For a growing and acculturated immigrant community, the entire D.C. Metro area has become ‘Little Ethiopia’
For many college students, the neighborhood of Adams Morgan may conjure images of bars, tattoo parlors and quaint coffee shops. But for the members of the Ethiopian community, this neighborhood is home. A walk down 18th Street Northwest still reveals these smells and sights, a hint of spices, an array of colors – and a community of people committed to sharing and embracing their culture.
Merchaw Senshaw is part of that community. Senshaw, the owner of Quara, an Ethiopian restaurant in the area, said the United States has been home to him for the last 20 years. He has found the Adams Morgan community to be welcoming and friendly. But Senshaw’s move to open a restaurant in Adams Morgan actually came out of a challenging situation.
Senshaw came to the United States on the recommendation of a friend, but, in 2008, that same friend had to shut down his restaurant in Adams Morgan as a result of the recession and increased rents in the area. This wasn’t the only closure to happen in Adams Morgan during the financial crisis. Adams Morgan lost several other Ethiopian restaurants, inspiring Senshaw to fill the void with his own establishment.
“I knew that a lot of people were asking for Ethiopian food, and there was nothing here,” he said. “So that was my dream to bring one business to Adams Morgan.”
Since the restaurant opened nearly a decade ago, Senshaw said he has catered to mostly “American” clients. He said that through the food and the restaurant, he has attracted people from all over the city to Quara in Adams Morgan and his second restaurant near U Street.
Dee Harris, an Ethiopian immigrant who moved to the United States at the age of 13, brought two of his colleagues to Quara in late April to enjoy a business lunch. He shared some of his culture with his colleagues over teff, lamb and vegetables, a traditional Ethiopian dish.
Born in Ethiopia, Harris fled the country with other members of his family to avoid the guerrilla war, a battle that took his brother’s life. Harris then was adopted by an African American family in Rockville, Maryland where he had the chance to earn a U.S. education, a degree from Loyola University and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. In the Ethiopian community, Harris has become a leader, but he still expressed frustration with the cultural discrimination within his own community.
“The community feeds its own prejudice,” Harris said. “We have seven languages, plus 100 dialects. Tribes discriminate against one another. America has a racial challenge, but we have a tribal challenge.”
According to Harris, despite America’s racial issues and Ethiopia’s tribal conflicts, being Ethiopian comes with a lot of pride. In archeology, the first bones of the hominin species were found in Ethiopia, meaning Ethiopians were the first people on earth, Harris said; Ethiopia could be considered “the birthplace of man,” noted Harris’ lunch guest.
Harris joined the Adams Morgan Ethiopian community with the support of a family that was already in the States, allowing him to get a quick start and lessen the culture shock. His said his transition to the United States has been relatively smooth, especially since he moved here as a young person.
Harris added that his wife, who is also from Ethiopia, has only lived in the United States for two years. Her adjustment to the U.S. was also smooth, but he said he aided her in this transition by driving her around the county, to 20 states, and explaining the diversity of America to her. He also encouraged her to consume American pop culture, to practice her English and to learn idioms.
Today, he said he considers the United States his home.
Even so, according to Harris, not all members of the Ethiopian community have had such a seamless transition.
The repercussions of the recession
Business struggles, cultural changes and new migration trends have led to movement for dozens of restaurant owners and small businesses across the D.C. area. This has led to an influx of new Ethiopian establishments in the Silver Spring and Alexandria areas, in addition to suburbs in Falls Church.
Dan Reed, an urban planner in Silver Spring, collected research showing that the Ethiopian population in Silver Spring has tripled since 2000, and Reed said he expects this trend to continue [click for audio].
“This has really become one of the region’s biggest hubs, if not the hub, for the Ethiopian community,” Reed said. “I imagine what we have here is perhaps a little bigger version of what had established in Adams Morgan a couple of decades ago, and I think there is a very real possibility that as the city and region continue to grow, that the Ethiopian community might migrate again to an even further location.”
Writer and editor-in-chief of local newspaper Zethiopia, Dereje Desta, echoed much of what Reed said about the Ethiopian community and its migration north of D.C. He said that young Ethiopians may start out in the city when they first become employed, and as they age, they move upward and outward away from the city.
“After you’ve become established and start having a family, you move to other states and suburb areas, so because of that we still have many different businesses in D.C.,” Desta said.
The Ethiopian community has had such an impact on the D.C. area that even the language of Amharic has become mainstream, Desta said. Desta explained that the D.C. Language Access Act designates five official languages for the the city. This means that whenever city officials publish anything, it must be published in all five languages – and in the District, Amharic is one of them.
“It tells you how important Ethiopians are,” Desta said, regarding the language. “If you go to the Fairfax hospital, for example, there’s a sign in Amharic.”
The power of language has always been important to Desta. He moved to the U.S. in August of 2001 with the intention of starting an Ethiopian newspaper here in the States. As a journalist in his home country, Desta admired the press freedom of the U.S. and came here to “exercise my freedom.”
With relatives already established in the Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland areas, Desta moved to the U.S. In 2002, the newspaper Zethiopia was created, printed in both English and Amharic. The newspaper is a testament to the growing influence of the Ethiopian community in the United States.
“The Ethiopian community in this area is the largest African immigrant [population],” Desta said. “Next to African Americans, the Ethiopian community is the largest black community. We’ve been here since the 1980s, so the U.S. is the largest area for the Ethiopian community.”
Harris agreed on the scope of the community and described a soccer tournament organized by local Ethiopians every few years. He said that half a million people attend the tournament and although there is a police presence, there is rarely violence.
“The community policies itself,” Harris said. “We look out for each other.”
Although the Ethiopian community is now spread across the city and its suburbs, the members of the community continue to thrive and show pride in their identity. Harris, Senshaw and Desta are just three examples.
Desta, who lives in Fairfax, Virginia, explained that throughout the suburbs of Virginia, clusters of Ethiopian restaurants and businesses can be found, an indication of just how much the community has grown.
“It’s not as hard as before,” Desta said. “Now you have relatives here, so you don’t have to go through the hardships to begin a life, so you have plenty of choices and support you can get from your community.”
This pattern of migration may sound familiar. That’s because it is. According to Desta, people have been moving to the suburbs to accommodate their growing families. The Ethiopian community is like many other immigrant groups that have followed the same pattern, just wanting to make a living and find a home for themselves.
Senshaw is another example of an Ethiopian living outside downtown D.C., in the Brookland neighborhood. Hesaid that he had a negative perception of Americans before he came to the U.S. After his experience moving to the States and working in the nation’s capital, he said that he now has so much respect for Americans.
Senshaw said that if he could tell people anything about the Ethiopian community, it would be how proud its members are to be in the U.S. and how hard they work. He said that although Americans may be concerned about Trump or whoever is president, America is “still the best place to be.”
Despite political divides, he said that he doesn’t see these issues in his day-to-day interactions. He also expressed gratitude for the opportunities that were provided for his family here. His has two brothers, one of which got a scholarship to a university in Portland, and another got his master’s at Johns Hopkins and now works for Homeland Security.
“If I ask for help,” Senshaw said when speaking fondly about D.C., “I get it wherever I go.”