Being Ethiopian in Seattle

Seattle Times

A book explores the experiences of Ethiopian refugees adapting to Seattle and suggests their presence is changing the community, too.

Seattle Times staff columnistBy Jerry Large

In 1980, the federal government started placing Ethiopian refugees in Seattle, one of a few cities chosen to receive what would eventually be thousands of people — at least 10,000 now just in the Seattle area.

Retired UW sociologist Joseph Scott
Retired UW sociologist
Joseph Scott

“It is the first significant migration of black Africans to America since slavery times,” Joseph Scott told me when we spoke Monday at his home in Southeast Seattle.

Scott, an ethnologist and sociologist, wrote “Little Ethiopia of the Pacific Northwest” (Transaction Publishers, 2013) in collaboration with Solomon A. Getahun, a history professor at Central Michigan State University, and himself a refugee.

Scott, who retired from the University of Washington in 2005, said he and Getahun, who was a graduate student when they began the project in 1995, wanted to capture a historically important period of change and adjustment — for immigrants and ultimately for the rest of us, too.

Immigration policy long favored Europeans and kept out most everyone else, so the changes that opened the doors wider in the wake of the modern civil-rights movement and later in the 1980s are making us a more diverse country.

Scott believes that introducing a large, culturally distinct black group may prompt more people to see the shortcomings of grouping people by color alone when so much else matters more. The book, based on lengthy interviews with immigrants, deals with race straightforwardly as it covers life in general for the newcomers.

As the title suggests, the refugees re-created a bit of home for themselves. Like many waves of immigrants before them, they craved the comfort of familiar food and created restaurants that served Ethiopian foods in the Ethiopian way, with diners scooping up meats and vegetables from a common platter using pieces of injera, the spongy bread that is a must in an Ethiopian meal.

I remember eating at Kokeb, near Seattle University, when it was one of only two Ethiopian restaurants in the city. It closed in 2012 after 30 years.

The immigrants created restaurants and other small businesses because it was hard to find other work for which they were deemed qualified.

And each business changed something else in the local ecosystem. Injera can be made with only one kind of grain, teff, so someone had to import it or grow it. Several Ethiopians started taxi businesses, then others started carwashes or garages to repair them.

They may have seemed to outsiders like one indistinguishable people, but Ethiopia is a diverse country, and as more people settled here it became easier to find one’s own group.

And political divisions in Ethiopia infected people here. One Ethiopian church became two, divided by ethnicity. Now there are many.

Restaurants multiplied, and their names signaled what area of Ethiopia or which ethnic group the owners hailed from.

But for children born here, the old divisions weakened and often disappeared as they followed a path made familiar by earlier immigrant groups.

Ethiopian immigrants had to learn about being classified black in America, having others expect them to be in some ways like native black Americans, the meaning of black schools and white schools, the realization that distancing themselves from black Americans could earn them better treatment from some white Americans.

Just last week, I was in a barbershop when an assimilated young teenager asked the barber for a certain haircut popular with black teens, but his mother (East African, but not necessarily Ethiopian) objected in accented English, “No bad-boy haircut. Good-boy haircut.” Makes sense to protect your kids as much as you can.

The complexity of life in America comes across in all their experiences. The book is divided into 13 chapters on topics from school challenges to altered gender relationships.

It includes the experiences of a range of immigrants, from the upper-class Ethiopians who came in the 1970s as students and were stranded by war at home, to the poor and uneducated people among the most recent immigrants, and more in between.

Scott is a good person to present and bring context to immigrant stories. His parents were part of the first Great Migration of black Americans out of the South in search of freedom and opportunity between 1910 and 1930. His parents fled Georgia, where they had been sharecroppers, and settled in Hamtramck, Mich., a small city surrounded by Detroit.

It was a largely Polish-American city full of immigrants who’d come to work in the nearby factories. Scott, who was born there in 1935, said he f
ound it curious that immigrants would tell him and his friends to go back to where they came from. “Growing up in that neighborhood, that’s what made me a sociologist,” Scott said.

There is plenty to study in a country constantly changing, and this book gives the reader a taste of a new migration that will have impacts we can’t foresee.

This book is a valuable part of the story of our ongoing transformation.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or [email protected]

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