Ethiopian and Eritrean Communities in Seattle

  • By Catherine Hinchliff
  • Posted 11/16/2010
  • Essay 9615

Ethiopians and Eritreans have lived in the Seattle area since the late 1960s, beginning with university students. From 1980 with the passage of the Refugee Act until about 2000, thousands of Ethiopians and Eritreans arrived in Seattle as immigrants and as refugees as a result of oppressive political regimes, drought, and war. In the early twenty-first century, Ethiopians and Eritreans have come to the United States through the Diversity Immigration Visa program, which grants permanent resident cards to potential immigrants based on a lottery system. Both Ethiopian and Eritrean communities have thrived in Seattle, but also face similar challenges. These include preparing the aging first generation of immigrants for retirement and keeping children in school and helping them to become good citizens through after-school programming at their respective community centers. Community centers provide a social space and many programs including those designed to help preserve culture and heritage. The Ethiopian Community Mutual Association welcomes all Ethiopians. (Ethiopians are ethnically diverse and speak different languages.) The Eritrean Association in Greater Seattle serves the Eritrean community.

National Background: Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a large, geographically and ethnically diverse country in Eastern Africa, in a region of the continent known as the “Horn of Africa.” It shares borders with Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan. As of 2010, Ethiopia is the 14th most-populous nation in the world, with 85 million people. It is known as a country that exports great coffee, as the site of the hominid fossil “Lucy,” as the supposed site of the Ark of the Covenant, and as the only African country to resist colonization from a European country. Though Italy occupied Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941, Ethiopia had earlier defeated Italy in the 1896 Battle of Adwa and limited Italy's reach to what was then its colony of Eritrea. Since the fourth century, the national religion of Ethiopia has been Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, but for hundreds of years the the country has also had a large population of Jewish and Muslim peoples. Today, Ethiopia is about 43 percent Ethiopian Orthodox and 34 percent Muslim. The country is also ethnically diverse, and is made up of Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, Somali, and other peoples, each of which speak their own languages.

After 33 years of continuous rule by Emperor Haile Selassie I, Ethiopia’s political climate changed dramatically when, in 1974, a communist military junta group called the Derg seized power over the country. The Derg was an oppressive regime that killed students and urban professionals during the Red Terror between 1975 and 1978. During the Derg regime, which remained in power until 1991, one in 20 Ethiopians left the country as a result of political turmoil and wide-scale drought. This number included 55,000 African Jews, part of Beta Israel of Ethiopia, who were airlifted to Israel in 1984 and 1991. In 1991, a coalition of rebel forces called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took control and in 1994 adopted a constitution. However, opposition in Ethiopia against the EPRDF still exists, as well as the problems with frequent drought and a poverty-stricken economy. Since 2000, very few Ethiopian immigrants have arrived as refugees. Instead they come to Seattle on Diversity Visas.

Arriving in Seattle

The first Ethiopians came to Seattle as students in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Most of these students intended to get their education in Washington and then return to work and live in Ethiopia. But in 1974, these plans changed when the Derg ousted Emperor Haile Selassie, bringing instability to the country. From 1974 to 2009, about 2.5 million Ethiopians fled the country in response to the oppressive Derg regime, the EPRDF party, which took power in 1991, war, and famine.

In 1971, there were between 10 and 20 Ethiopians in Washington state; by the early 1980s there were about 200 Ethiopians, mostly in the Seattle area. This small community was mostly made up of students and they met with one another at Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church as well as at a Greek restaurant on “the Ave” --  University Way in Seattle. Following the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, these individuals sponsored Ethiopian refugees, many of whom had already spent years in refugee camps in Kenya, Sudan, and Egypt and who may also have tried migrating to the Middle East and Europe. 

In February 1982, four Ethiopian and American families opened Seattle’s first Ethiopian restaurant, Kokeb, in the University District. At first Ethiopia’s most frequently used and important food grain, teff, was not available in the Seattle area, so the injera (sour, spongy flat bread) Ethiopian students could find was not very authentic. By the mid-1980s, Seattle’s Ethiopian population swelled, and teff as well as other products and foodstuffs Ethiopians missed from back home became  available.

Ethiopian Community Mutual Association

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Seattle’s small Ethiopian population had tried to organize some kind of community organization to help new immigrants. However, these groups were not knowledgeable enough about how to help, and they were rather ineffective. In 1983, some Ethiopians formed the Ethiopian Refugee Association, which later became the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association, formally incorporated as a 501 C (3) non-profit corporation in 1987.

The initial goal of the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association was to help refugees to become good citizens, find work, send their kids to school, and immerse themselves in the new American culture. Ethiopians who identified as Oromo or Tigray people also opened their own community centers to provide assistance to new arrivals who shared the same ethnic heritage and spoke the same language. As of 2010, there are more than 25,000 Ethiopians living in the Seattle area, making it one of the largest communities of Ethiopians in the United States.

Seattle's Ethiopian Community

Ethiopians own many Seattle businesses, many of which are on First Hill’s Cherry Street. These businesses include a taxicab company, small grocery stores, and Ethiopian restaurants, which have introduced Seattleites to injeraand, the special Ethiopian seasoning known as berbere. Ethiopians work as insurance agents, lawyers, and government employees.

As of 2010, the Ethiopian community had an Amharic language newspaper, three Amharic TV programs, and a radio program run by Ethiopian women in the community. However, many Ethiopian families struggle in Seattle, adjusting to a new life in the United States, learning English, living in low-income housing, and working two jobs in order to support themselves. The aim of the Ethiopian community and the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association is to help these families succeed.

Since Ethiopians in Seattle come from different ethnicities, religions, and, sometimes, speak different languages, there have been some divisions along religious and ethnic lines in Seattle in the past. In addition, Ethiopians tend to distinguish between old immigrants, who came to the United States as students and more recent immigrants who may have come to Seattle as refugees. Despite these divisions, Ezra Teshome, an Ethiopian community leader, maintains that there is mutual respect among the different Ethiopian groups. With the purchase of a new community center by the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association on August 31, 2010, the community will have a greater opportunity to come together and unify, as the center will accept anyone who identifies as Ethiopian. This also includes a group of about 50 American families that have adopted Ethiopian children and don’t want their kids to lose touch with their own culture.

National Background: Eritrea

Eritrea is a small African country on the coast of the Red Sea in eastern African. In an area known as the “Horn of Africa,” Eritrea borders Ethiopia, Sudan, and Djibouti. In 2010, Eritrea had a population of about 5.6 million. About half of its people are Tigrinya (or Tigray) and 40 percent are Tigre. In Eritrea, Islam and Coptic Christianity are the dominant religions. Despite the ethnic, religious, and political diversity in Eritrea, there has been little divisiveness, perhaps in part because Eritreans have had to unify in order to defeat Ethiopia.

Eritrea’s 670 miles of coastline makes the country a strategically important point along the Red Sea and different invaders have sought to control the area for centuries. The Ottoman Empire controlled the area now known as Eritrea from 1557 until 1865, when the Egyptians took possession of the region. Not long after, Italy colonized the country in 1889 and held onto the colony until World War II. The Italians wanted to establish coaling stations for its ships passing through the newly opened Suez Canal. In 1941, the British expelled Italian forces from “Italian East Africa,” a colony created in the 1930s made up of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland. In 1952, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia by a UN Mandate and allowed an autonomous parliament. However, in 1962, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie annexed the territory and dissolved Eritrea’s Parliament.

This marked the start of a 30-year civil war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Two Eritrean groups led the effort in the war, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which split off from the ELF in 1970, reconciled in 1974, and then split off again in 1977. By the late 1970s, the EPLF had mostly taken over the war effort, and many ELF members moved to Sudan as refugees. However, hundreds of thousands of Eritrean civilians also fled Eritrea as a result of conditions during the war and a severe drought. Eritrean refugees usually first came to African countries like Sudan and, in some cases, were able to move to Europe or the United States.

On May 24, 1991, Eritrea announced its independence from Ethiopia, after having driven the remaining Ethiopian army from the region. On May 24, 1993, Eritrea became internationally recognized as the newest country in Africa. From 1998 to 2000, Eritrea was again at war with Ethiopia over a border dispute, meaning Eritreans were again displaced from their home country.

Arriving in Seattle

The first Eritreans to come to Seattle came in the 1960s and 1970s as students on scholarships or, in a minority of cases, jumped ship when their employers’ boats docked in Seattle shipyards. It was not until the late 1970s that the first Eritrean refugees arrived after a change in U.S. policy towards African refugees during the Carter Administration. With the help of a lawyer hired to represent Eritrean refugees in Sudan and later the 1980 Refugee Act, the first Eritrean refugees arrived in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Individuals and churches in the Seattle area sponsored Eritreans and the community grew quickly. New immigrants faced the challenges of a new culture, language, and different educational systems in Seattle. Most Eritrean refugees came to Seattle between 1989 and 1993.

There are currently somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 Eritreans living in the Seattle area, most of whom came to the United States as refugees. Though relative to other immigrant groups in Seattle, this number is small, the Seattle’s Eritrean community makes up more than one quarter of the Eritrean population in the United States and is among the largest Eritrean communities in the country.

Seattle's Eritrean Community

The first Eritrean organizations in Seattle were political groups focused on what was happening back in Eritrea. The first, founded by students in the 1970s was the group Eritreans for Liberation in Northern America. By early 1980s, two rival political organizations existed in Seattle for supporters of Eritrea’s two primary liberation armies, the ELF and the EPLF. When the war ended, however, many in Seattle’s Eritrean population realized that it was no longer necessary to back one political organization or another, as the conflict was over.

Eritrean community members debated what the new purpose of their organizations should be -- some were in favor of creating a lobby group on behalf of Eritrea and others pushed for a community organization that would help and support Eritreans in Seattle. The two organizations, the Eritrean Association in Greater Seattle and the Eritrean Community Association in Seattle and Vicinity, created in 1983, transformed into organizations that celebrated Eritrean culture and language and sought to help new immigrants to the Seattle area.

Eritrean Association in Greater Seattle

In 1994, the Eritrean Association in Greater Seattle registered as a nonprofit community organization meant to help Eritrean parents and children in Seattle and King County. In 1996, the association raised $82,000 from its members to purchase a house and small piece of land at 1528 Valentine Place S, just south of I-90. In 2003, the Eritrean Association in Greater Seattle completed an Eritrean community center next door for nearly $1.2 million with the help of public and private grant money and individual donations. Though most members of the Eritrean community work minimum-wage jobs and have little income to spare, the need and desire for a community center was so great that they managed to raise enough money to complete the two fundraising projects.

The association converted the house into an office with meeting rooms and a computer lab, and a community center that provides space for computer classes, tutoring, Tigrinya literacy classes, and other programs. Eritreans can receive help in becoming a United States citizen and in finding jobs and housing.

Perhaps most importantly, the community center gives Eritreans a space to get together, celebrate their major holidays, culture, and local celebrations, like weddings and baptisms. Outside of the community center, community members celebrate at local Eritrean restaurants. Hidmo Eritrean Cuisine, an Eritrean restaurant in the Central District, hosts live African music every Sunday night for anyone within or outside of the community to enjoy.

Two Communities, Shared Concerns

Though the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities are two distinct groups in Seattle, as East African immigrants they face some of the same issues in their communities. Both groups seek to help their first generations of immigrants retire, to help their children become good citizens, and to preserve their culture and identity as the community assimilates into American culture.

The first generation of Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants, mostly in their mid-50s, will soon reach retirement age. In Ethiopia and Eritrea, adult children house and take care of their elderly parents, a definite cultural difference from much of the Seattle area. Many aging Ethiopians cannot imagine entering a nursing home. Also problematic is the isolation of the elderly, which both Ethiopian and Eritrean community associations hope they can eliminate by letting them share the community center space, either for classes or spending time with other Ethiopian or Eritrean elders. Finally, both communities are trying to raise awareness about health care and nutrition by hosting seminars in their community centers. At the Eritrean community center, Eritrean nurses lead these seminars.

Community Goals and Concerns

Another concern of both communities is the loss of some of their children to gangs, drugs, and jail. In February 2005, police arrested 16 members of the “East African Posse,” a gang that sold crack in the University District. Though these Ethiopian and Eritrean youth represent a minority of the children, teenagers, and young adults in each community, both communities are making a concerted effort to get their children involved in after-school activities. These activities include after-school tutoring, culture and language classes, and fun events. At the Eritrean Community Center, tutors are Eritrean former students themselves, inspiring Eritrean kids to do better in school.

Ethiopian and Eritrean community leaders also hope to help recent immigrants better integrate with the new culture and learn English, so that they can be better involved in the lives of their mostly assimilated children. A final concern of both groups is the desire to both celebrate and preserve the community’s own identity, while integrating and cooperating with other East African immigrant communities, with Seattle’s African American community, and with American culture in general.

On July 12, 2006, in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood, an Ethiopian cab driver was shot and an Eritrean man was killed in an attack by African American suspects. Though it was not clear whether race was motivated in the shooting, the attack prompted the opening of a dialogue between African and African American community leaders, which did much to defuse tensions. However, many Ethiopian and Eritrean children are growing up identifying as African American, suggesting that the tensions might entirely disappear as the immigrant communities assimilate. Children have done much to evaporate divisions between different East African groups in Seattle by befriending other immigrant children outside of their own communities.

Though assimilation and integration of some kind is beneficial for each community’s growth and development in Seattle, Ethiopians and Eritreans each want to raise their children with an strong identity informed by language and cultural classes, family and community traditions, and community celebrations. As the Ethiopian and Eritrean community associations grow and strengthen, they will be better prepared to help new immigrants integrate into American culture and better prepared as centers of culture and tradition.


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