#EritreanAmericans heralded the success of one of their own in sport that has never been associated with #EastAfrica
Former San Diego State Aztec and current New York Giants safety Nat Berhe is the first Eritrean-American player in the NFL
By Stefanie Loh
The initial Tweet was really more of a question than a statement.
Minutes after the New York Giants drafted Nat Berhe in the fifth round of May’s NFL draft, the Aztecs safety tweeted, “First Eritrean in the NFL?”
“It was a question that had to be asked because I was kind of curious myself,” Berhe said. “We’d started looking around and realized that I was the only Eritrean in the NFL.”
“Then everybody found out about it and that’s when it started blowing up,” said Tam Berhe, Nat’s older brother.
San Diegan distance runner Meb Keflezighi, an Olympic silver medalist and the defending Boston Marathon champion, is probably the most prominent celebrity Eritrean athlete in the U.S. Another Eritrean-American, Thomas Kelati, played basketball at Washington State and was in training camp with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009, but he never played a game in the NBA and now plays professionally in Spain.
But Nat Berhe is the first Eritrean-American who’s managed to break into the professional ranks of America’s most popular sport.
Growing up in Colton, Calif., Nat and his brother, Tam, were always aware of their Eritrean heritage. Their mother, Judy, is African-American, while their father, Berhe Asfaha, emigrated to the U.S. from Eritrea in 1970.
During the boys’ formative years, the family owned a gas station in Colton, and Asfaha routinely worked 17-hour days, leaving Tam and Nat to spend most of their time with their mother.
As a result, the boys don’t speak their father’s native language – Tigrinya – and while they sometimes listened to Eritrean music, ate Eritrean food and went to parties in the Eritrean community with their father, they were never heavily immersed in Eritrean culture.
So Nat was a little surprised by the attention he has gotten from the Eritrean community since his initial inquiring tweet back in May.
To date, his original Tweet has been re-tweeted 308 times. Congratulations poured in via social media as Eritrean-Americans heralded the success of one of their own in a sport that has never really been associated with East Africa.
The New York media soon got wind of the story, and one week after the draft, the New York Post ran a story on Nat being the first Eritrean in the NFL.
The only problem?
Nat was quoted in the story saying he was “the first Ethiopian player in the NFL” and that he looked at it “all the same, Ethiopia, Eritrea, it’s all the same, just different name.”
Eritrea and Ethiopia are East African countries that share a border and have similar cultures and people, so that statement wouldn’t mean much to the average American unfamiliar with African geography and politics.
But melding the two together is akin to calling New Mexico and Mexico the same country. Though formerly part of Ethiopia, Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, after decades of war.
Nat took to Twitter to say he had been misquoted in the story and to clarify that he had identified himself as Eritrean, but had simply wanted to convey that the support he’d gotten from the Ethiopian and Eritean communities was the same.
Yet the damage had been done. Eritreans and Ethiopians caught on immediately and ripped into Nat on social media.
“A lot of people were upset,” Nat said this week, in a phone interview from New York. “I got a lot of comments like, ‘He doesn’t know where he comes from.’ I had to sit back because I was getting upset.”
The unfortunate episode marked the rookie’s first lesson on how to handle the media barrage that comes with playing in one of the NFL’s biggest markets.
“You have to be careful about what you say,” Nat said, in reference to the New York media. “A lot of things are taken and twisted a little bit.”
On and off the field, Nat has learned a lot in his first three months with the Giants.
Football-wise, he’s had to familiarize himself with a new playbook and the Giants’ defensive system. His tackling ability and hard-hitting style of play won him kudos from the Giants’ coaches by the end of New York’s first preseason game, when Safeties coach David Merritt christened Nat “The Missile,” and the nickname has stuck.
Nat’s rapid progress, and an unfortunate injury suffered by Giants safety Cooper Taylor, means the rookie will go into Sunday’s season opener in Detroit as New York’s second string strong safety, and he’s also on all the Giants’ special teams.
“I have some really good guys, seasoned vets, ahead of me and it looks like special teams is where I’ll make my money this year,” Nat said. “I really want to lead the team in tackles on special teams, and at this point, be a solid backup to whoever, and just stay ready.”
Despite the misunderstanding that stemmed from the New York Post’s story, Nat said he’s gotten a steady stream of support from the Eritrean and Ethiopian communities over the last few months, and the attention has intensified ever since he made the Giants’ 53-man roster last weekend.
Eritreans from all over the world have suddenly become Giants fans. Nat has had parents – Eritrean and Ethiopian – reach out and thank him for being an inspiration to their sons, and a girl recently tweeted at him to say that her mother can’t wait to attend the Giants game in Washington D.C. so she can give him a giant Eritrean flag.
“I get a lot of people reaching out, especially on Instagram and Twitter. A lot of Eritreans and Ethiopians. They say, ‘Thank you for being an inspiration,’” Berhe said. “To me, I’m just playing football, but to them it’s a big deal.”
He hasn’t attracted the same volume of media scrutiny that Michael Sam and Johnny Manziel have had to deal with, but as the incident with the New York Post showed, Nat has also had to learn to handle the responsibilities that come with being a trailblazer.
As congratulations from strangers poured in the day he was drafted, Nat tweeted: “Shout out to my Habesha people, much love and respect. Will make you proud. Thank you for the support.”
The term “habesha” has generally been used to refer to anyone of Eritrean or Ethiopian origin, but it means different things to different people depending on their self-identification, and the word is fraught with political implications linked to the contentious history between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Twitter wars have erupted over Nat’s ethnicity, and whether he’s “habesha” to Eritreans or Ethiopians, but despite the firestorm the New York Post article created, Eritreans and Ethiopians alike have continued to hail Nat as one of their own.
According to Nat’s cousin, Lia Amanios, first generation Eritrean-Americans like Nat and herself have come to use “habesha” as a familial term.
“Informally, for the youth, that’s how we use it,” said Amanios, 25. “For (native) Eritreans and Ethiopians, it’s not as inclusive. But from our point of view, growing up out here, we’ve learned it as an inclusive term. If you see somebody who’s Eritrean, you get excited because you’re like, ‘Hey, you’re like me.’”
As far as Nat is concerned, he is “habesha.” The safety has embraced his role as the NFL’s Eritrean-American ambassador and is eager to learn more about his culture and contribute to the Eritrean community.
“Later on down the road in my career, I want to start to become more involved in that community and give back to those who are less fortunate,” Nat said.
Nat has never been to Eritrea, but wants to visit in the near future. In the meantime, he hopes that his presence in the NFL will popularize the sport among Eritrean-Americans and raise the profile of his people in the United States.
That, Amanios said, is why Eritrean-Americans are so thrilled about Nat making it in the NFL. He’s a walking advertisement for a young country that has only existed in its present form since 1991 – coincidentally, the year Nat was born.
“He’s kind of a pioneer for the Eritrean-Americans because it’s a country that, when we were growing up, nobody had ever heard of,” Amanios said. “We’re starting to make a name for ourselves and represent our background and culture. Anytime there’s an Eritrean anything, like an athlete or a musician, it’s a big deal.”