America’s Horn of Africa

Far from home, émigrés build community, preserve identity

by Vincent Gragnani with photographs by Erin Edwards

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On a mild November morning, a cross section of the Horn of Africa enjoys spiced tea, espresso drinks and pastries at Hailu Dama Café and Restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. Nearly everyone in the cafe is from either Eritrea or Ethiopia, two nations that share common roots and traditions but have been at war — except for a brief period of peace — since 1962. From 1998 to 2000 some 100,000 people died in a bloody border conflict. Relations between the countries remain tense, but not among the hungry customers at Hailu Dama.

“There’s no such thing as, ‘he’s from this place’ or ‘she’s from that place,’ ” said co-owner Amsale Saife Selassie. “At the espresso bar, nobody cares about that.”

That acceptance extends into the kitchen, where Mrs. Selassie bakes cakes without alcohol for Muslim weddings and cakes without dairy products for those Orthodox Christians who may be fasting. Among her staff is a recently arrived 21-year-old Muslim woman who works as a waitress while studying to be a nurse. Even Mrs. Selassie’s personal faith reaches across denominational lines: An Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, she often attends a Roman Catholic church and has a devotion to the rosary.

Hailu Dama is divided into three sections: a quiet sit-down restaurant; a market selling everything from Ethiopian bread to compact discs; and a bustling cafe with a pastry counter, espresso bar and tables. It is one of many businesses listed in the Ethiopian yellow pages, a 1,000-page compendium of Ethiopian-owned businesses in the Washington, D.C., area that began as an 80-page book 15 years ago. Ethiopians began immigrating to the District of Columbia and its suburbs in the aftermath of Ethiopia’s “Red Terror,” a violent political campaign in the late 1970’s led by the country’s ruling Marxist junta, or Derg, that led to the deaths of as many as 500,000 people.

The Derg targeted younger educated professionals, many of whom fled to Sudan and Kenya, or to Europe, before finding refuge in the United States in the 1980’s. After 1991, when the Derg collapsed and a transitional government was formed, the flow of people out of Ethiopia slowed. Yet, to this day relatives of former refugees settle in the United States.

Estimates of the number of Ethiopians in the Washington, D.C., area vary widely, with some suggesting as many as 250,000. Dr. Tsehaye Teferra, president of the Arlington-based Ethiopian Community Development Council, puts the number closer to 100,000. The community is scattered, with Ethiopians living in the Virginia cities of Alexandria and Arlington and the Adams Morgan and Shaw neighborhoods of the District of Columbia.

In 2005, the Ethiopian community in Adams Morgan tried unsuccessfully to designate 9th Street NW, between T and U streets, as “Little Ethiopia.” With or without the official designation, a short walk down either 9th or U streets shows that this stretch of the historically African-American neighborhood is unmistakably Ethiopian. Eateries such as Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant, Abiti Ethiopian Cuisine and Queen of Sheba Restaurant serve traditional stews of chopped and marinated beef or lamb, often with peppers, onions and spices, accompanied by — or served atop — injera, a soft, flat, spongy bread, to a diverse clientele.

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Tags: Ethiopia Cultural Identity Emigration Horn of Africa