Heart and Home

I was 9 years old when I discovered that Saudi Arabia, where I had lived since birth, wasn’t a place where I’d be allowed to stay. My mother and father were born in Eritrea and Ethiopia, respectively, and they met in Sudan over thirty years ago. Later, they moved to Riyadh, where my siblings and I were born. My father worked as an engineer and an architect, my mother as a registered nurse.

Saudi Arabia has strict naturalization laws. Foreign workers are granted iqamas, or residency permits, but these are temporary. Some day, my mother, who is now the nursing supervisor at Prince Naif Security Forces Hospital, must leave Saudi Arabia. (My father must leave, too, but he has been out of contact with the family for several years.) For her, as for her children, this means leaving the place that feels like home.

The idea of Riyadh as home might sound strange to readers in a place like Los Angeles, where I’m living now. Life in Saudi Arabia is often portrayed as disagreeable. In many ways, it is disagreeable. But home is what you know, and you can love it despite its flaws.

I do love home. I love the annual Eid celebrations after Ramadan and all the foods that people prepare, like kapsa, a chicken and rice dish. I love family traditions like ordering from the Chinese restaurant on Christmas. I love the hole-in-the-wall shop that serves foul (fava bean stew) and fresh oven-baked bread. I love the way Saudis within the same sex greet one another with numerous affectionate handshakes and kisses on the cheek, even if they see each other every day. (I hadn’t realized until I took a trip back to Riyadh how much I missed those hugs and greetings. When I recently attended a wedding with my mom and twin sister it took us an age to make the rounds of greetings before we could get to our seats.)

But the heart and the law are different things. My legal home is Ethiopia. That is my father’s country. My alternative–but not legal–home is Eritrea. That is my mother’s country. From 1998 to 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea had a border war, and the two countries still have a hostile relationship. So the only country where I’m allowed to live permanently is at near-war with the only country in which my mother is allowed to live permanently.

Discovering that I’d eventually have to leave Saudi Arabia was hard. What did it mean for me to be a citizen of Ethiopia, a country I didn’t know? When I was a kid we had a lot of fraught family meetings, but they generally concerned things like chores and curfews. None were about our geographical predicament.

The question of home was made even more complicated by language. My first language is English. It’s what all of us wound up speaking at school, work, and home. My second language is Arabic. Tigrinya, the language of Eritrea, is what I spoke until I was six, but I have forgotten it. I never spoke Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. I’ll have to learn it.

My childhood education was at a private school in Riyadh that followed the British academic system, and my classmates came from all over the world. But we had very little contact with Saudis. I have Saudi friends, but I met them as the children of friends of my mother. As a rule, Saudis get little exposure to the rest of the world. They can attend only government–controlled public schools. All classes are taught in Arabic, and students are segregated by gender. Most learn very little English.

Religion was a persistent complication in the lives of many foreigners. Saudi Arabia is one hundred percent Muslim, mostly Sunni. My mother was brought up Catholic. While she tried to imbue us with some of her faith, it was done quietly, because Saudi Arabia forbids the practice of any religion besides Islam. (One mother of a classmate of mine ran a covert Sunday school that I attended for a summer with about thirty other kids, but eventually the authorities found out and shut it down.) Some foreigners who move to the Kingdom convert to Islam–often opportunistically–but my mother never did. Saudi friends often asked us why.


When I was growing up, my Eritrean grandmother liked to ask me which country I considered home: Ethiopia or Eritrea. I’d tease her by refusing to pick one. But the real answer was that neither was home.

My first visit to Ethiopia was in the summer of 2000, when I was ten. In preparation, my sister and I wrote letters to family members in Ethiopia and practiced Amharic on a tutorial DVD. (It featured creepy talking stick figures that still haunt me.) We toured Addis Ababa, ate at local restaurants, traveled to neighboring villages, and visited landmarks. I enjoyed my trip, but it was like a vacation. Only when we were meeting relatives (with whom we struggled to communicate) did Ethiopia feel like anything but a foreign country. We eventually returned three more times, but only for short trips.

As for Eritrea, it is a place I visited once, when I was four. I remember how fun it was to go to the cinema for the first time and how the air smelled when it rained. Otherwise, the country was just an idea.

When I reached my senior year of high school, my classmates began to apply for universities in Asia, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Graduation would scatter us across the world.

My twin sister and I wanted to apply for college in the United States. Our older brother had moved to Denver a year earlier, so we had a small foothold in the country. Still, we wanted to live independently of him. Every family member, every family friend–even our dentist!–was telling my mother to send us to a school where our brother would be close by for protection. My mother, who had moved to Sudan on her own at age 18, knew we could take care of ourselves.

In preparing our applications, we relied on a 40-page handbook entitled “What to Expect from America.” It wasn’t that helpful. Strange terms like “room and board,” “credits,” and “2-year institution” were used without explanation. Finally, though, both of us gained admission to Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California.

I didn’t prepare much for my new life. I’d seen on TV how American men and women interacted with one another, often with sarcasm. “Friends” had taught me everything, surely. Looking back, though, I probably should have kept reading “What to Expect from America.”

I got into trouble quickly. It was the first day of school, in January 2006, and I was trying to get to my sociology class, which, according to my map, was on the other side of Temple Avenue, a six-lane, two-way roadway. I stood at the curb waiting for a break in traffic and took my chance, running into the street and stopping at the center, waiting for the other side to slow down. This is how we cross the street in Riyadh: we just grab our abayas and run. Everyone knows that traffic lights are of no help.

Unlike in Saudi Arabia, though, drivers in California seemed to be slowing down, even stopping, and staring. A law enforcement officer made his way over to me and asked what I was doing. I explained that I was going to class. He looked at me in silence. “You’re not from here are you?” he asked. Then he helped me to the other side.

I missed my family and my life in Riyadh. While other students were trying to figure out how to use a washing machine or balance their checkbooks, I was attempting to grasp the concept of Fahrenheit and Daylight Savings. But I eventually settled in. It was while impatiently standing in line at the local grocery store that I realized that I felt at home. I’d been on autopilot the whole time.


In October 2008, after nearly three years of living in Los Angeles, my sister and I travelled back to Riyadh to visit our family. As we prepared to leave, a rush of nerves overcame me. I was anxious about all the changes that I knew I’d encounter. My cousins were older, and my friends were in other countries. Nothing was going to be the same.

My mother and a male colleague from her hospital came to pick us up at the airport. (All females entering the country must be received by a male relative or male business colleague.) During the car ride home, my eyes were glued to the window. There were new malls, new freeways, and new city limits. The entire skyline was altered.

After a few weeks, I began to recognize that the changes weren’t just physical. People also behaved differently. Young men and women seemed to be taking more liberties.

Saudi Arabia has always been among the strictest theocracies in the world. Men and women who aren’t immediate relatives must be segregated, and enforcing this statute is the dreaded Muttaween (the religious police, run by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices).

When I was growing up, young people looked for ways around the Muttaween, but they generally confined their efforts to the home. For instance, someone might plan a get-together in her home and ask her brother to invite the guys over.

Now, however, boys and girls would try to mingle in Riyadh’s new shopping malls. Although the malls officially had one shopping time for singles (men) and another shopping time for family (everyone else), many boys and girls would go into malls with their families and split off to meet one another once they got inside. I even witnessed a few guys disguised as girls in abayas in order to get in during family hours. This was dangerous behavior. One day, when I was shopping with some girlfriends, the entire mall was shut down, and cops and Muttaween began to round up a bunch of kids, throwing them into the back of a large vehicle.

There were also subtler things that caught me off guard. I remember meeting up with some old friends from high school and running into Mr. Alia, a Jordanian who’d been our physics teacher. When I reached out my hand, Mr. Alia politely refused to shake it. He’d become more religious, he said. Then he shook the hands of each of my male classmates.


I eventually returned to Los Angeles to complete my degree at UCLA, to which I’d transferred as a junior. In 2010, I graduated with a Bachelor’s in history.

Over the years, Los Angeles has become my new home. It’s where I graduated from college, got my first real job, and figured out how to go about becoming a human rights lawyer. I’ve made friends who’ve become like family–people who’ve helped me adjust to life in the U.S., who’ve opened up their homes to me, and who’ve celebrated numerous milestones with me.

Legally, though, Los Angeles isn’t home to me anymore than Riyadh is. Staying would require me to have a green card, and demand for those is far greater than supply. Still, I have a chance. Even after thirty years of living in Saudi Arabia, my mother has no chance of staying there.

Needless to say, my circumstances are peculiar. I have two countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea, to which I have legal connections but few emotional ties. And I have two countries, Saudi Arabia and the United States, to which I have immense emotional ties but few legal connections. The question of where I’ll get to settle down won’t be quickly answered. But I take comfort in knowing that others are likewise searching for a permanent home. Some day, I hope, we’ll find it.

Sara Mengesha graduated from UCLA in 2010 with a degree in history. She is currently applying to law schools in hopes of pursuing a career in human rights law.

*Photo courtesy of nada abdalla.


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