

Languages was definitely the biggest challenge for me. English is everything here. People are not that patient with foreigners. They want you to get into the culture very quickly.

In 2003, 17 years after she initially began her training in Russia, she obtained her veterinary license in the U.S.

She feels blessed to have landed in New York, where there are many immigrants and where she feels as if she’s part of the melting pot. She’s also blessed to be able to travel back to Ethiopia every few years to visit family and even to teach at the college in Gonder, the former capital of both the Ethiopian Empire and the Begemder Province.

Alem has been here a long time and she’s lived far more of her life out of Ethiopia than in, so she finds it difficult to compare the two. Though she found things to be challenging when she first arrived she knows that she’s lived in two different worlds. “I have freedom here, that I would not have in Ethiopia, probably. Freedom to travel, we take that for granted here, but in other countries that’s not always how it is. That’s a privilege that I have. Also, I am financially independent. That probably wouldn’t have happened in Ethiopia.”

She became a legal citizen fourteen years ago. “Everybody says America is the land of opportunity. That is true! You can become anything you want to be. It is challenging, but with determination, it is doable. Anybody can become whoever they want to be. That is the advantage. That’s why people come here.”