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Little Ethiopia: A thriving community in DC

By Cristina Fernandez-Pereda, New America Media

Editor’s Note: An Ethiopian community thrives in Washington D.C., and is branching out beyond small businesses and cab driving to professional fields. NAM contributor Cristina Fernandez-Pereda is a journalism student. Her profile of Little Ethiopia is generated under the J-school partnership with American University.

WASHINGTON — When Ethiopian immigrants started arriving in the 1970s, 18th Street in Adams Morgan neighborhood was their first home. Then when prices went up, the community had to find a new place. The U Street corridor, an area that was largely abandoned, was perfect for a new community. They revived it with their restaurants and stores, and it became Little Ethiopia, with its heart beating at the intersection with 9th Street.

Dereje Desta is the publisher and editor of Zethiopia, the leading publication among the Ethiopian community in the metro area. For one morning, he became a guide to journalism students to help them immerse in the community and learn what “Little Ethiopia” means beyond the intersection of two streets with more than two dozen Ethiopian-owned businesses.

Washington D.C. is home for the largest Ethiopian community in the country. Other large communities are in Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Seattle and Atlanta. As Selam Mulugeta, office assistant for Congressman Mike Honda, chair and founder of the Ethiopian American Congressional Caucus described, churches and Ethiopian-owned businesses help authorities locate this community all over the country. And most of them are in the nation’s capital.

The number of Ethiopian citizens in the Washington, D.C. metro area varies all the time and no one has exact data on this population. According to the Ethiopian Embassy estimates, around 200,000 citizens in the metro area are of Ethiopian descent. The Ethiopian Community Center estimates around 150,000 people from the African country.

Most Ethiopian immigrants come to the United States for education purposes as part of the African country’s immigration policy, the Diversity Visa Lottery — an immigration agreement with countries that have low immigration rates to the United States — but economic and political reasons are behind this decision too.

According to Desta, most Ethiopians consider that they are very well integrated in American society. The interaction between Ethiopians and Americans is not only limited to locals’ admiration of Ethiopian restaurants.

“The Ethiopian community is very well integrated in the American culture because of all the business owned by Ethiopians and also because they work with Americans in other fields,” said Hermela Kebede, executive director of the Ethiopian Community Center in Washington, D.C.

However, Ethiopians are waiting to see how the community evolves, as they are in the middle of a transition between the first generation of immigrants and their American-born children, who are now graduating from college.

“As Ethiopian-Americans, they have their Ethiopian side. But they are living in America, so they have an American side too,” Desta said.

The immersion of Ethiopians in the American society and their search for their own identity clashes with a very specific characteristic of the country they come from.

“It’s a very unique country. Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never colonized, so Ethiopians are very proud of that,” Kebede said.

Ethiopian youth, after studying with Americans, are now also competing with locals for jobs.

Ethiopians have been traditionally known to work as cab drivers in the area. Even though there is an extended number of them who still do — 11 percent of employed Ethiopians in the year 2000 were taxi drivers, according to Shaller Consulting. Many also hold jobs as university professors or accountants.

“We have also become wiser after living here for a while,” Desta reflects after showing an Ethiopian-owned Italian Restaurant. La Carbonara — the name of an Italian pasta recipe — emerges right next to the Mexican restaurant El Sol, also an Ethiopian property. After some years in the restaurant business, Ethiopian immigrants are now renting their properties to run other kinds of businesses, Desta explained.

Some Ethiopian shops display Barack Obama’s campaign message, ‘Yes, We Can,’ in their windows. It is, after all, something that applies to what many Ethiopian want to say about their community and their younger generation. They want to continue to prosper and thrive.

10 thoughts on “Little Ethiopia: A thriving community in DC

  1. I read in Washington Post there were 31,000 Ethiopians in the DC area. Now it is 200,000. Do people have problems with numbers? How can you get 200,000 or 150,000 out of a census of 31,000. I just hate wrong information, best wishes to you all from my native land.

  2. Mr. Garra,
    Juz to calrify things for you… the Ethiopian population in and around DC is 200K. The total number of guests who came to attend the ESFNA tournament are 31-32K. So… there is no wrong information. Only a bit of ClArIfIcAtIoN will do the trick….:)

  3. I noticed white business owners seem to wait for Ethiopians to clean up and popularize an area before they move in for the kill. Like they did in the 18th street area. I am afraid it will not be long before they are pushed out from the little Ethiopia center again.

  4. It doesn’t matter how many Ethiopians live around Washington dc as long as we dont make no diffrence using our significant number. There are only a few Ethiopians who are restlessly working to fight the weyane regime; the others are just selfish combination of population that only works for them selves. In addition to that most of us seem to be proud of our history including having a country never been colonized, having a county men and women who had fought and defeated the Italian invaders, having a country of rich of culture…..we tend to be proud of the good things while we don’t to join with those who want to bring the good things for our country. I mean we have always proud of the past while we should’ve ashamed of our current situation in Ethiopia. We have always feel proud to admire what was done by our grand, grand fathers while we don’t want to do or contribute nothing for our current crises including fighting the major Ethiopian enemy weyane. So, I urge all the Ethiopians in Diaspora to stop feeling proud by what we haven’t done, of course was done by our previous generation and start to step up and contribute our own part especially fighting the weyane regime which is the cause of our complex problem including famine, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, unemployment and in general lack of democracy that is all in all comes from bad governing system of weyane regime. So let’s start asking our selves what have I done to prevent the weyane up coming atrocities rather than fooling our selves with the past history. I still admire and give a big place for our fathers and mothers who had given us Ethiopia with its optimum sovereignty. While we still keep watching the crimes of weyane including giving of our country land that was protected by the blood of many Ethiopians to a neighborhood country. Curently Ethiopia is in a shape that tend to turn out as somalia while we feel prestigious about ethiopia. I rather simply say…..SHAME ON US …who are not taking steps to fight weyane……

  5. I think clustering around DC is a form of separation anxiety. The US has many other states, I don’t know why you have to be in one are until everyone feels like you are taking their jobs and neighborhoods, venture out and see what’s up. As for me, DC is just too much abesha, it’s like yemender nuro, but yimechachihu.

  6. Ethiopian men have heads shaped like light bulbs with ample forehead space. But atleast we came here (U.S.) out of our own free will unlike the former-slave American species known Nigger Afiricanus.

  7. ዲ.ሲ በጣም ደስ የሚል ነው። እኔ ከካሊ ስሄድ ናፍቆቴን ተወጥቼ ነው የምመለሰው። በ 90 ዎቹ ዓሰርት ብዙ አበሾች ያለሁበት ከተማ ነበሩ። አሁን ግን አብዛኛው እየለቀቀ ወደ ዲ.ሲ ገብቷል። ዛሬ ዲ.ሲ በተለይ የተወሰኑ ቦታዎች የአበሾች መከማቻ ናቸው። አንድ ቦታ ላይ ጠቅላላው ማለት ይቻላል የ አበሾች ሱቃሱቅ፣ ምግብ ቤት፣ ኬክ ቤት፣ ጭፈራ ቤት እና የመሳሰሉት የንግድ ቦታዎች የሚታዩበት ነው። በኔ በኩል በጣም ነው ደስ ያለኝ። ህዝቦቼን ሳይ የልብ እረፍት አገኛለሁ፣ አምሮባቸው ሳይ ደስ ይለኛል፣ ተጎሳቁለው ሳይ ይከፋኛል።

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