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Feb. 5, 2010

Country in profile: Ethiopia

by Philipa Friedman, Print Managing News Editor
When the whole family is around, freshman Beemnet Kebede, her parents and her brother all sit down around a communal tray and eat dinner together. This nightly ritual has always been a way to express love and to communicate. After all, not much has changed about her family dinners in all the years her family has been eating together, except their location.

The shared dinner is symbolic not only of her family bond but her community bond. That bond, according to Kebede, is one of Ethiopia's distinguishing characteristics, and one that followed her to America. The Washington, D.C., area is home to the largest Ethiopian population in the country at about 200,000 people, according to the New American Media. The close-knit D.C. community has thus far served as a cultural pillar and safety net for the Kebede family, easing the gradual transition to Maryland life.

Kebede was born in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and home to more than 380,000 people. In 2005, she and her family packed up their belongings and made the long move to Eagen, Minnesota. Apart from a four-month stint in Oklahoma, they stayed in Minnesota for four years before finally moving to Silver Spring this past August.

Through the upheaval of relocation, rituals like eating together have helped to ease the moving transitions for the Kebede family, but more importantly have provided a link to the Ethiopian community, both locally and at home.

Upon moving to Minnesota, Kebede and her family joined an Ethiopan community center in Eagan. In monthly meetings, the adults discussed politics of their home country while the children learned about Ethiopian culture and language. Later, Oklahoma's small Ethiopian population presented challenges in maintaining a cultural bond. There were between 100 and 200 Ethiopians in the entire state, says Kebede, and she was the only one in her school. Her family attended an Ethiopian church with 12 members total and only one priest.

But small numbers only made the community more tight-knit, she says. "People are more helpful here because it is not our country," says Kebede. This sense of support and community interdependence, she says, has carried over to D.C.

Out of Africa

Now that she and her family have moved to Washington, D.C., Kebede has immersed herself in the local Ethiopian community. Kebede is a member of a local Ethiopian Orthodox church and is also a part of the Ethiopian Club at Blair, where the rich and vibrant Ethiopian population is well-represented.

According to senior Meron Assefa, president of the Ethiopian Club, there are over 500 Ethiopian students at Blair, with 80 in the freshman class alone. About 30 students are involved in the club, which focuses on a different charity each year. Last year, the club raised money to help treat HIV in Ethiopia. The club is currently collecting money to improve education at the Fergent Kidan Lehisanat School in Ethiopia.

The many Ethiopian Orthodox churches in the D.C. area also provide an important religious facet of the Ethiopian community. At Kebede's church, Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Church in D.C., classes are offered for teenagers and younger children about Ethiopian culture and religion, according to Reverend Amare Kassaye, the head of Kebede's Church.

The church also offers language courses in both Amharic and English and emphasizes positive community values like interdependence and respect in all of their classes, says Kassaye. In addition to church support, newly-arrived people can turn to the Ethiopian Community Development Council, Inc., one of many local organizations like the one Kebede joined in Michigan, which offers services specifically designed for new immigrants to help them become established in the United States. The Council provides a number of services including assistance finding a job, obtaining health insurance and finding housing.

Stronger bonds

In Addis Ababa, Kebede stayed immersed in her culture through ritual and tradition, like drinking coffee with her neighbors, enjoying ethnic dances and eating dinner together, which are still alive in her family today. In Ethiopia, it is common for the family to eat together most nights, especially on holidays. "It's really uncommon to see someone eating by themselves," says Kebede. "We want to bring everyone together. Eating together is a way to show the love of the family, and to communicate, too." Everything in Ethiopia is eaten with the fingers, from the flat bread called injera, which is used to scoop and roll food, to the kitfo, raw or cooked spiced meat cut into bite-sized pieces.

And if someone is not eating, it is an Ethiopian custom for a member of the family to offer that person food from their own fingers in a tradition called gursha, an expression of love and hospitality among people at the table, according to Kebede.

While the whole family can't eat together every night anymore, due to separate obligations of school and work, Kebede's family and community ties are just as unbreakable as they ever were.
The bonds Kebede has forged in Ethiopia have not been broken, and Kebede's connection to her native country only continues to strengthen as she becomes more involved in her Ethiopian community in her new home of Silver Spring.



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