Trial by Fire


For Abdurahman Baharun, opening his own business was worth all the days he spent hustling as a valet parking attendant, all the 18-hour days he spent behind the wheel of a cab.

He had immigrated from Ethiopia in 1980 after a harrowing escape from the country’s new communist regime. And like untold thousands of immigrants before him, he came with a dream.

His was to own a dry cleaners. After a decade of saving, he opened System Cleaners on Crenshaw Boulevard in 1990.


But four years later, a fire destroyed his business. And State Farm Insurance denied his claim after authorities determined that the blaze was the work of an arsonist.

Baharun sued, and a Superior Court jury last week awarded him $4.6 million in punitive damages against State Farm. The panel had earlier awarded Baharun $860,000 in general damages. State Farm attorneys said the firm will appeal.

When and if Baharun, 39, collects any of the money, he already knows what his first purchase will be.

“I’m going to go out and buy another cleaners,” he said. “Maybe three of them.”

Baharun grew up in the town of Hara, where his family owned a large stationery company and two small hotels. After communists deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, Baharun’s family fell on hard times.

In 1978, Baharun was arrested for what he said was merely talking about the regime. He knew it was time to leave.

But, he said, no one could drive or fly out of Ethiopia without the proper papers--papers he did not possess.


So he walked out of the country.

Following an ancient smugglers’ route over deserts and mountains, Baharun, then 20, began his escape. He was taken in by a group of smugglers, who he said saved his life.

“The smugglers kept me going,” said Baharun, who even now would not reveal what contraband the men carried. “My feet were so swollen. Sometimes I felt I couldn’t go on. But they would tell me, ‘It is just a little farther,’ and, ‘We are almost there.’

“Then we would walk all day and see nothing. But I didn’t feel like I would die, because of them. I knew if they could make it, then so could I.”

On the sixth day of their trek, they crossed into the neighboring country of Djibouti, where Baharun was reunited with his fiancee.

They quickly married. Two years later they were granted political asylum and came to America.

Baharun was thrilled when he finally arrived in New York City, but not by the dazzling Manhattan skyline or the bright lights of Broadway. He was stunned by the water served at the first restaurant he visited.


“They had ice in the water,” recalled Baharun, who was dumbfounded by the sight. “We had never seen such a thing. It was amazing. We didn’t want to seem too foreign, but we asked the waiter to bring us water without ice.”


Shortly afterward, the couple came to Los Angeles, where he said people tried to get him to register for public assistance. But he didn’t want it.

“For me it was not ‘Show me the money,’ it was ‘Show me the job,’ ” Baharun said.

He landed work as a valet parking attendant before moving on to driving a taxi. And he started saving money so he could open the dry cleaners, which would be destroyed in an April 1994 fire.

Baharun said he was devastated by the blaze.

Initially, Los Angeles Fire Department investigators said the cause was electrical. But city fire officials later agreed with State Farm investigators, who decided it was caused by arson.

Insurance company investigators discovered traces of gasoline at the scene, said Baharun’s lawyer Thomas G. Stolpman. State Farm denied Baharun’s insurance claim, and no arrests were ever made in connection with the fire. Donald Sebade, a State Farm attorney, would not discuss the case except to say the company will appeal.

Regardless of what happens in the case, Baharun said, coming to the United States was the best thing that ever happened to him, and he is proud to consider himself an American.


“I know I’m an American now,” he said. “I drink my water with ice.”