Community leaders estimate as many as 25,000 Ethiopian-Americans live in Columbus. Their reasons for landing here are as different as they are similar. This is the story of two of them: men who grew up just four miles apart in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, wound up in Columbus, taking different paths, but both now living their versions of the American dream.
On a stretch of East Main Street near South Hamilton Road in Whitehall, nestled among banks, fast food restaurants and strip malls that seem to stretch on for miles, is a restaurant whose sign is written in a language unfamiliar to most. Dukem Restaurant serves traditional Ethiopian food, and like several other restaurants and markets nearby, it is owned and operated by East African immigrants. Inside, the air is warm with the spicy, charred smell of meat cooking over hot coals and the rich, bitter scent of roasting coffee beans. Ethiopian music fills the room with heavy drum beats, high-pitched flutes and strings and wavering vocals.
Two friends are meeting for lunch, but first they’re greeted by the restaurant’s owner and other diners—all friends from church. Tsegaye Luel and Samson Abraha order a meal of lamb and beef, mesir wat (a spicy lentil puree) and kik alicha (a split pea stew), served on a single plate the size of a large pizza. Rolls of sourdough flatbread, injera, replace utensils; pieces are torn off and used to scoop food from the communal plate. This is the way Ethiopians have eaten for generations; it began as a way to solve problems among family and friends.
“They bring the food all together. We eat it like this,” Abraha says, nodding to his hand as he uses a piece of injera to pluck a chunk of lamb meat from a bed of onions and jalapenos. “Sooner or later, you’re going to talk. So when they bring the food, the food brings peace. It’s not like I’m going to take my plate, get what I want and go to my room. You have to sit there and interact with the family.”
It’s an intimate experience, and—though the two men came to the States from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the 1990s—they continue to share food in this way.
As they eat, Luel and Abraha reminisce about friends and family back home. Though they didn’t know it then, they grew up within four miles of each other in Ethiopia. They met two years ago at Port Columbus International Airport—both work for HMS Host, the company that owns and operates most of the airport’s restaurants. Almost half of their co-workers are also Ethiopian-American.
Community leaders estimate between 20,000 and 25,000 Ethiopian-Americans live in Franklin County. Immigrants have founded more than 10 Ethiopian churches and opened some 300 businesses. Some, like Luel, moved to Columbus to follow family. Some were drawn by friends. Others, like Abraha, came here with no one at all. At work, they greet one another in their native Amharic. In church, they sing Ethiopian songs and embrace with a kiss on each cheek. They play soccer and share meals and stories rich in their native culture. Their tightknit community has grown, slowly and organically, from the foundation of a single connection: They are here in this foreign city, 7,500 miles from their native land. Together, they have created a new home and found a family that extends beyond blood ties.
Luel was born in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. With an estimated population of nearly 3.4 million, Addis Ababa is located in the center of the landlocked country in Eastern Africa. Unlike other African cities, its climate is temperate. Most days are sunny and dry, with a high temperature between 75 and 80 degrees. Luel, 38, was one of five children in a middle-class family. He grew up playing soccer, the country’s favorite sport. When he was 17, he was selected to join the Ethiopian Premier League, the nation’s professional soccer organization. It was an opportunity reserved only for elite athletes and a career path envied by most, because college wasn’t an option for everyone.
“In our time, the universities were limited,” he says. “There were maybe three or four for the whole country. You have to be a top student to make it. My grades were really good, but to make it to the university was really a struggle.”
Luel played professional soccer for two years and was traveling with his second team when another opportunity presented itself. A friend from back home had told him about the U.S. Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, a government lottery established by the Immigration Act of 1990 that grants 50,000 permanent resident visas each year to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. In 1995, the program was accepting applicants from Ethiopia. He submitted the paperwork and hoped for the best. Out of 20 people he knew who had applied, he was the only one accepted.
“It was just luck,” he says. He quit the team and packed his bags for Seattle. He remembers saying goodbye to his family at the airport. “It was like somebody died. My mom was crying, everybody was crying. I was excited to come to the States.” After all, his older sister was already living in Seattle, and he could always fly back to visit. “Once I came to the States, a year passed and then two years, and it started to sink in to me that I’m not going back every time I want to go back.”
He moved in with his sister in Seattle and found a job at McDonald’s, eventually earning a promotion to manager. He also enrolled in classes at a local college; he wanted to become a pharmacist. He lived in Seattle for seven years, and they were joined by another sister who decided to move there from Germany. While he was there, he met his wife, who is also from Ethiopia. When she, then his girlfriend, told him she was moving to Columbus to be with her family, he didn’t follow—at first. But he joined her in 2002, and they married. Now, they have five children, four boys and one girl.
Luel’s parents never moved from Ethiopia; his mother died last year, and his father still lives in Addis Ababa. He has plenty of in-laws in Columbus, though.
“Without exaggerating, there’s probably 50 or 60 of them counting aunts, uncles and cousins,” he says. “Some of them have been here for 20 or 25 years.” His mother-in-law now lives in the house he and his wife built in Blacklick. He was recently joined by one of his sisters and her children, who moved to Columbus from Seattle just last year.
“I told her, Columbus is a great city. Why don’t you come down here? I’ve been bugging her for a long time, and finally she decided to move.”
Columbus welcomes many secondary migrants, immigrants who were first placed in other cities through resettlement programs and then chose Columbus as a place to settle for good. The city is appealing for several reasons.
“Renting is easier and cheaper; transportation is easy,” Luel says. “Those are the things that we look for when we move—an easy city.” Once one person is established, immigrants often encourage family members to join them, and soon more follow. This isn’t always the case, he says, but it’s common.
Luel never finished pharmacy school, but he did earn an associate’s degree in business management. He’s worked for HMS Host since he moved to Columbus 11 years ago. He started as a cashier at A&W but was soon promoted to a manager position there. Now, he oversees 10 location managers as a senior food and beverage operations manager.
“I didn’t go for what I wanted to do as a pharmacist, but I like what I’m doing right now,” he says. “Working at the airport is fun.” His wife works at the airport, for Parking Solutions, and so does Abraha, who moved to Columbus for the job. He works as a server at Wolfgang Puck, an HMS Host restaurant.
“I feel like I’m back home,” Abraha says. “We can speak our language, talk about families and stuff like that. I never had a job like this when I used to work in any other areas. I didn’t have Ethiopians working with me.”
Abraha’s journey to America happened under radically different circumstances than Luel’s. He also grew up in Addis Ababa. One of nine children, his father was educated and a high-ranking officer in the military. Abraha, now 40, left home when he was 16, a decision his father made to protect him. It was at the culmination of the Eritrean War of Independence, a decades-long struggle between the Ethiopian government and Eritrean separatists, and the Ethiopian government was recruiting young soldiers.
“It’s not kidnapping,” he says. “But you can’t say ‘no.’ Most of my friends, they’d go and die, or they’d lose a leg.” Having a father in the military only increased his chances of going to war.
To protect his son, Abraha’s father sent him and one of Abraha’s sisters to Sudan, where he sought refuge for most of his adolescence and early adulthood during a previous war. A resettlement program there sent refugees to America. But leaving Ethiopia at the time was illegal.
“Because he was in the military, if anybody finds out he’s sending his kids somewhere else, they might kill him,” Abraha recalls. “He took us all the way down to the border area of Ethiopia and Sudan. Then, we walked about 45 minutes to Sudan and someone would guide you from there.
“I still remember that day. He said, ‘I can’t go with you guys that far, but be careful. This is it. God be with you. Go ahead.’ He just unbelievably sacrificed because if he got caught, I don’t know what would happen to him.” That was the last time Abraha saw his father, who died six years later.
Once they crossed the border, Abraha and his sister slowly made their way to relatives in Khartoum, staying in refugee camps along the way. In addition to their native Amharic, their father had also taught them to speak Arabic, a language commonly spoken in Sudan. They applied for refugee status in the United States and waited. The process can take 10 years, but Abraha and his sister waited only one year.
“They posted the names of the person who did not make it, so I checked that list first. I did it like 10 times,” he says. “There were 79 people that did not make it. [My sister] runs out crying. Then, I look [to the list of those who were accepted], and the first one was her name and the next one was my name. My whole body was shaken up.”
They were resettled in 1991 through a church in Annapolis, Maryland; the man who took them in immediately found Abraha a job washing dishes at a nearby restaurant. The role was ironic for Abraha, who lived a comfortable life in a big house in Ethiopia. It was common there for even middle-class families to have servants, because labor was so cheap. He’d never had to wash his own dishes, let alone someone else’s. He was too embarrassed to tell his father about the humble position.
“At first I didn’t tell him,” Abraha says. “But when I said I was washing dishes, he said, ‘You’re doing good. What’s wrong with it?’ I was very emotional, and I said, ‘I didn’t even wash dishes when I was back home.’ He said, ‘I know that. Everybody take care of you back home. Now, you need to take care of yourself. To do that, is that what it takes, washing dishes? Stick with it.’ ”
Abraha still has all the letters his father sent him from Ethiopia. He reads them when he needs encouragement or to remember his father was proud of him. “He’s not here,” he says, his voice thick with emotion. “But he’s with me.”
His father’s words changed his perspective, and Abraha tirelessly washed dishes until he was promoted to manager. He and his sister eventually moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he worked for General Electric. Two years ago, he moved to Columbus for the position at Wolfgang Puck. He has family in Boston, Maryland and British Columbia, but none in Ohio, except for his 10-year-old twin daughters. Now, he makes $4 an hour plus tips as a server. It’s not easy money; he works long shifts to provide for his children and to pay rent for his apartment in Whitehall. He’ll send anything that’s left over at the end of the month to his family in Ethiopia.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s $100 or $200, we send it home,” he says. “If I don’t have anything, I send at least $50,” he adds, as though it’s a smaller sacrifice.
“Everybody does that,” Luel adds. “If we don’t send some money, they wouldn’t have what they have right now.”
Still, Abraha says his independent life here is worth the hard work.
“You can talk about freedom,” he says. “You can use derogatory words to say something about your government or anybody and nobody will say anything to you. You’re free. Back home, you might get shot 20 times.”
Both Luel and Abraha are now U.S. citizens. Their belief in the proverbial American dream is as refreshing as it is inspiring—for them, it’s realized.
“This is a wonderful land, a wonderful country,” Abraha says. “There are opportunities here. If you work hard, you can accomplish your goal without any problem.”
Adds Luel: “You don’t have to limit yourself in the United States. If you work really hard, there’s no limit to what you can do.” Working hard is key, though, and they’ve seen the alternative. “There are two ways you can go in the United States,” he says. “If you want to go the right direction, you can go in the right direction. If you meet the wrong people, they’ll take you the wrong direction.”
To combat those temptations, Luel helped found the Columbus Unity Soccer Club, a team of Ethiopian-Americans who compete in Midwest tournaments. Abraha plays as well. In May, they took first place over 12 other teams in a tournament in Tennessee. In May, their team will host a tournament in Columbus. Only adults compete, but they also organize a team for youth players; it’s a fun outlet for them but serves a dual purpose.
“There’s a lot of young players, around 16 or 17. When they come, they get tired and they go home,” Luel says. “They think about the next time. They don’t have time to think about anything else. It makes me happy bringing those kids on the field, keeping them with us. It’s a good thing to do.”
Soccer is fundamental in Ethiopian culture. It’s a sport they grew up with, and naturally it holds a firm place in their American lives. So, too, does religion.
On Sunday mornings, hundreds of men and women dressed entirely in white, with loose-fitting garments and intricate scarves draped over their shoulders and heads, file into the Kidus Gebriel Ethiopian Orthodox Church on East Broad Street. Some worshipers carry wooden staffs to use for support when their legs grow weary from standing during the ceremony, which will last three to six hours.
Luel is vice president of the church; he helped found it in 2011. He and other members, including their priest, donated and collected money to buy the once-vacant Christian church. Now, it’s adorned with religious paintings, ornamental rugs and traditional articles used for worship, all crafted in and sent over from Ethiopia. Members anonymously donate money to the church each week, writing notes of thanksgiving on the envelopes.
Going to church is something they look forward to all week long; it’s an opportunity to see friends. On special occasions, like holidays and baptisms, they gather in the church basement for a lunch of Ethiopian food and beer made from scratch by several women of the congregation. The entire church comes together as one to share a meal. It’s often a similar scene during dinners at home.
“When I go to his (Luel’s) house or any other Ethiopian’s, I’m like, ‘Let me eat, drink.’ I open the fridge. Americans will wait until you offer,” Abraha says. “With us, it’s different. Everybody knows me. Everybody is welcome.”