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.