Has Gentrification Cost DC One of Its Most Visible Immigrant Communities?

A look at the changing face of the Ethiopian community in the District of Columbia through five Ethiopian American perspectives and an outsider looking in

Located in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia’s population of over 90 million makes it the second most populous country in Africa. Ethiopians began arriving in the US in the 1970s, some fleeing from political turmoil in their country and others just looking for new opportunities.

Over time, America’s capital city became known as ‘Little Ethiopia,’ and the second largest Ethiopian city in the world. However, as Washington, DC has undergone a visible change and development over the years, so has its Ethiopian community.

The First Generation

Rebecca Gebreyes came to the US in 1970. After completing college in Boston she moved to DC, where she had a brother. She remembers a community that was less than welcoming of newcomers.

“DC was aloof about including blacks in those days,” she recalled. “It was hard for us to date or socialize,” said Gebreyes, explaining the impact of being discriminated against by both white and black Americans.

A French scholar in her native Ethiopia, Gebreyes used her language skills to land a job at the Embassy of Senegal, in DC. That job, where she has worked for over 20 years, offered her refuge from the hostility in her new country and opened the door to a vibrant African diplomatic community that welcomed her.

Rebecca thinks the struggle to assimilate faced by her generation contributed to the strong sense of community that Ethiopians enjoy today. “We had no choice but to support each other,” she said.

By the time Beakal Tekola, 35, moved to America in 1991, the Ethiopian community had become an established and visible presence in the District.

He arrived at the age of 11 without speaking a word of English, which added another layer to the complexity of starting a new life in the land of opportunity.

As is the pattern with immigrant communities, newcomers typically go where they have existing connections. Tekola and his family started their American dream in South East DC, where he had aunts and uncles.

Just six months into their new life his mother witnessed a shooting. They relocated to Reston in neighboring Virginia, soon after.

Despite the language barrier and a lack of diversity in Reston, playing soccer at school helped Beakal make friends. The sport would connect him to communities throughout his young life, including at Virginia Tech where he found his first non-family community through the Africa Students Association; and subsequently in Indiana, where he worked as a mechanical engineer for two years, at Ford.

When friends started sharing Ethiopian music using an app they had developed, in 2010, Tekola didn’t think much of it. Then he discovered another app that made it easy to find Ethiopian businesses in the DC area. Tekola sat up and took notice.

“It was the first time that I started to see the Ethiopian community as a viable and serious business opportunity,” said Tekola.

As a co-founder of Arisoft, Tekola has since developed several apps specifically for the Ethiopian community, including ArifZefen, which lets users stream Ethiopian music.

In the 24 years that he has lived in America, Tekola has seen a tangible shift in the community.

“We have gone from just trying to survive to being highly educated, successful and occupying leadership positions or starting businesses.”

In Tekola’s opinion, the growth of Ethiopian hubs in the suburbs is not surprising. “Areas like Kensington, Springfield or Silver Spring, in Maryland, meet the needs of both high and low income Ethiopians,” he says. And like DC, the new hubs have Ethiopian restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores and Hookah bars, as well as other Ethiopians — all ingredients that make a community feel like home.

The Outsider Looking In

In his job as an urban planner, Dan Reed looks at the different issues that face a given place and makes recommendations for solutions to architects, engineers or policymakers.

Dan has lived in the DC area his entire life and in Silver Spring, Md., since 1991, giving him a front row view of the changing face of the DC area’s immigrant communities.

“I’ve seen it [Silver Spring] go from being mainly blacks and Jews when I was a kid to becoming a huge hub for the Ethiopian community (and others),” said Reed.

An avid analyst of the Census and American Community Surveys, Reed used open data to map the DC area’s Ethiopian Diaspora hubs.

On whether Ethiopians are being pushed out of DC by development and the associated gentrification, Reed offers an interesting perspective.

He finds the common gentrification narrative somewhat limiting in that it denies people’s agency.

“The question really isn’t about gentrification,” said Reed. He argues that “there’s arguably a very strong pull from the Ethiopian enclaves that exist in this region — Alexandria and downtown Silver Spring. I think the pull of those places is much stronger than any push out of the District.”

Reed points out that both areas are very similar to DC, in that they are dense and very urban in nature. They offer some of the same characteristics as Adams Morgan and Shaw, the original Ethiopian hubs.

It’s possible then that as the community has gotten bigger, it is finding new spaces that can accommodate its growing numbers and yet feel familiar or like an extension of the DC communities they have always lived in.

The Community Organizer

That strong sense of community is a common thread in each of these stories, including Hanna Tadesse’s.

“Ethiopians are mainly concerned about other Ethiopians, whether they are in their immediate community or not,” Tadesse, 29, observes. “It sometimes feels like you’re still back home (both a good and bad thing),” she adds.

Hanna moved to the DC area in 2005. As the lead fundraiser for the non-profit Artists for Charity, Tadesse has helped organize many events over the years to support an orphanage in Addis Ababa. She has seen first hand the Ethiopian Diaspora’s commitment to giving back to those in Ethiopia.

The need to support each other that helped Rebecca Gebreyes’ generation of immigrants to the US find refuge in an unwelcoming host country, keeps a new generation of Ethiopians connected to each other and their parents’ culture.

A New Generation

Yodit Gebreyes, 29, is a regular supporter of Artists for Charity and their work to help orphans in Addis Ababa get a chance at a better life.

She is a member of the new generation born in the US yet passionate about and connected to the Ethiopian community.

Unlike her mother Rebeccca’s experience, Yodit has grown up immersed in and confident of her place in both cultures.

“As parents we did everything to teach them their culture but to also adapt to being American,” said Rebecca.

Her parents’ effort is evident in Yodit’s confidence in straddling both worlds.

After graduating from Georgetown University with a Master’s in PR and Corporate Communications, she worked at an architectural firm. When plans for a food truck with her mother collapsed, she spotted an opportunity to launch her event company, Favored By Yodit.

“I started my business because of the high demand for modern Ethiopian weddings,” said Yodit.

Although her clients are diverse, planning weddings for ‘fusion’ couples (where one is Ethiopian and their partner is another race) continues to offer a niche market that her dual culture uniquely positions her to fill.

After years of asking, Yodit finally visited Ethiopia for the first time at age 21, with her mother. It was Rebecca’s first trip back since she left in 1970.

When she sees the life her newly-wed daughter is building, Rebecca is in awe of the opportunities that this new generation has. She is also proud of the ease with which they embrace their dual heritage.

“The new generation balances these two cultures [American and Ethiopian] so well. They are have full confidence in who they are. It’s priceless to see the impact,” Rebecca said.

So, has the Ethiopian Community Fled the District for the Suburbs?

Not so, according to Winta Teferi, herself an Ethiopian and the Language Access Director at the DC Office of Human Rights.

“DC is still popular with new arrivals to the US for a number of reasons, such as public transport, a diverse population and the presence of immigrant community hubs,” said Teferi.

She also highlighted the District’s Language Access Act, which became law in 2004, as another factor that makes DC a good option for new immigrants.

The Act was partly the result of an over 10-year lobbying effort by the DC Language Access Coalition, comprised of African, Asian, Latino and other community activists. The Act aims to ensure that immigrants get the language support they need to access information and social services.

In the two years that she has been in this role and for the previous two years when she worked in the Mayor’s Office of African Affairs, Teferi said the number of Africans living in the District has remained stable.

She points out that Ethiopians are still the largest group within DC’s African community and Amharic, along with Spanish, remains at the fore of key languages. Although the Ethiopian Diaspora has grown in neighboring suburbs, Teferi thinks it has not been at the expense of the hubs in DC.

The last word on gentrification in DC goes to Dan Reed.


Originally published at jacquelinesibanda.com on December 13, 2015.


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