Americanizing Ethiopia: Two perspectives on a changing community
| By Kenya Downs |
Traveling north on Georgia Avenue into downtown Silver Spring is a short trip around the world. Restaurants and cafes represent a variety of nations and cultures, but the green, yellow and red flags of Ethiopia dominate the ambiance. A venture to other blocks east and west further show the influence of the East African nation on the Washington, D.C., suburb.
The area boasts a thriving Ethiopian community. The Ethiopian Community Development Council estimates that there are more than 250,000 Ethiopians and Ethiopian-Americans living in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Though Washington has the largest population of Ethiopians outside of the capital of Addis Ababa, gentrification in the District has sparked the community’s growth in the suburbs.
Getachew Beshir knows this area well, as a driver with Sun Cab, and offers a driving tour of the Ethiopian businesses. On a busy afternoon, he slows his cab down to a crawl as he points out the diversity of storefront shops offering a variety of goods and services from his homeland.
“We are all over the place here,” he said. “Within the last 10 years more Ethiopians have made this area distinctly ours. We’re a close community.”
Their methods of arrival are not all the same. Some have come due to political asylum, others on visas specifically promoting diversity. Beshir even asserts that within the last decade, more have come illegally, by first traveling through South America and Mexico.
But like many other Ethiopians, Beshir came to the United States knowing only one other person in the area. He attributes this common experience as one of the many reasons why the Ethiopian community is so close-knit.
“We stay connected to Ethiopia by staying connected to each other,” he said. “No matter how American we become, areas like this remind us of what’s in our blood, our hearts.”
But not all Ethiopians immigrants share Beshir’s sense of a connected community that looks out for one another. A Beshir drives past a cluster of groceries and restaurants on Eastern Avenue, on that street, Gebrehawariat Nahon looks outside his storefront window at what he calls the competition.
The block, which serves as the official border between Washington, D.C., and Maryland, is lined with Ethiopian restaurants and groceries. For Nahon it seemed like the perfect location to begin his lifelong dream of being a business owner. He takes his last sip of tea before rising to help a customer who walks in to buy injera bread.
“I never would have thought that (neighboring businesses) would not be happy when I came here.” he said.
Nahon refers to the three other shops selling foods and goods that line the Maryland side of the street. Migration of Ethiopians in Washington to Silver Spring is what attracted him, as well as an eagerness to capitalize on the familiar demographic of a developing area.
He thought his move to the Ethiopian community in Silver Spring would be reflective of the very culture they all shared, one that is welcoming and supportive. Instead he said he has encountered animosity. After two years operating Nahon Market, he now compares his experiences with his observations of Ethiopian neighborhoods around the District.
“In other areas like Virginia, I’d see us work together. It was a change when I came here; they are not happy.”
Slowly, American ideals such as individualism and capitalism are finding their way into the traditionally communal Ethiopian neighborhood. To Nahon, this means a common community objective simply based on a common country of origin is no longer a guarantee for new immigrants.
Now, to be more competitive, Nahon will begin rebranding his market as eatery not specific to one ethnicity, offering American-style sandwiches and treats. English signs have begun replacing those in the traditional language of Amharic.
While Nahon and Beshir present starkly different views on the bond of the Ethiopian community, both acknowledge a passion for maintaining an Ethiopian identification that is distinct. A stroll along Fenton Street on a Sunday will reveal women dressed in white as they trek to church. And both men insisted that younger generations of Ethiopians who do not utilize Amharic are heavily criticized.
Yet both men doubt there will ever come a time when the neighborhood will collectively accept becoming more American than recognizably Ethiopian.
“We are Ethiopian,” Beshir said “How we progress here won’t matter. This area will become more Ethiopian before we become just American.”