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A Higher Calling

With a slew of cultural and community initiatives, Esky Girmay is redefining the image of Ethiopia in Bahrain.

Model, actress, philanthropist, businesswoman and film producer, Esky Girmay has worn many hats over the course of her long years in the Kingdom. Two years ago, the mum-of-two quit her media job to concentrate on her work as the head of Action Committee for Migrant Workers Protection Society (MWPS) and other business interests.

Esky’s debut in Ethiopian cinema, Tikur Engda (Unexpected Guest) premiered to packed theatres in Bahrain this June. The movie is being released across Ethiopia and will do the rounds of international film festivals.

In recognition of her years of cultural and community work, Esky is on the verge of being appointed representative of the Ethiopian community in the Kingdom. She speaks to us about her ideals, her identity and finding a voice on the global stage.

Woman This Month (WTM): Tell us about your foray into cinema.
Esky Girmay (EG): I’ve always wanted to do something artistic. I’m a huge fan of theatre, which I used to frequent every week when I was in Ethiopia. Being new to the industry, I didn’t want to go solo, so I teamed up with well-known actor and director Michael Tamire to found Hala Film Production. I ended up acting in this movie which really touched my heart. It’s the story of a woman’s search for identity.

WTM: Do you think Ethiopian cinema has arrived?
EG: Ethiopian cinema is well established, although it has a long way to go. I think there’s a market for any great story regardless of who makes it.
Recently, Angelina Jolie associated herself as executive producer of an Ethiopian film, Difret, which is now a blockbuster winning international awards. In Bahrain, my film premiere was sold out and many foreigners came looking for tickets. This proves that if the story is universal, the world will be interested.

WTM: Was shooting this film a sort of homecoming for you?
EG: Oh yes. There’s this moment when my character confronts the harsh reality of her life — that sometimes blood relations don’t matter so much as ties forged from the heart. This resonated with me.
For instance, my aunts and I were raised by a remarkable woman, Enanye, who wasn’t related to us but meant more than our mothers. She named me Eskedar, which means ‘until the end’. Apparently, she would say, “This girl will go the distance.”

Enanye is now over 100 years old. I’m planning to build a school in her honour in her town Korem, where she lives now.

August-2014_People2_01 WTM: When did you first start your community initiatives?
EG: Around seven or eight years ago, I would get alerts from a lady at Salmaniya Hospital whenever she came across Ethiopian patients. I visited a young woman who had developed breast cancer because her sponsor failed to have her lymph glands removed five months earlier.

When I found her, the cancer had spread and she was returning home to Ethiopia. The doctors said we couldn’t afford to pay for treatment and that I shouldn’t try to save her life. The sponsor wasn’t happy either, but I fought for her.

In the end, we succeeded in raising BD9,000 through a dinner and an appeal in the media. The lady stayed with me and my friends as she underwent radiation and chemotherapy. She went home after 18 months, fully cured. She is now a mother of two.

WTM: Tell us about one of your recent fundraising project.
EG: The most recent initiative was where I managed to raise half a million Ethiopian Birr by designing clothes and organising a fashion show to support a dam project back home, which is now under construction. I believe this dam will change the lives of my people when it’s completed. There are many other projects I’ve supported and I’m a member of charitable organisations back home as well.

WTM: What sort of challenges do you face in your work?
EG: As much as I try to promote Ethiopia in the Middle East, perceptions about us bother me. Ethiopians have a rich heritage and culture. Those who know our history have so much respect for us, while others look at us as just domestic workers. It doesn’t help that we’re not good at promoting ourselves. It also bothers me that people back home have this fixed notion about the Middle East that all Arabs are abusive employers. Sometimes I feel I’m stuck between both sides of the world, trying to redefine each for the benefit of the other.

WTM: Workers’ welfare isn’t an easy job. How do you stay motivated?
EG: When you see a woman going home to her family after being stuck here for years, you realise that you were instrumental in saving her life and in getting her dues and freedom back. That moment is inspiring.
Also, watching people like my English colleague Beverly at MWPS, who cares enough to spend her days running around for workers she’ll never meet again and for people she doesn’t share a nationality or language with. This motivates me. I try to put myself in the shoes of these women to do what I do. Yes it’s tiring, but at the end of the day, I’ll have a good night’s sleep.

WTM: Aren’t there other ways of addressing this problem, perhaps from the home countries?
EG: Yes, we have to be fair to the employer also. When sponsors apply for a domestic worker, they spend a lot of money and they should get what they’re promised. Recruiting agencies trick workers by promising them an easy life and sometimes they bring teenagers from the countryside on forged passports, passing them off as adults.

Human trafficking has become a big issue everywhere and it’s difficult to break this organised network. Awareness is the key as there are many issues that need to be addressed before arrival.

WTM: What do you want to accomplish over the coming decade?
EG: Ten years from now, my kids will be 19 and 21. If they tell me that they’ve had a beautiful childhood and that I’ve been a good mother and they’re proud of me — I will have achieved all I’ve wanted.

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