A Disappointing Visit : Ethiopian Teens Came to Promote Harmony, Found Turmoil


A group of Ethiopian teen-agers whose two-week Los Angeles visit to promote ethnic harmony was interrupted by rioting, fires and curfew will pack up to leave this weekend.

And none too soon, either, according to the black youngsters--who say they had never experienced racial discrimination until they came here.

"I'll be happy to go home," said 16-year-old Alemito Desta. "I wouldn't want to live here."

The 10th-grader is one of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews who fled civil unrest in Addis Ababa a year ago and relocated in Israel after a historic 33-hour airlift. They are being resettled throughout the Jewish country.

Alemito and seven other Ethiopian youngsters were brought here April 26 by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith for a series of meetings with teen-agers at Los Angeles schools and churches.

But much of their itinerary was scrapped after the Rodney G. King beating trial verdicts on April 29 sparked rioting and looting across Los Angeles.

Schools they intended to visit were closed because of the violence.

A reception scheduled Monday with Mayor Tom Bradley and City Council members was canceled.

The curfew canceled nighttime meetings and dinners that had been planned for months.

Looters' fires destroyed the Ethiopian Community Center on Crenshaw Boulevard, where the visitors had planned to meet local Ethiopian immigrants.

"I could see the fire and smoke and hear shots from the house where I'm staying," said Gadi Sahallo, 16. "It was near the neighborhood, and I was afraid the house would be bombed. It was very frightening."

Seventeen-year-old Yossi Tabegay said he'd heard of King before he got here. "I saw it on the news in Israel, the black man being hit," he said.

However, "I'd never seen riots between black people and white people before. This is very upsetting. I'm disappointed. I didn't expect this," Yossi said.

Maharat Tarefa, 18, added: "I've never felt discrimination. I've never been discriminated against. No, I wouldn't want to live here."

As authorities struggled April 30 to control the arson and looting, Anti-Defamation League officials huddled with the young visitors and discussed the violence.

"We talked about the issue of racism," league education director Marjorie Green said. "They understood it. Not from their own experience, but from what they'd seen here."

Nonetheless, the teen-agers said they were unprepared for what they encountered in South Los Angeles this week after the smoke had cleared.

Traveling on Wednesday to meet with Washington High School students, Gadi and friend Miriam Adane, 17, watched speechlessly as destruction flashed past on both sides of Western Avenue.

"We saw many stores burned. I saw black people. But I didn't see any white people around," Miriam said.

The students returned Thursday in pairs to Washington, Roosevelt, Venice and Hollywood high schools. There, they wrapped up discussions that Green said officials hope will "increase multicultural understanding, break down stereotypes and encourage positive interactions between ethnic groups."

At Hollywood High, Tarefa and Yael Mekonen, 18, met with students across Highland Avenue from burned and looted shops. On one storefront, a merchant had spray-painted this message: "Come in and Find Out What Respect Means (to me)."

Hollywood senior David Davido, 18, said the Ethiopians' message was just as clear.

"If you can understand one another, you can respect one another," Davido said. "If you respect one another, the last thing you're going to do is fight."

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