Growing up in Ethiopia, Melat Menwyelet loved the community, culture and lifestyle in which she was immersed.
But now that she is living in Colorado, she wants to bring some of this beauty to Fort Collins, and with help from her sister Mahlet Menwylet, she has started the CSU Ethiopian Student Association.
ESA President, Melat Menwyelet, senior psychology major, and her sister Mahlet Menwyelet, December graduate in Economics, lived in Ethiopia's capital city of Addis Ababa until the ages of 8 and 10. They moved to Fort Collins after their father became accepted at CSU, to pursue his master's and doctorate in rangeland ecology.
"We moved straight to Fort Collins. Fort Collins was so quiet and isolated. Nobody talked to anyone, people loved and cherished their privacy so for me it was a huge culture shock," Mahlet said. "The good thing was that we grew up in Aggie Village, which at the time consisted of residents from other international countries with similar backgrounds as us, so that made the transition a lot easier."
Not only did Fort Collins not celebrate other cultures as much as Melat and Mahlet had anticipated, but they came to the United States not knowing any English. Over a dozen languages are spoken in Ethiopia, and although English is taught after a certain age, Melat and Mahlet had not reached that point in their education.
"My sister and I had to learn after we moved here," Mahlet said.
While getting involved in numerous international clubs at Rocky Mountain High School helped the sisters feel more welcome, they still felt a yearning to start an Ethiopian-based organization at CSU.
In the fall of 2003 the sisters decided to take action. They started an organization to educate the community and help support the Ethiopian people living here.
"The goals of the Ethiopian Student Association are to educate students, staff and the community on the culture, current status and history of Ethiopia and Ethiopians," Melat said. "We try to voice the social and cultural conditions in Ethiopia while also raising money for famine relief and while also delivering educational support, such as books, school supplies and clothes to Ethiopian students in Ethiopia."
ESA's first benefit dinner was held last year at The Avenue and raised over $1,000, all of which went to famine relief and educational support.
Their second benefit dinner will be held at the Menwyelet's family restaurant, Nyala Ethiopian Cuisine, although the date has not been set yet.
"We also hope to show a documentary about Ethiopia at the LSC Theatre explaining Ethiopia's famine due to crop failure, and why people need to be pro-active regarding these situations," Melat said.
Melat hopes this documentary will portray Ethiopia correctly and that it will educate the community about the stereotypical emaciated and starving Ethiopian image that most carry, which is not only inaccurate, but also completely farfetched.
"People see what they want to see, which are these Ethiopian stereotypes," Melat said. "They do not see the gorgeous land, but instead the news, which is skewed."
ESA also hopes to start a book collection to gather new and used books from schools, libraries and students to be sent to schools in Ethiopia.
Through this organization, Melat hopes to educate those in the community who carry these stereotypes about Ethiopians.
"I wish people would see this different outlook that I have and see the values and culture that I was raised with," Melat said. "Ethiopia has a deep and beautiful culture, and within that culture Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Jews – this diverse population – are all getting along. There is a beautiful and peaceful side to this country that can't be seen because people are clouded with Ethiopian stereotypes."
Not only does ESA support Ethiopians overseas, but their work extends to other parts of the campus community as well.
"Ethiopians and other African students know of their presence here on campus and support the various programs they are involved in. The ESA represent the under-represented of many from the Africa community," wrote Theresa Grangruth, administrative assistant of Black Student Services in an e-mail interview,
To the sisters, their responsibility to Ethiopia does not stop with ESA or in the Fort Collins' community.
"I've always felt like I had (and still do) have a responsibility of going home and giving back to my community," Mahlet said. "I feel the deepest gratitude for my family, culture, and the people of Ethiopia for making me into the person I am today, and I would like to return the favor. Specifically, I would like to get involved with the many non-profit organizations operating within the country and play a role in making a difference in someone else's life."
Melat hopes to pursue her master's and doctorate in health psychology with a concentration in women's studies and hopes to become part of or start a non-profit organization in Ethiopia.
ESA has nine members ranging from all ages and ethnic backgrounds. The sisters urge anyone who is interested in joining or learning more about the organization, to join them at their weekly meetings.
Meetings are held Wednesdays from 5 -6 p.m. in the Lory Student Center Sunken Lounge.
-Box ideas: Map; facts: location-Eastern Africa (west of Somalia); slightly less than twice the size of Texas; population: 67,851,281; 4.4% HIV/AIDS prevalence rate; 42.7% literacy; languages: Amharic, Tigrinya, Oromigna, Guaragigna, Somali, Arabic, other local languages, English; capital: Addis Ababa; oldest independent country in Africa and one of the oldest in the world. See website for more information and a map: http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/et.html