Spotlight stories Voices from our community Pt 1 Mebrak Ghebreweldi
Each month, Vandu Languages will be posting stories from people who come from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds in our new series of blog posts. We want to shine a spotlight on people’s experiences, contributions, achievements, and challenges and to make their voices heard.
First up is Vandu’s very own CEO, Mebrak Ghebreweldi!
Read her story below.
My name is Mebrak, which in my language means ‘Morning Sunshine’. I am from Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa, where I was a freedom fighter during the Eritrean War of Independence. It was there I learned first-hand about the life-changing difference good communication can make.
I came to the UK in September 1992 to study business and computing at University. After later completing my master’s degree in business management, I was a single mother with two sons under five to support. It was then I became inspired to start Vandu Languages in 1999. The first few months were very hard and I worked long days and nights—but six months later I had more than 30 linguists covering 16 languages.
Today, Vandu has over 1,500 linguists! I’m very proud of all the business has achieved commercially but what means the most is the opportunities we have created for people to succeed. We’ve trained migrants and refugees to become community interpreters, some of whom have gone on to set up businesses of their own.
Diversity Resource International (DRI) is Vandu’s sister company. It’s a community interest non-profit making organisation I created with Dr. Yaa Asare in 2004 and Mamta Patel joined us in 2020.
My native country
Eritrea has nine ethnic groups and nine different languages. All ethnic groups have their own way of living, cooking, dressing, singing, and dancing. We also have different religions, but nothing comes before the nation of Eritrea. We are very nationalistic and are proud of our diversity. All of our ethnic groups have a special relationship with the land they live in—this can be seen in the art, songs, and different types of writing.
Many people may not know about Eritrea’s history—it gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after 30 years of war. This was a result of the UK and US federating Eritrea with Ethiopia after World War 2. Eritrea fought against this in a war with Ethiopia for 30 years between 1961-1991. This unnecessary war was created by the superpowers (the UK and US) to keep the Red Sea under their monitoring through Ethiopia.
Another fact people may not know about Eritrea is that 80% of the population depends on farming. Women play an important role within agriculture and they’re widely known as being strong heads of the family.
My native languages
I speak Tigrinya which is an Eritrean language and Amharic which is an Ethiopian language. I also understand Tiger which is another Eritrean language. My parents speak Tigrinya, which is their mother tongue and also Italian, as Eritrea was colonised by the Italians for over 60 years following the Ottoman’s rule for over 360 years (1516 -1860). There’s still a big Italian influence in Eritrea. For example, the Italians left behind their culture of drinking coffees like Macchiatos and Caffe Lates. Eritreans also love drinking outside on their verandas, chatting and laughing.
My father who lives in Eritrea also speaks fluent Arabic. While I understand a little Arabic, I’m not fluent. My children can understand a bit of Tigrinya but sadly they’re not fluent. This hurts me a little and I will take action to help change this as they're both keen to learn the language. I tried to teach them to speak Tigrinya when they were children but as a single mother, I was working more than full time and by the time I came home it would be bedtime. They improved their language rapidly during our visit to Eritrea, so for them to become fluent they might need to spend more time in the country.
My life in the UK
Living in the UK, we try to keep most of the cultural traditions from Eritrea, but it's not easy to keep up with two different cultures. As much as we are adapting to the culture in the UK, I’m noticing the Eritrean culture is also changing, in some ways for the better, but there are also some negative changes. Some changes in the younger generations for example may be through the influence of social media.
am very much connected to Eritrea’s culture, politics, social, economic, and social media. I also love to read about Eritrea and dance to my country’s traditional cultural music.
We travel to Eritrea with the boys every two years and on my own at least three times a year. I have my 98-year-old father and 92-year-old mother with 5 siblings who all live in Asmara and miss them so much. Asmara is the capital city of Eritrea and is a UNESCO world heritage site with a lot of unique architecture and culture. People love to sit on the stairs of cathedrals and simply chat and relax and walking and cycling in the evening is a cultural norm.
My children keep in close contact with my family in Eritrea and they’re keen to get involved actively to raise funds if needed for projects like charity runs. They also stay close to the Eritrean communities in London. They love the food and always enjoy their time in Asmara and Massawa which is the port of the Red sea.
Inside our house, we communicate and eat just as if we were in Eritrea. Very direct and nothing to hide. My children’s friends get shocked at how direct I communicate with the boys and how close we are. They used to consider me as rude or too direct but now they love me for it.
I am very proud of who I am and where I came from, and I am happy to say that my children are also very proud of having two cultures and a dual heritage.
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At Vandu Languages, we work with people from across diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds and believe there’s power in connecting our communities. If you’re looking for help specifically with Ethiopian and Eritrean languages, we have a range of interpreters in Sussex who speak Tigrinya and Amharic. Feel free to contact us to learn about our translation, interpreting, and bilingual advocacy services.