Thursday, October 18

Ethiopians make home in L.A.


Political exiles find community, support democracy from United States

Nestled between a small Rastafarian music shop and a Starbucks,
a little ways down from the Miracle Mile, is a row of restaurants
and stores which speak to an immigrant community that maintains one
of the largest political exile populations of its kind. Known as
Little Ethiopia, the stretch of ethnic establishments is just one
sign of Los Angeles’ large Ethiopian community, a diaspora
which spreads throughout the sprawling city. Even UCLA has become a
place for Ethiopians to gather, study and celebrate their heritage.
Hosting the second largest Ethiopian political exile community in
the country, Los Angeles has welcomed the immigrants in much the
same way the Ethiopians themselves have opened their arms in
invitation. “The Ethiopian community in California and
elsewhere is a very civic-minded group of people, whether
it’s talking about the politics of their own country or
anything else. That’s why you can have the creation of a part
of town called Little Ethiopia. … They’re proud of their
heritage, and also proud to be Americans. That’s what strikes
us here,” said Edmond Keller, professor and director of the
UCLA Globalization Research Center of Africa. On the university
campus itself, Ethiopians from the political exile community, as
well as international students and second-generation Ethiopians,
often interact with the rest of the campus, telling others about
their country’s 1,600-year-old Ethiopian Orthodox Church and
the food uniquely spiced with indigenous ingredients. “With
places like Ethiopia, people always talk about Africa ““ the
country of Africa, even. … People don’t understand that
it’s a place of many nations, and that (Ethiopia) is
extraordinary,” said Wendy Belcher, a lecturer at UCLA who
spent three years of her childhood growing up in Ethiopia, and has
visited sporadically since then.

The rise and fall of Ethiopian governments Often pointed to as a
country with an ancientness about it, Ethiopia’s large waves
of exile have only occurred over the past 30 years. The 1970s were
a time of turmoil for the Ethiopian people and their Emperor Haile
Selaisse. The imperial regime witnessed a collapse in the hands of
a military junta with Marxist leanings. “You got a military
government that dramatically changed the political
landscape,” said Shimelis Bonsa, an Ethiopian international
graduate student studying the country’s modern political
history at UCLA. That change in the political make-up of the
country brought about Ethiopia’s Red Terror, which entailed
the government’s brutal victimization of its own people and
widespread repression. It also resulted in the first large wave of
Ethiopian emigres arriving in cities such as Los Angeles and
Washington, D.C. Subsequent waves of migration also occurred in the
1990s when the military regime gave way to another group of rulers.
When this new government took power it promised democracy, but as
soon as it gained authority, political dialogue was quashed and
many freedoms were revoked, said Elias Wondimu, an Ethiopian
political exile living in Los Angeles and founder of Tsehai
Publishers and Distributors, an independent publishing company in
Los Angeles. Wondimu, a journalist, was visiting the United States
in 1994 with a delegation of Ethiopians. During his trip, the
political atmosphere became tense and several journalists were
attacked. Wondimu realized he couldn’t return, so he remained
in the United States and started an Ethiopian magazine to educate
people about his country’s politics. While many of the
immigrants in the 1990s came mainly for economic reasons, the
majority of Ethiopians living in Los Angeles have nevertheless
emigrated for political reasons. The political exiles soon began
climbing social and economic ladders in their new communities,
dispelling common misconceptions of stagnation in immigrant
populations. “They might be driving a taxi, servicing you at
the parking, restaurant or at your office building, but
that’s just for a few months or couple of years. Then they
take their exam and become medical doctors. They go home and study,
and when you go to the hospital they are there treating you,”
Wondimu said. According the 2000 U.S. Census, African expatriates
in the United States hold postdoctoral degrees at double the rate
of European immigrants and have the highest levels of education of
any foreign-born group. The fact that an immigrant community is so
largely composed of political exiles has also had a profound impact
on the immigrants themselves and the neighborhoods they live in.
The community itself tends to be highly politicized, with talk at
every dinner table turning to the events happening in their home
country, said UCLA’s Associate Dean of Student Affairs Enku
Gelaye, who was born in Ethiopia and emigrated with her family when
she was just a child. Among the many Ethiopians who study and work
at UCLA, film Professor Teshemo Gabriel is just one of the
political exiles who left Ethiopia in the 1970s. At the time,
Gabriel was getting his master’s in education at the
University of Utah when he learned he couldn’t return to his
homeland. So instead, he continued, gaining one postdoctoral degree
after another. For Gabriel, it was a “good time,” as he
learned from the civil rights movement in America, and was inspired
by its goals. Even though he was thousands of miles from his family
and friends, he still felt what he calls an “umbilical
attachment” to Ethiopia. There is a tradition in many of the
provinces that at the time of childbirth the old women of the
village come by, take the placenta, and bury it in a secret place.
“It anchors the child in the community, to history. …
It’s that umbilical cord attachment. No matter where you go,
you are bound to join your placenta. It’s calling you to the
ground,” Gabriel said. A creation of a strong support network
has also become important in the face of the unique situations that
political exiles may face. “In a normal circumstance you
won’t know (you’re an exile), but some reality will
force you to realize who and where you are. There is a classic
example. When my mother was sick and later died, I wasn’t
able to go. These kind of incidents remind you that you’re an
exile,” Wondimu said.

Five priests, magic spells, urban art As a converging point for
many international scholars and researchers, UCLA has maintained a
unique position with the Ethiopian community in Los Angeles as a
base of scholarship and a venue for educating others about the
culture. Among the current exhibitions at the Fowler Museum is one
that features the paintings of Qes Adamu Tesfaw, an ordained priest
who worked in an urban art market in Africa. Blending bold colors
and even bolder images of colonization and everyday life,
Adamu’s work has provided a foundation for discussing East
African art with the UCLA community. The religious sphere has also
not escaped the watchful eye of Ethiopian scholars on campus, as
Belcher can attest. Earlier this year Belcher discovered a huge
repository of ancient Ethiopian manuscripts on campus, and when she
called Wondimu to tell him he quickly sent five priests from local
Ethiopian Orthodox churches to help translate them. “You
should have seen the students in the library. Their heads whipped
around. These priests in their full-on black robes were carrying
crosses and whispering prayers. … For them this was a scared
place,” Belcher said. The manuscripts themselves contained a
variety of magic spells and included reproductions of texts so
sacred the priests had never seen them before. As for the study of
these manuscripts, Belcher and one of the younger priests continue
to catalog the collection that is “almost unrivaled,”
Belcher said. Like many immigrant populations, the insistence on a
close connection with their homeland and a desire to teach others
about it has many Ethiopians calling the campus home. “One
thing that I really appreciate at UCLA is being part of a greater
immigrant community. You tend to see the similarities in all
immigrant communities,” Enku said.

Never far from home The creation of Little Ethiopia is no doubt
due in large part to the politicized nature of the Ethiopians, a
community that continues to be involved in the turbulent political
events the country is currently going through. Three weeks ago,
dozens of students were shot in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital,
as they protested the results of the most recent elections, which
appeared to be largely fabricated. “The first election in
1995 was not considered free and fair, and in the 2000, it was the
same thing. … Maybe this time (the opposition) will receive a
third of the seats in parliament. If it were a free and fair
election, they would take over,” said Keller, who was an
observer of the 1992 elections in Ethiopia. The death of the
students, along with the imprisonment of over 4,000 individuals and
a large number of journalists, provoked outrage among many of the
Ethiopians here in Los Angeles. “I was involved in marches
when I was in Ethiopia. This was uncalled for, whatever the
situation. It’s just like killing the future,” Gabriel
said. Bonsa and many others echoed Gabriel’s sentiment,
pointing out that the members of government were once students
themselves, protesting the old junta in the streets. In Los
Angeles, the recent events sparked demonstrations at the Federal
Building, a week-long candlelight vigil in Little Ethiopia and
demonstrations at the Los Angeles Times over the general media
blockage of events in Ethiopia. “When people don’t hear
or read, they won’t know and, if they won’t know, then
they won’t do anything,” Wondimu said. The lack of
active and major support for the opposition party in Ethiopia has
many Ethiopians here questioning Western government officials.
“These people see democracy as a solution. The Western
governments should support this. We don’t need food aid
““ we need support,” Bonsa said. The week before the
gunning down of the students, the capital witnessed peaceful
demonstrations of over a million citizens calling for free and fair
elections. Ethiopians in the United States point to the huge
outpouring of support for the democratic opposition party in
Ukrainian elections held late last year. “I see this irony
and double standard in the policy of western governments. … What
the government should do is recognize this. That’s democracy.
The wind of democracy is blowing across Africa. We should talk
about this,” Bonsa said. As events unfold in Ethiopia and
heads of state decide what course of action to take, Ethiopians at
UCLA and in Los Angeles will continue to closely monitor the
government and help their surrounding communities to understand
what it means to be Ethiopian. “There is a tendency to
emphasize the negative in the international media, which is true
““ there is still genocide in Darfur. … But this
doesn’t tell us about Africa. There is progress ““
people are fighting for progress,” Bonsa said.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.