By Yohana Desta
July 11, 2012
The third Keren High School Reunion kicked off last Friday, July 6 at the Hilton Hotel in Alexandria, Va. Hundreds of Kerenites gathered to reunite with old friends, bringing with them guests and family members.
Friday’s events were all about the youth, with Kibra Ghebre hosting a Youth Conference.
“You all are very, very lucky we live in this global world, “Ghebre said, referring to the social media of the day and how people could become easily connected through tools like Facebook.
“If your parents are very giddy, [just remember], it’s almost like we’re young again!” Ghebre said with a laugh.
The first guest speaker was Million Kelati. She spoke fondly of her days as a kid, listening to her mother’s stories about Eritrea. Kelati¬ was raised in California and went on to college to major in Ethnic Studies. She is currently working on her second Master’s degree. At the end of her speech, she dedicated all of her success to her mother.
“I love you, habibti!” She said.
The second speaker of the day was Mulugeta Siyum. Siyum grew up in Houston, and spoke about how his parents inspired him to overcome life’s challenges. He went to the University of Houston where he studied political science, then went to Howard to get his law degree. Afterwards, he joined the military, but was on the strategic end, rather than the fighting end.
“I wear a uniform, but I’m a briefcase carrier,” Siyum explained.
Siyum was, however, sent to Afghanistan, with a focus on building a relationship with the people there. He said that his Eritrean heritage made it very easy to get accustomed to the lifestyles of the people in Afghanistan. Being different growing up was an asset, he said. His speech ended with a simple message: Embrace your culture.
The next two speakers were not only committee members that organized the entire reunion, but also health care professionals. Woldemariam Gebreselassie spoke about his upbringing in Keren and how he worked hard to fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor. He went to medical school in Hungary, and is now the Chief of Internal Medicine at Kaiser Permanente. Gebreselassie then told stories of growing up during a war, reminding the youth at the event that they had a much easier life in the United States.
“Your parents went through hell to get here. You were born in freedom,” he said.
Yohannes Drar was the next speaker. Originally from Keren, he now lives in Ottowa, Canada, and has worked in a mental health hospital for the past 20 years. Later on in the day, he gave a presentation titled “Mental Health Issues Among Eritrean Diaspora Communities.”
Bringing the first half of the youth conference to a close were the final speakers, Nuredin Netabay and Bisrat Siyum. Netabay, who studied political science at the University of Asmara and international relations at Johns Hopkins University, gave a presentation on the gap between the older community and the youth. His presentation brought about a lengthy and heated Q&A session afterwards.
Siyum kept her speech short and simple, stressing to the youth that they should use their parents as resources.
“You have a rich heritage to spring from…but assert your own identity,” she said.
She then ended her speech by urging parents to support their children and their ideas.
Afterwards, Ghebre had some children and young adults in the audience read poetry by Hiyabu Husebu.
The second half of the Youth Conference began with the first young speakers of the day. Kayla and Aida, two best friends from Lincoln, Nebraska, gave a speech that centered on their accomplishments in their high school. The two sophomores had a laundry list of achievements under their belt, from being co-presidents of their Student Council, to starting CAB (the Campaign Against Bullying), to starting Party Hard, Party Sober, a campaign to keep kids at their school off drugs and alcohol. In addition, they volunteer at Community Playhouse, where they teach underprivileged children how to play instruments, and the Humane Society, where they take care of homeless animals. The girls do all of this while maintaining 4.3 GPAs; Aida finished off the impressive speech with an a capella performance of “So Sick” by Ne-Yo.
The day’s events were concluded with a fashion show hosted by Aida’s mother. Afterwards, guests ate a pizza dinner and danced until midnight. Singer Dashim Misghina kept guests entertained and glued to the dance floor.
The second day of the reunion garnered a large turnout in the Magnolia Room of the Hilton Hotel. Fickak Habtes was the host for the day and kept the crowd laughing in between speakers with his numerous jokes.
Zenab Warah welcomed everyone for coming, speaking entirely in Arabic. She introduced Muhammed Ali. He led the audience in a moment of silence for the martyrs who brought about Eritrean independence.
Following him was D.C. Committee Chairman Yemane Desta, who thanked everyone for attending the event. He also mentioned names of Kerenites who had passed away and encouraged audience members to also stand and say names of those they remembered. Desta then presented the chairman of the committee, Abraha Zerai. Zerai focused his speech on thanking everyone for coming, especially Mahmoud Kanoni, who was the principal of the school.
The next speakers were special members of the Keren community. Mr. and Mrs. Hugh were teachers and caretakers at the orphanage. Both of them spoke about the incredible lessons they learned from the people of Eritrea. Mr. Hugh even slipped in a couple of Tigrinya phrases throughout his speech. The couple still spends half the year in Africa and are currently building a home in Kenya. In the end, they were presented with an award of recognition from the committee.
Dr. Habtu Demsas was next and gave an informative presentation on preventative cancers.
Following his presentation was Joann Richards, accompanied by her husband Tom. Richards was sent to Keren after joining the Peace Corps. Richards echoed Mrs. Hughs sentiment about learning so much from the students she taught in Keren.
“You are the kindest people I have ever met,” she said.
Richards then spoke about a book she recently contributed to, called “Eritrea Remembered.” The book, available to purchase online, was a project by Peace Corps members who served in the country. Each writer shared a story of their fondest memory in the country; Richards’ story was about getting married in Keren. The committee then presented Richards with an award of recognition.
The next speakers also brought on a bout of nostalgia for the audience. Mr. and Mrs. Rajan were science teachers at Keren High School. Mr. Rajan opened his speech with the quote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” from “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. He chose the quote because he said that in Keren, the best things were “students like you,” and the worst thing was the violence going on at the time. He marveled at the fact that students from such a war-torn area could be “doing so well everywhere in the world.”
Mrs. Rajan kept her speech short, concluding it joyously by simply saying “I love you all.” Both Mr. and Mrs. Rajan were given an Appreciation Award by the committee.
Rounding out the burst of nostalgic speeches was Mahmoud Kanoni. Nearly every speaker mentioned him in some way throughout the day, so the audience was incredibly excited once he finally took the stage. Kanoni opened his speech by thanking the Keren students for being the “best students I’ve experienced in over 50 years of education.” Kanoni was also given an award of recognition and received a standing ovation after his speech. Dr. Asefaw Abraha Indrias followed Kanon's rousing speech with an equally important topic: the economy. He spoke of how the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is disappearing. In addition, he spoke on Eritrea’s future as a gold-producing country.
Dr. Senai Stefanos was next. An orthodontist, he gave a presentation about the importance of oral health care; he said that taking care of one’s teeth as 95% flossing, and 5% brushing.
After a couple more speakers, Warah returned and gave a rousing and hilarious speech that had the audience rolling with laughter.
The day continued with a bevy of speeches, many of them mostly about fond memories of Keren.
After a speech-heavy day, people had dinner and danced until 3 in the morning. Singer Sammy and DJ Mekonnen had the party going on all night, providing a range of music; they were later joined by Dashim.
Sunday was scheduled to have a picnic, but due to the inclement weather, guests were brought back to the Magnolia Room. Instead of the picnic, people shared stories and told jokes, keeping the atmosphere light and happy. At the end, it was announced that the next reunion will be in 2014; the location is not yet determined.
The Keren High School reunion was one full of tears, laughter, and happiness overall. Though those days are long gone, those who went to Keren shared memories that will last a lifetime.