The Midwest’s Resilient Ethiopian Immigrants

by James M. Reilly

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Imagine leaving the temperate climate you have always known for a land of harsh contrasts: a place where the August sun bakes the earth mercilessly and where winter frosts can be even more unforgiving than the rough wind. Imagine yourself surrounded by exotic people, many hardly educated, appearing partly naked in the summer months in a place where city slums are more crowded and dangerous than the cities you once knew.

Imagine this, and you may begin to visualize the experience of an Ethiopian moving to St. Louis, Missouri. “I’ve been here almost ten years and I still can’t adjust to the climate,” laughs Abay, who grew up near the eastern border with Sudan. It is as strange to him to need air conditioning as it is to need central heat. Like most Ethiopians, he lived on the central plateau, where temperatures vary between 40 and 80 degrees. His peers report their shock when seeing males shirtless in the summer – Ethiopian custom demands modesty. Also difficult is adjusting to America’s cities, where the streets can be dangerous and illiteracy, high. Many Ethiopian immigrants are university educated.

Clearly, Americans do not see Ethiopia for what it really is. We see images of impoverished babies, desperate mothers and many soldiers. But how do Ethiopians respond to America? More importantly, how do our Ethiopian immigrants retain their distinct heritage, yet blend with mainstream American life?

Feleke Tadesse came to St. Louis in 1988, one of the more recent arrivals to an Ethiopian community that numbers several hundred. “The pace of life here is very fast,” he said, sitting in the realty office where he works not far from the city’s bustling Union Station and the famous Gateway Arch. “I expected that, but the extent was amazing.” Leaving the office at dusk, he paused by “The Meeting of Waters,” a sculpture marking St. Louis as the meeting place of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Feleke’s clothing – crew neck sweater, jeans and moccasins – displayed America’s influence.

Unlike earlier settlers who arrived in St. Louis as whole family units, many Ethiopians arrive alone. “You get lonely sometimes,” sighed Feleke. Many Ethiopians arrived in North America as single students. Some, like Abay, fled political persecution. His isolation was compounded further when the U.S. Federal government placed him in St. Louis. He had never heard of it.

The majority of Ethiopians belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In St. Louis, some find fellowship at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church near Forest Park. Built by Greek immigrants in 1930, the parish now opens its arms to these newcomers. The Ladies Benevolent Organization, or Philoptochos, holds an annual Christmas party for Ethiopian women and their children.

Ironically, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is not in communion with the Greek Orthodox Church. In the 5th century, the churches of Rome and Constantinople severed relations with the Armenian, Copt, Ethiopian and Syrian churches for their refusal to recognize the nature of Christ as defined by the Council of Chalcedon. Today in the New World, these time-worn differences, now recognized as linguistic, are being overcome.

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Tags: Ethiopia Cultural Identity Ethiopian Orthodox Church Immigration Assimilation