| by Tauren Dyson |
Yordanos Mehari’s parents met more than 21 years ago, amid civil unrest. A bloody civil war between two rival factions in Ethiopia ultimately yielded the creation of another country – Eritrea. Mehari’s father is Eritrean and her mother is Ethiopian. Even though the two lost family members to the war, their bond was strong enough to result in a marriage and the birth of a child.
Mehari says that any that animosity that exists between Eritreans and Ethiopians isn’t inherent.
“It’s all because of the government,” she says.
From 1961 to 1991, the two countries fought a war that stemmed from the Eritrean government’s desire to gain independence from Ethiopia. Conflict between the two nations flared up again in 1998, due to a border dispute that ended in 2000.
Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants find common ground on U Street (Click on link to listen to audio story)
In 2009, the U Street corridor has the highest concentration of Ethiopian immigrants in the United States, earning it the nickname “Little Ethiopia.” While many Ethiopian establishments thrive on the corridor, a number of Eritrean businesses have staked a claim on the area also.
Some may think that the two groups, living and working in such close proximity would be a recipe for disaster. But despite the long, bloody history between the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities, members of both groups who work and congregate on U Street say that no hard feelings persist.
“I’ve been here since the early ’70s, so the political situation at home was not favorable to anybody,” said Esete Demissie, owner of Almaz Restaurant on U Street.
An Ethiopian immigrant, has and her cousin have owned the restaurant for two years, and has lived in the United States for more than 20 years.
“I don’t know why the military government are fighting the Eritreans and I don’t know why the Eritreans are fighting the Ethiopians … it is politics,” Demissie said.
While she conceded that some people in both groups still hold bitter attitudes towards one another, many see past nationality.
“Growing up, I had a lot of Eritrean friends in school. They came to my house, and I went to their house,” Demissie said.
But others in the two communities say it’s hard to get over such a long and bloody conflict.
“During the war, being in Ethiopia, also being very supportive of my country, there wasn’t much sympathy for Eritreans,” said Yohanan Assefa, a 25-year-old American University graduate student.
Assefa says that segregation still exists in the United States between Ethiopians and Eritreans.
“Ethiopians don’t necessarily go to Eritrean restaurants; Eritreans don’t go to Ethiopian restaurants.”
But Assefa said that she would have no problem getting into a relationship with an Eritrean.
“I wouldn’t really have a problem with it.”
Yosef Haile was born and raised in the United States to Eritrean-immigrant parents. He agrees with Demissie’s assessment that the conflict is one of governments, not of people.
“When I go on Ninth Street (and U Street), the majority are Ethiopian establishments, but I go there as well,” Haile says.
He says he sees a lot of commonality between the two cultures.
“I would say we’re both entrepreneurs, we both came to this country and look at D.C. now. We all came here for one purpose, to make a better life.”