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Ethnic Politics Split US Ethiopians

  • Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

The Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle tries to put ethnicity aside, and bring all Ethiopians together as one people.

The Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle tries to put ethnicity aside, and bring all Ethiopians together as one people.

Community Center tries to bring them together

America's Ethiopian community has grown quickly since the 1980s and one of its hubs is the northwestern state of Washington. Yet, even though they live a half world away from Ethiopia, these immigrants are still influenced by politics back home.

Differences

In the middle of Seattle, a group of Ethiopian immigrants plays dominos at a community center for the city's Tigray immigrants - one of the many ethnic groups from Ethiopia.

Many people come to hang out at the lively place which has a bar inside. Similar community centers for other East African ethnic groups are practically within walking distance of each other.

Washington State's Ethiopian community is vibrant and growing, with anywhere from 10,000-40,000 people. No one knows exactly how many, since many don’t participate in census counts or don’t report their ancestry.

But the population is diverse, mirroring the variety of ethnicities, languages, religions and divisions in their homeland.

“Those social divisions sometimes also translate to political divisions because if you belong to a certain ethnic group you are automatically perceived or in reality you support a certain political ideology or grouping,” says Shakespear Feyissa, who came to America as teenager and is now a lawyer in Seattle.

According to Feyissa, at its worst, ethnic and political differences turn into economic discrimination against fellow Ethiopians.

“You could see people lobbying each other, saying, ‘Don't go to this certain business because he belongs to certain political group or political party,’ or they say, ‘Don't go to this business because he either opposes or supports the government.’”

Feyissa opposes the government of Meles Zenawi, who led a rebel takeover of the country 20 years ago, and says he's lost Ethiopian clients because of it.

“It is difficult for me personally, sometimes. Because I would hear certain ethnicity or certain groups saying, 'Oh don't go to him, he doesn't like certain groups', just because of my strong political conviction, but that couldn't be farther from the truth.”

The divisions are hard for people who support the Ethiopian government, too. Mekonnen Kassa works for Microsoft in a Seattle suburb while also heading a pro-government group in his spare time.

“I travel to Ethiopia and meet with the political party leaders," says Kassa. "And my group also invites government officials to come to the U.S. and meet with Ethiopians here.”

His political involvement has had personal consequences. One time, a stranger who saw him in a restaurant called him selfish - accusing Kassa of supporting the Ethiopian government for personal gain - and told him to leave.

“And at that point I got upset, and we got into a very heated argument, almost very close to a fist fight," says Kassa. "And those couple of guys who knew me that were at the restaurant had to drag me out of the restaurant.”

Since then, Kassa keeps to himself.

Coming together

Many people recognize that division is a problem within Washington state's Ethiopian community, and at least one group is trying to move beyond it.

At a summer camp, young Ethiopian-Americans learn Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. The program is run by the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle. Even though there are community centers for different ethnic groups, the leaders here want to put ethnicity aside, and bring all Ethiopians together as Ethiopians.

Young people visit an Ethiopian art exhibition during a summer camp field trip sponsored by the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle.

Young people visit an Ethiopian art exhibition during a summer camp field trip sponsored by the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle.

“That is the first thing, and when people come here, we want them to feel that this is their home. This is their place equally,” says Mulumebet Retta, who heads the center. “What we are trying to do here is whether you are an Amhara, an Oromo, Tigrey, Guragi, Gambella, whatever ethnic group you are, you are an Ethiopian.”

Retta's group supports Ethiopian immigrants by connecting them with social services. The center staff works to solve problems which affect everyone in the community, whether it's taking care of their elders or educating their children.

Seattle lawyer Feyissa believes it's up to the next generation of Ethiopian-Americans to look beyond ethnic politics.

“The most important things for them, is not belonging to a certain ethnicity, but being Ethiopian, being immigrant," he says. "So I see hope in that regard.”

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