To be or not to be: My immigrant parents’ wildest dreams

When you look at my passport, it looks like I’m just another German, born in an ordinary German city without anything to make me special. While it’s so clear on my passport, it feels like I am starring as Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the theatre that is my life: “To be German or not to be German”.  Too many times it’s the first question I get, and people think it’s an ordinary conversation-starter to ask a stranger about their family’s history. But labeling myself is nothing close to an introduction to who I am. I usually don’t ask the question back, as the people who ask it assume they are obviously German. Only my Germanness needs to be questioned, since apparently, I don’t meet the norm of what a German looks like.

While Germany has been a country of immigration since 1955, it’s rarely acknowledged. That’s why people justify putting me in the “foreign” box, explaining that my black skin and curly hair don’t meet the “norm” of what a German looks like. The idea that there are homogenous societies and that it’s best to keep it that way is what leads not only to micro-aggressions, but also to structural discrimination in social, education and health systems. The distinction in “us” and “them” rapidly develops into hateful narratives around migrants, which is a breeding ground for policies that ignore human rights. No words can describe the feeling of being on way to university and passing poster after poster of right-wing parties that criminalize faces like mine. There are no words when a random woman asks my mother if she’s in the country legally.

A woman in a headscarf holds her child as they sit in a subway car carrying other passengers.
© UNICEF/UN0126162/Gilbertson VAmira Raslan, 26, embraces her son Karam, 5, as they travel to the centre of Berlin with Khaled Raslan, 34, to buy Schultütes, or school cones, to celebrate the German tradition of returning to school in Berlin, Germany.

According to the 2017 German microcensus, people like me who were born as children of immigrants make up 23.9% of all people with a background of migration, and most of us were born with German citizenship. While my life has been heavily affected by the circumstance that my parents came here as migrants from Ethiopia, it has been shaped much more by how individuals, teachers, doctors and decision makers decide to address that fact. Me not being part of the majority in society, doesn’t mean that I’m not part of society. If anyone dared to ask me about my hobbies, my studies or my social engagement instead of whether I am German or a “foreigner”, they might find out that I am shaping Germany with my Ethiopian roots and Germany has shaped me. All that is pretty simple.

Labels and these binary, Hamlet-like questions are the opposite of understanding, because understanding requires listening.

The only “To be or not to bes” that matter. Is this young person safe, or not? Are they with their family, or not? Are they able to pursuit their education, or not?

Part of my family’s story is that when my father migrated from Ethiopia to Germany, he migrated to the DDR, Eastern Germany. At the time, today’s idea of Germany didn’t exit. My mother came after the Berlin wall fell and gave birth to me in Dresden, but the center of my life has always been Frankfurt. It’s one of my homes and I was lucky enough to travel to Ethiopia multiple times, each time leaving with a feeling of my German and Ethiopian identity coexisting with more ease. As a human I’m presented with the opportunity to indulge in both cultures and take what fits best for myself and the people around me. I hope that one day we can meet everyone who has beautifully complex identities with love and appreciation instead of fear and hatred. But there is a final factor as to why I am this confident in my peacefully complex identity: I am living together with my loved ones in a safe place, being able to pursue my education and having the chance to build the life I dream about. I am living my immigrant parents’ wildest dreams.

Two young boys meet and greet with another on a bicycle on the street.
© UNICEF/UN0126162/Gilbertson VII(L-r), Ahmad Abdul-Halim, 15, and his brother Ali Abdul-Halim, 17, are unaccompanied minors who made their way to Europe from their home in Balabak, Lebanon, walk in the street outside a state run child care facility in Braunschweig, Germany. The two left their home after their area became unsafe due to the presence of ISIS and Hezbollah, as well as a blood feud in their family in which the brothers were threatened.

That dream is nothing more than the realization of everyone’s basic human rights. It meets the idea of inclusion in a society – cultural, political and economic – and it’s something every young person with a migration story can ask for. These are the only “To be or not to bes” that matter. Is this young person safe, or not? Are they with their family, or not? Are they able to pursuit their education, or not?

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention leaves us with a responsibility to stand with young migrants, to help protect their rights, and to fight discrimination in our communities. And for that I’ll do my part, advocating for the protection of children on the move, telling people – especially young people – about their rights, and having uncomfortable conversations with people who make decisions led by fear and hate. And I’m hoping you know you are a part of it too and will do everything you can to help.


Sandra Kebede (19) is a Bachelor student in political science in sociology in Frankfurt am Main. She started her engagement with UNICEF when she was fourteen.

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