Ethiopian Emigres Make an Imprint in Their New Land


The sights, sounds and smells of Ethiopia can be found along a stretch of Fairfax Avenue--and so can the political tensions of the homeland.

Today, Los Angeles is home to more than 35,000 Ethiopians, the second-largest such enclave in the United States after Washington.

Ethiopians have made their imprint, adding another hue to the complex cultural mosaic of Southern California.


There is an Ethiopian newspaper and a magazine. A 50-page business directory includes dozens of listings for Ethiopian-owned enterprises: medical offices, law offices, tax consultants and computer companies. There are at least four Ethiopian churches and a score or more of restaurants specializing in the spicy East African cuisine, traditionally eaten by hand with flat, spongy injera bread.

Ethiopians have transformed a once-decaying, one-block stretch of Fairfax Avenue into a “Little Addis”--named for Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa--with four restaurants. An Ethiopian grocery store there stocks “Berbere” spice, Ethiopian coffees, clothing, paintings and books, including some heralding Emperor Menelik II, who established modern-day Ethiopia’s independence by routing an Italian invasion in 1896.

But life in America for Ethiopian immigrants has not been an uninterrupted march toward success. Many who were professionals in their homeland must drive taxis, wait tables or park cars to survive here.

And two months ago, Ethiopians were hard hit by the Los Angeles riots. Eleven Ethiopian businesses and two refugee centers were damaged or destroyed, and many Ethiopians lost their jobs.

“They came here to escape the war back home and now they find war right here in Los Angeles,” said Saba HileMaskel, who directs the Ethiopian Community Outreach Center, which has been in a temporary location in Crenshaw since its Crenshaw Boulevard office was destroyed by a fire during the riots. “They were shocked and terrified by what happened because they don’t completely understand what life is like here.”

Aled Abdulhamid, 20, a Santa Monica College student, was accustomed to the chaos of her war-torn homeland, which she left last year a month before the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam collapsed. But she couldn’t make sense of the riot here.

“It was frightening,” she said. “A liquor store across from my apartment building burned down. There was looting. This was not a war, it was worse.”


Twenty years ago, a wave of Ethiopians emigrated to Los Angeles to get an education. Most planned to return home to help modernize their nation. But when Ethiopia’s last emperor, the late Haile Selassie, was ousted in a military coup in 1974, many students decided to remain in the United States. They were joined by a second wave of Ethiopians, refugees fleeing the harsh Mengistu regime.

Although the collapse of the Mengistu government was a welcome event for most Ethiopians, tension and instability has continued, and a small but steady stream of refugees continue to come to the United States.

Los Angeles’ Ethiopians think fondly of home, despite the problems there. But Girmay Zaid, an Eritrean from Addis Ababa who came here as a student nearly 20 years ago, said the pride Ethiopians feel for their homeland is for a country that no longer exists.

“Abebe Bikila brought us worldwide attention (by winning the marathon in the 1960 and 1964 Olympic games) and Ethiopia was considered a breadbasket of East Africa,” said Zaid, a deputy administrator with the county Department of Children’s Services. “But the country went from being a breadbasket to a basket case. You don’t know how much it hurt in 1984 to see the world organize a relief effort to feed starving Ethiopians. I cried.”

From 1975 to 1991, the United States accepted more than 29,000 refugees from Africa, the vast majority from Ethiopia.

The newcomers often find themselves estranged from their neighbors in the largely African-American communities of South Los Angeles where many of them live. On top of that, they are often isolated from each other. Ethiopia is a nation with 70 linguistic and cultural groups, with ethnic rivalries dating back centuries. Those divisions came with them to America.


Members of the community say that until recently, they were held together by a common dislike of Mengistu. Now that he is gone, those ancient ethnic, linguistic and geographic rivalries are reasserting themselves.

“When Mengistu was thrown out, it was like we celebrated for a minute and then everyone began to fight over who was going to be chief, who will lead,” said one emigre, who asked not to be quoted by name.

Back home, the traditionally dominant Amharas are at odds with Eritreans, who no longer consider themselves Ethiopian after winning a 30-year struggle to control their province. Eritreans and Oromos, who have grown up with Amharic names, are changing their names to those indicating their ethnic origins. Amharas accuse the Tigreans, who dominate the new government, of using ethnicity to divide the country.

The community here mirrors, on a small scale, the situation in the homeland.

For example, a recent dispute among members of St. Mary’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church in South-Central Los Angeles can be traced to a decision to bring in a Tigrean bishop to lead the largely Amharic-speaking flock in 1987. When the bishop proposed that some of the services be conducted in Tigre, members accused him of injecting politics into the church, and the hard feelings linger still.

Fissesha G. Egziabher, 40, a church board member, laments the incident.

“There is only one God,” he said. “We come from the same country, share the same blood--just like in America. There should not be a difference. We are all human beings.”

Often, news of political disputes back home travels to the United States quickly via telephone or fax machine. Fekere Gebre-Mariam, 39, owner of Rosalind’s Restaurant on Fairfax, said that when the Ethiopian government recently unveiled a new map of the country based on ethnic regional boundaries, the map was quickly faxed to Los Angeles, where it was circulated and became the subject of hot debate in the restaurants.


“We received the map before many of the people back home got it,” Gebre-Mariam said.

Paul B. Henze, a consultant for the RAND Corp. in Washington, said the political jockeying taking place among Ethiopians is similar to what has been taking place in Poland, Hungary and other countries emerging from decades of communist rule.

“It doesn’t take long before there are dozens of political parties and groups,” Henze said.

As time passes, some Ethiopians are finding common ground in Los Angeles with the African-American community.

Ethiopian restaurants are bringing in jazz and blues bands and adding such traditional African-American dishes as Southern fried chicken and red beans and rice to the menu. Some Ethiopians have joined African-American organizations, and Ethiopian charitable and social groups have recruited some black American members.

“Our children are going to be African-American,” said Bogaletch Gebre, founder of Parents International, an organization that sends books to Ethiopia and whose board now includes some African-Americans. “They are going to be Americans--not Tigreans, Amharas or Oromos. . . . Immigrant groups in this country have become strong politically and economically only when they have come together.”

Paul Makonne, the grandson of Haile Selassie, said he learned this lesson during 15 years as a political prisoner in Mengistu’s jail. In Los Angeles, he works for a computer company owned by a compatriot.


“While I was in prison I learned what Ethiopia was all about, the different ethnic groups, religious groups. They were all there in prison,” he said. “It was in prison where I learned the importance of being Ethiopian. There is something special about our culture.”

As if the problems within the Ethiopian community were not enough, there is the day-to-day challenge of coping with life in urban America. Community leaders say that significant numbers of their countrymen are homeless. Parents worry about teen-agers who are pregnant or in gangs.

Ayahlushim Getachew Hammond, 27, who was born in Ethiopia but has spent much of her life in the United States, said she was shocked when a homeless man singled her out in Santa Monica to ask her for money in Amharic.

“He said, ‘Will you help your brother?’ ” she recalled. “My friends thought I knew him, but I didn’t. He was just a fellow Ethiopian. He said, ‘Life is difficult.’ I said, ‘Yes, it is,’ and I gave him some money.”

Social workers familiar with the Ethiopian community say that child and wife abuse have become problems and are likely the result of cultural and generational differences. More than a dozen Ethiopian children have been placed in foster homes or are being monitored by the county, said Zaid of the Department of Children’s Services.

“No one thought corporal punishment was bad in Ethiopia,” Zaid said. “In many Ethiopian homes, the answer to any conflict is a stick or a belt. I have been to homes where I’m told, ‘Who in the hell are you coming in my house to tell me what to do with my kids?’ I know my father would have said the same thing.”


While they begin to develop stronger ties to America, many of the emigres are also struggling to retain some elements of the culture that makes them different.

For example, more than a dozen children gather each week at the offices of the United Eritrean Assn. in Inglewood to learn the language, dance, food and customs of Eritrea.

“Most of the children prefer McDonald’s hamburgers to their traditional food,” said Tekes Negus, president of the association. “It is important for them to know their history and language so they can communicate with their grandparents. We don’t want them to forget their tradition.”