What Obama’s Presidency means to my daughter from Ethiopia

BY Jill Vexler

Updated: January 25, 2008

New York (Tadias) – About six months ago, my then seven year old daughter, Tibarek, awakened early one morning and called out to me. “Jilly, I had a dream. Joe Biden won! And that means that if he wins, Obama will win, too. So, you don’t have to worry!” I told her that her dream was wonderful and I hoped she was right. “Kids just know these things. Adults just have to listen to us sometimes.”

My prescient daughter was right and on Nov. 5th, I awakened her to say, “OBAMA WON!” “Stop kidding me!” she responded with a smile. “You’re sure?” And we, like the vast majority of Americans and the world, started our day with a profound smile.

I’m still digesting Obama’s victory and what it means to me. Each time I hear someone on TV, I think “Oh, that’s what it means.” Optimism. Potential. The fruits of hard work. The core of what America means to the world. My elation that a man of high intelligence, calm and caring has won is reinforced by the flood of emails from friends around the world who are SO excited with us – the friend in Amsterdam who was invited to FIVE parties to watch the results, the friend in Tel Aviv who sees a new day in the Middle East, my “sister” in Mexico City who is crying with emotions for future generations.

There’s also a profoundly personal joy in Obama’s victory that I haven’t fully articulated, but it goes something like this: Because I am Tibarek’s mom, I feel an extra connection to the joy of the African American and African communities here and all over the world that a black man is the new leader of America. I am overjoyed that Tibarek has been in the US during this formidable time, when women leaders are the norm, Spanish is the language she hears and is picking up, and black faces are those of our leaders. She’s living a life in which news that “Uncle Bruce and Uncle Mitch are getting married!” is met with “I thought they already were.” Her visual vocabulary is vast with fluid definitions of who’s who and who can be what. Rabbis and Episcopal priests are women. Her elementary school teachers are Chinese American, African and Caribbean American, white, Latina, scarf-wearing Muslims. Her generation sees diversity as the norm while ours saw “white men” as the norm. She voted with me for Hillary for Senator and Obama for President; we canvassed for Obama in Pennsylvania; we talk about policy and fairness. I love it that she will see little girls who look like her living in the White House. I am proud to have participated in activities which show her in the importance of being involved.


Tibarek checking in at a polling station


Campaigning in Scranton, Pennsylvania

And herein, I feel an almost secret connection, perhaps my own little invention, of closeness to the man and his family. Obama’s white anthropologist mother brought him up in a world where different cultures, looks, languages, religions and nationalities were daily fair. This was formative. His deeply ingrained values are reflected in his ease with cultures, from his approach to foreign policy to his take on domestic diversity. Each time Obama talks about world cultures, diversity in America, intercultural understanding, his comfort with true multiculturalism exudes. Problems are not swept away but are approached under a larger umbrella of respect for the human experience and the need to understand multiple perspectives. With this in the forefront, Obama and his team bring new energy and intellect to find creative solutions. What a glorious contrast with the Republicans for whom an understanding of multiple perspectives was seen as unpatriotic.

I am Tibarek’s white anthropologist mother who also lives in the world where a huge embrace of “other” is the norm. Two years ago, Tibarek’s Ethiopian mother entrusted me to take her beyond the family’s limited resources, expand her world, grow and blossom. I promised her I would and am taking this amazing person along for every possible opportunity that comes our way or that we can create. I hope I am giving Tibarek the tools for living in a hugely diverse world, enjoying differences and learning from them. I want her to know and be comfortable with her many identities: African, Ethiopian, American, Texas, from a bi-racial Jewish family with Episcopalian god-parents and friends and family from every point on the globe. And I hope she, like Obama, will take the ball and run with it as she makes positive contributions to the world she will encounter.

From knocking on doors in Pennsylvania, I figure she’ll soon be knocking on another door on Pennsylvania Avenue, this time for a play date.


Scranton, Pennsylvania

Cover Image: Jill Vexler, a New York City based anthropologist,
who specializes in curating exhibitions about cultural identity
and social history, with Tibarek, her seven year old adopted
daughter from Ethiopia, outside the polling station in Greenwich
Village, NYC
.

15 Responses to “What Obama’s Presidency means to my daughter from Ethiopia”


  1. 1 Tobi Nov 6th, 2008 at 11:07 am

    I, too, am the adoptive mother of a little Ethiopian girl. I share the pride, optimism and JOY that Jill expresses in her essay. I say to my daughter (who is still too young to understand, but will eventually): “Our new president’s family came from Africa, just like you came from Africa. How lucky we are that we share those roots!”

    What a wonderful moment!

  2. 2 Pat Nov 6th, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Jilly, what a wonderful lesson for us all about life’s wondrous possibilities. You write about this so well. I’m so happy to have shared this all first hand with you and Tibarek.

  3. 3 Dereje Nov 6th, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Jill and Tibarek, what a beautiful family! Indeed the true face of America is emerging because of this election. The power of America is in its diversity.

    Can you imagine? This little girl from Ethiopia (the worst dictatorship in the world) is learning at a very young age the power of American democracy. She is very lucky. She will grow up full of confidence that she can actually make a difference through the ballot in America and not through the bullet (like in Ethiopia). People like Tibarek are the future hope for Ethiopia as well. So Watch out dictators…because they will defeat you.

    Thank you Jill for sharing your story and good luck.

    Maybe one day, Tibarek will be U.S AMBASADOR to Ethiopia. Unfortunately she can’t be president because she was not born here.

    Wow, how wonderful that would be. This is America, anything is possible! Obama has confirmed that! The American dream is alive and well!

    Peace

  4. 4 Robert Nov 7th, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    My son is Ethiopian and myself, wife, and daughter are white. One thing not mentioned here is that President-elect Obama has a white mother. I don’t think this fact can be stressed enough, as I’m sure the issue will come up in our family life. One more silver lining to this magical story.

  5. 5 Mandy Nov 7th, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    To Jill & T–How wonderfully fortunate you two are to have each other and to foster such a profoundly inclusive view of the world. Like Obama’s mother, Tibarek’s mother (Jill) is an anthropologist–an amazing one at that. I cannot help but think as I listen to Obama’s views that his mother’s experiences and training in anthropology–helped by the opportunities she provided him to see and experience a wide range of cultures and communities and learn that identity and change begin at the family and community level–so influence who he is and the way he empowers us to see a better world.
    Love to you both

  6. 6 Joelle Nov 12th, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    This is all quite true and remarkable and how beautifully you’ve expressed it. Knowing Tibarek, I imagine she will be ambassador one day.
    Love,
    Joelle

  7. 7 Melekot Nov 14th, 2008 at 11:14 am

    Inspiring, insightful, profound and true.

    You have captured our sentimentality and joy, hopefulness and aspirations aptly.

    Marvelous piece Jilly.

  8. 8 Ras Dec 6th, 2008 at 1:46 am

    Jilly,you are a classy American!

  9. 9 Dorothy & Bill McSweeny Jan 4th, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    We have watched this extraordinary mother daughter duo grow in love and respect and learning and we marvel at their tenacious approach to life and problems and successes. Jill has so beautifully expressed all our hopes for the future, but which she is directly contributing too. We also think Tibarek will grow to be an ambassador or leader, and a great citizen of the world and proud American.

    With great pride and love from two of her god parents –
    Dorothy and Bill

  10. 10 Gebriela Jan 6th, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Touching, inspiring, authentically profound story.

    Jill you are amongst the many silent heroes around the globe that do not get the recognition. Adoptive parents like yourself are selfless, compassionate, transparent opening the doors to children who are cast aside and forgotten.

    God bless you and your daughter.

  11. 11 Fasiledes Jan 26th, 2009 at 3:18 am

    A great story. What a stark contrast in the image of America and Americans the Bush administration has projected on the world and inspired individuals like Jill are doing. Congratulations Jill. I hope Tibarek would become a great daughter you would like her to be and a great American citizen.

    God bless you,

  12. 12 DJ Jan 26th, 2009 at 11:42 am

    I have a major question for people that go all the way to Ethiopia to adopt a kid. First I want to start by saying Kudos to all of you and God bless you for giving those kids a chance for a better life.

    Question1: What made you choose Ethiopia instead of all the other Third World Countries?

    Question2: Why not adopt kids from the U.S. who are in need of the same opportunities?

    Question3: What are you planning to do to teach your son/daughter about the culture of Ethiopia?

    I have always been curious about the thought process of the individuals that adopt kids.

  13. 13 Kurt Mar 11th, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    DJ,

    We are a family adopting Ethiopia siblings. We considered all nations, but there are many rules for each country which prevented consideration, and Ethiopia was one of only a few for which we met their requirements. My wife had worked in Uganda, and enjoyed the culture and people there, which helped.

    We considered the US strongly. In our final decision, tho, at least as it applies to healthy infants, there is a long line of prospective parents for each available child. Few infants in the US are at risk of not being adopted. However, in Ethiopia, there are a reported 5,000,000 orphans, and only 20,000 adoptions annually. We felt that by adopting from Ethiopia, we were getting kids that likely would never have had parents otherwise.

    We intend to respect their heritage and recognize that they are “Ethiopian-Americans” who do not share the “African-American” heritage of those who have already been in the US for many generations. They may or may not eventually choose to identify themselves with African Americans culture here, but we support them either way, and we have been intentionally creating a network of friends and families with a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities, including other adoptive families. We are learning some basic Amharic, as our 3-year old is already speaking some, and we hope to continue their education to become bilingual.

    Thanks for asking :)
    Kurt

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