Amaretch Alemu is an Ethiopian immigrant who volunteers at a community center helping immigrants in Silver Spring. She migrated to the D.C. area 12 years after her son moved to the city and obtained legal status through family reunification.
Formerly an accountant in her home country, Alemu is now the receptionist and a translator at the Ethiopian Community Center, or the ECC, a non-profit community-based organization that has helped immigrants in the area since 1980. Her daily routine involves translating English articles and helping teach immigrants how to read public transportation directions.
“Something as simple as helping them understand which bus to take helps them a lot, especially when they don’t know the language very well,” she said.
The Ethiopian community is now one of the largest diaspora groups in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Organizations have established themselves to meet these incoming refugees’ needs, such as teaching them English and how to navigate the city.
ECC program coordinator Salem Beede is an Ethiopian immigrant, as well, and spent five years in the U.S. before joining the organization. She completed a degree at American University and began work at the organization to help other immigrants transition to the U.S.
Ethiopians often migrate to the U.S. to flee political unrest from their nations, she said. “They usually come here to seek better opportunities than those offered in their home country,” Beede added.
Beede’s job ranges from organizing events to helping clients understand immigration forms. ECC organizes events and classes for the community to help immigrant groups assimilate to their new homes in D.C. These classes include English language courses, computer training, resume services, immigration form advice and translation services.
ECC is not the only resource available to new Ethiopians.
The Ethiopian Community Development Council, or the ECDC, serves African immigrants and refugees in the U.S. through a range of local and national programs. ECDC was established in 1983 as a non-profit organization that could respond to the needs of a growing Ethiopian community in the D.C. area and across the U.S.
Nezia Munezero Kubwayo, a refugee from Burundi and ECDC’s spokesperson, said most of the group’s clients come in seeking micro-loans, which are loans given to immigrants that help start their small businesses. “Many immigrants benefit from that service,” Kubwayo said.
ECDC doesn’t only focus on helping immigrants reach their financial goals. The organization also holds events to bring immigrant communities together. In November, for example, ECDC organized a Thanksgiving dinner to introduce migrants to American culture.
Why did Ethiopians Immigrate?
Timeline by James Marshall.
Ethiopians began emigrating from their home country in 1974 when a civil war broke out and a Marxist group staged a coup. Mengistu Haile Mariam declared himself head of state in 1977 and remained in power until 1991 when rebel forces overthrew the government.
In the 1990s, the U.S. introduced the Diversity Visa Program, which allotted 55,000 immigrant visas through a lottery. This system aimed to diversify the immigrant population by favoring immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the nation over the last five years.
Ethiopian immigrants are the U.S.’s second largest African immigrant group, after Nigerians. Sixty percent of Ethiopian immigrants arrived in the U.S. since 2000, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington D.C. based think-tank.
Despite their recent arrivals, nearly half of Ethiopians in the country are U.S. citizens. Many obtained legal status through family reunification or diversity visa programs, according to the report.
President Donald Trump disparagingly referred to Haiti and African nations in a meeting with lawmakers in January. Although there has not been no immediate response, Visas approved to African immigrants are expected to fall 15 percent, according to a Washington Post analysis of State Department data.
Ethiopian entrepreneurs and why they settled in D.C. area
Map by Orion Donovan-Smith showing key points of Ethiopian businesses and organizations in the Silver Spring community.
The Ethiopian community in the D.C. area is the largest outside of Africa, according to the Ethiopian embassy. Ethiopians own at least 1,200 businesses in the District, Maryland and Virginia, according to the Ethiopian Community Development Council.
Getu Amde is one of the many Ethiopian business owners in Silver Spring, a D.C. suburb that’s home to many Ethiopian immigrants. Amde left Ethiopia in the 1980s to attend university in the U.S., and like other Ethiopian immigrants, he was unable to return to his home country due to its political instability. Today, Amde runs his own restaurant, Nile Ethiopian.
“Fresh Ethiopians come to my restaurant,” Amde said. “Nile is the river of Ethiopia. People come and experience their first restaurant out of Ethiopia in America.”
Amde said he enjoys the sense of community his eatery is able to provide for Ethiopians in Silver Spring. “The community is very metropolitan, so it feels like home,” Amde said.
With the help of non-profits like ECC and ECDC, immigrants learn how to make the best out of living in a new environment. Moving from a different country can be a tough job for immigrants entering the U.S., but Ethiopian immigrants like Amde came to the country for a fresh start and better work opportunities.
He said that although Ethiopians live all over the country, the Washington metropolitan area is a popular destination for arriving immigrants because of its already established community.
“It’s the capital city, our embassy is here and most people already have families here, so it’s a special place to live,” Amde said.