Ethiopians put down roots in Washington to build their largest U.S. community

Restaurants are one path to success for Ethiopian Americans. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

When Johannes Argay decided to open a small market selling food and spices from his native Ethiopia, he wasn’t intimidated by all the competition at Build America Plaza in Falls Church, Virginia, where dozens of shops bear orange-and-brown signs in English and Amharic.

“It depends on the quality,” says Argay, who formerly owned a restaurant in New York City. Opening a cooler case, he adds, “This fresh injera especially, we get every morning from Dulles Airport, direct from home. This is the best injera in the city.”

Business owner Johannes Argay at his Showa Baltena Market, in Falls Church, Virginia. Argay’s store sells Ethiopian food and spices — and organic food grown on all-American Amish farms. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Injera is the crepe-like bread made from the grain teff on which spicy Ethiopian food is served and eaten communally by hand. It’s a dining experience that many Americans savor.

“Americans love Ethiopian food,” says Ethiopian émigré Yeshimebeth “Tutu” Belay. “We use our hands to eat and we share — that’s the biggest thing. The outfits, the songs, the language and alphabet, all these things are attractions.”

Belay was determined to open her own business after moving to Washington in the late 1980s. “I knew if I did 8-to-5, I’d never accomplish my dream,” she explains.

She and husband Yehunie Belay, a well-known Ethiopian singer, first ran a restaurant in Washington’s historically African-American Shaw neighborhood. Eventually, she carved out her own business niche, compiling information on Ethiopian businesses, doctors, lawyers and others and soliciting advertisers for her Ethiopian Yellow Pages.

Yeshimebeth “Tutu” Belay, publisher of the Ethiopian Yellow Pages, displays her latest telephone directory. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Her business directory, now a 600-page tome published annually, has expanded along with the area’s Ethiopian population.

Little Ethiopia

Many Ethiopians fled their homeland in the 1980s because of political turmoil and a famine that lasted from 1983 to 1985. In 1980, the U.S. Census Bureau counted just 10,000 Ethiopian immigrants. Three decades later, the census counted 251,000 Ethiopian immigrants and children. And while thousands have settled in Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta and other cities, the greater Washington area has the country’s largest concentration, with 35,000 residents of Ethiopian descent, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Some community leaders believe the number actually exceeds 200,000.

What draws so many Ethiopians to Washington?

“They know it’s the capital,” explains Tsehaye Teferra, president of the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), who earned a doctorate in sociolinguistics at Washington’s Georgetown University. “It has some resemblance to how migration happens in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa is the city of government, commerce and education. In the provinces, after high school, where do you go for employment or further training? The logical place is the capital.”

In Washington, many recent Ethiopian immigrants drive taxicabs and park cars. Bereket Woldu began working part time for Colonial Parking in college and rose to become senior vice president. Now an executive with Forge, Colonial’s parent company, Woldu estimates 10,000 Ethiopians have worked in Colonial’s ubiquitous parking lots and garages over the years, making it “one of the highest if not the highest employer of Ethiopians outside the homeland.”

Bereket Woldu, an executive at Colonial Parking’s parent company, poses outside the entrance to one of the firm’s many garages. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

“Birds of a feather flock together,” says Woldu, who notes it is a job that even those with limited English can perform. “You didn’t have to say much. If you smiled and said hello, your customer service ability overcame deficiencies in language.”

Heran Sereke-Brhan, deputy director of the Washington mayor’s Office on African Affairs, says Ethiopian Airlines’ direct flight to Washington from Addis Ababa also helps boost the region’s Ethiopian population. The airline began twice-a-week flights in 1998 and switched to daily service in 2010.

“Generations followed each other here,” Sereke-Brhan notes. For Ethiopians who encountered difficulties getting educational or professional credentials recognized, driving a taxi or taking other service jobs “is the default pattern if you have to make a living to support your family. People make ends meet, and it’s an honest day’s work.”

In the 1990s, Ethiopian restaurants helped revitalize Washington’s now-trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood. When rents became too pricey, many moved to the U Street area and contributed to the rejuvenation of that neighborhood.

The Vegetarian Combination Platter, offering different Ethiopian dishes, is a customer favorite at the Bati Restaurant and Lounge in Falls Church, Virginia. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Dereje Desta publishes Zethiopia, a monthly newspaper for the region’s Ethiopian community. He says that while taxi drivers and parking-lot attendants “are more visible, a lot of Ethiopians are professionals. Go into the Patent Office and hospitals and you’ll hear Amharic spoken. Ethiopians are everywhere.”

Mike Endale, a vice president of BLEN Corp., a software development company founded by Ethiopians, thinks Ethiopian immigrants “have made the D.C. area much more vibrant.” Newer immigrants are “much more in tune with the American system by the time they land. They understand the value of credit lines and how to take out a loan. We’re entering the upper middle classes very easily now.”

Six diners — including waitress Lula, at right — enjoy a friendly meal together at the Bati Restaurant and Lounge in Falls Church, Virginia. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Mehari Goytom just opened a restaurant and pastry shop in Build America Plaza called Viva Africa. It is open 16 hours a day. “This is the beginning. We must work hard,” says Goytom. “It’s good to live here. Here it’s freedom.”

A few storefronts away, that’s how Argay sees the future, too. “I have [the] American dream like everybody. I know one day I’ll be a success. God will help me. God bless America.”

The author of this article, Christopher Connell, is a Washington-based freelance writer and editor and former assistant bureau chief for Associated Press. He writes frequently about education, including an annual report on winners of NAFSA’s Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization.