Malden Memory Makers: Birukti Tsige on culture, family and community

In May 2020, Malden Reads planned to host the Malden Mass. Memories Road Show (MMRS), a statewide, event-based participatory archiving program that documents people, places, and events in Massachusetts history through family photographs and stories, which are stored in a digital archive at The program is produced by University Archives and Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston in collaboration with local communities. 

Due to the pandemic, the in-person event could not be held and so this summer the MMRS team invited anyone with a connection to Malden to contribute photographs and stories online as part of the Malden Mass. Memories Stuck-at-Home Show As soon as it is safe to do so, the MMRS will visit Malden to collect more materials at a live, in-person event. Through the month of December, you can also take part in the online version and submit your own photos via this link.

To mark this effort, Marielle A. Gutierrez, a student at UMass Boston (currently attending remotely from California) and interning with the Mass. Memories Road Show program, has written a series of profiles of participants in the Malden Mass. Memories Stuck-at-Home Show for Neighborhood View. 

The first profile is of Birukti Tsige.

By Marielle A. Gutierrez

Family, culture, and community involvement. These are three themes that emerged when second-year Harvard student Birukti Tsige was asked, “What is your Malden story?” 

Tsige’s Malden story began in 2007, when her father, Tsehaye Beyene, immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia. Before moving he served as a priest for one of Ethiopia’s Christian Orthodox churches. It is common for the church to move priests wherever there are openings, and there happened to be a vacancy in Boston for Tsehaye.

About six months after her father’s move to the United States, Birukti and the rest of her family — her mother, two older brothers, and one younger brother — applied for their U.S. visas. Birukti regards her family’s immigration experience as a miracle because of how fast their visa applications were accepted and approved. She and the rest of her family were settled in Massachusetts by the time she was eight years old. 

Birukti’s father, Tsehaye Beyene, and her two brothers, Addissu (left) and Kidus (right) Tsige, in their backyard at Alden Street. View this photo in the Mass. Memories Road Show collection.

While her father may have accepted a job in Boston, the family chose to live outside of the busy metropolitan city; they chose to live in a quieter, smaller and more intimate city—Malden. She recalls living in her family’s first residence for about a year, then moving to a house on Franklin Street for six years, and then finally settling at her current house on Alden Street. Despite the varied lengths of time Birukti lived in these homes, each one holds many cherished memories.

Growing up in Malden was, in a sense, easy for Birukti. She quickly excelled at learning English; she credits her ESL classes and her love of reading for her success. Despite excelling in school, Birukti still had to grapple with her identity as an Ethiopian immigrant. Birukti has always been proud of her heritage, but she had to cope with being a young girl growing up in America—not an easy task. She remembers being conscious of the smell of her clothes; doing sniff-checks before school because she was aware that Ethiopian food was “smelly” and that kids could be cruel.

However, her cautiousness ended during her eighth-grade graduation at Ferryway School. Birukti insisted on wearing a Habesha kemis—a traditional Ethiopian dress worn for formal events and celebrations. “I love the Habesha kemis,” she recalled. “It’s so gorgeous! Why would I wear a simple black dress when I can wear this?” 

To Birukti’s delight, people reacted well to her dress. She received many compliments and praise for the dress’s beauty. To make the moment even more special, her family joined her in wearing traditional Ethiopian clothes. After all, her graduation was a celebration for the whole family.

From left to right: Birukti Tsige, Seneya Gebreselase (aunt), and Zewdnash Asefawe (mother) posing for graduation pictures in front of Ferryway School. View this photo in the Mass. Memories Road Show collection.

Birukti submitted a photo of her graduation to the Mass. Memories Stuck-at-Home Show, and Birukti talked with pride about where her past merges into her present. She wants the photo to be remembered because: “It’s such a peak of my time in Malden. That transition. What it led up to. There’s so much hope and love in there. That summer, I was preparing for high school…researching where to sit in the cafeteria and thinking about the new people I would meet. I was so excited!”

During her first year at Malden High School, she did not need to worry about where to sit in the cafeteria or how to make friends. She did so naturally by being herself. These high school years played a pivotal role in Birukti’s Malden story. For instance, Birukti joined the school track team, along with her older brother, Berhanu Tsige. They trained by running around the city. This is the beginning of how she became involved in the community.  

 Birukti and her friends at one of the weekly Malden City Council meetings they attended during their senior year of high school. View this photo in the Mass. Memories Road Show collection.

From there, Birukti became involved in various activities. She was a Youth Congress Speaker for the Anti Defamation League, the National Honors Society President, the Vice President of her school’s Speech and Debate team, and a Sunday School teacher. Additionally, she participated in various STEM competitions, wrote poetry and fiction, and co-founded the Malden Youth Civics Club—a club that informed the youth about what the city was doing and encouraged them to push for initiatives. But before Birukti became involved with all these activities she would remain close to her family and home.

Initially, because of their immigrant status, Birukti’s parents wanted their family to keep to themselves. They were in an unfamiliar land with unfamiliar customs and ways of life. They were nervous about letting their children out into a world that they were unfamiliar with. The result? She did not know her hometown well, but she had an amazing relationship with her parents and siblings. This explains why Birukti decided to submit a photo of her brothers playing. It shows her two younger brothers, Addissu and Kidus, having the time of their lives running through the sprinkler system at the Lincoln Commons Playground.

Birukti’s brothers, Addissu Tsige and Kidus Tsige, playing in the sprinkler system at Lincoln Commons Playground. View this photo in the Mass. Memories Road Show collection.

According to Tsige, “It was a quintessential summer thing that we did. I felt like we didn’t get a lot of other things. We didn’t go trick or treating. We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving for the longest time. We didn’t really go to the beaches, or movies theaters, or vacations. So, this is one of the main things that I remember. A summer included this.” 

More importantly, going to the park during the summers is something her mother, Zewdnash Asefawe, could do for them. Her mother didn’t know how to drive but the park was a 10- to 15-minute walk from their house. All in all, her mother’s effort to provide her children with fun did not go unnoticed. Birukti greatly appreciates and cherishes all that her mother has done for her and her siblings.

Family means a lot to Birukti. She gushed over her five siblings (two siblings were welcomed to the family after their move to the U.S.) and parents when prompted to describe them and her relationship with them. 

Birukti’s father, Tsehaye Beyene, in front of their house on Alden Street. View this photo in the Mass. Memories Road Show collection. 

Another photo that describes her love for her family is one focusing on her father. He is standing outside their house on Alden Street, holding his arms up, against a beautiful snowy background and sunset. Birukti and her father were cleaning snow off the family car and walkway when her father started taking pictures of her. Horrified with being the subject, Birukti quickly turned the camera on him.

She remembers her father saying, “Birukti, you’ll want to remember this [moment] later.” She took that to heart. Her reason for submitting this photo is to remember the love she has for her family and the feeling of belonging and having someplace to call home. Birukti describes this as a type of ownership that no one can take away from her. She’ll always cherish these everyday moments because they are who made her who she is today—someone who is kind, compassionate, ambitious, and energetic.

And what is Birukti doing now? She is still actively involved in the community. “When I started college, I said I was going to focus on myself, keep my head down, focus on my studies and graduate.” That plan quickly backfired. She didn’t experience personal fulfillment keeping to herself, so she went back to her high school roots and became involved in various projects.

Birukti pictured in front of “Register to Vote” signs. This was part of a voting campaign that she ran with Malden Youth Civics Council near the 2018 midterm elections. View this photo in the Mass. Memories Road Show collection.

Right now, she is teaching Sunday school for her church, is a member of Harvard’s African Student Association, is active in social justice movements, and frequently gives college advice to high school students wondering how the whole application process works. 

Birukti loves Malden. To her, this city is symbolic of her own personal history and belonging. Regardless of what the future holds for her, one thing is clear: “Malden is my home and has been for a long time. I think I’m going to come back and settle down there.”

Are you a member of the Malden community? During the month of December, you can submit your own photos and stories to the Mass. Memories “Stuck-at-Home” Show to be part of the digital archive collection for Malden. This project for Massachusetts communities is administered by the Healey Library at UMass Boston. Click on this link to take part.

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