Little Ethiopia Grows Up
One of D.C.’s biggest immigrant communities steps off the political sidelines.
Lydia DePillis, WashingtonCityPaper: Back in 2002, Daniel Belayneh started the non-profit Ethiopian Community Services and Development Council because he noticed a clear injustice: Two homeless Ethiopian immigrants had frozen to death in the street, and nobody noticed or cared. When a Hispanic man was found dead under similar circumstances, he says, the tragedy made the newspapers and attracted attention from politicians.
Eight years later, he feels like Ethiopians are receiving the same treatment from the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty. Belayneh started a homeless shelter for down-on-their-luck African immigrants, but had to shut it down last year after expected city funding didn’t come through. He invited Fenty to attend a ribbon cutting for a new free clinic his organization had started, but the mayor didn’t show up.
Belayneh says ECSDC represents Ethiopians in D.C., helping new immigrants become law-abiding, productive citizens. But he’s never once been able to get so much as a meeting with Fenty. And now, though his organization is formally non-political, he’s ready for someone else to run things at the Wilson Building.
“We need somebody who listens to us now in office, to answer our questions. We don’t need somebody sitting there and ignoring our calls,” Belayneh says, with consternation. “I’m telling you, can you imagine, I live in Washington, I am in charge of 80,000 people in D.C., they deny me access to his office? I’m telling you, it’s just unbelievable!”
The Ethiopian community has been a rising cultural and economic force for decades now—9th Street NW restaurateur Tutu Belay’s Ethiopian Yellow Pages for local businesses, which started out 17 years ago at 80 pages, now weighs in at over 1,000. Centered around 9th and U streets NW, the community has become the most visible ethnic presence in the surrounding area, with other clusters of businesses in Adams Morgan, Petworth and along the Maryland border near Silver Spring. But they haven’t thrown their weight around politically, many still hesitant about opposing authorities after leaving their country to avoid political persecution (Belayneh himself was a member of the constitutional assembly of Ethiopia before he was jailed for protesting the government). There’s no Ethiopian PAC, no caucus, no official mayoral forum.
This year, that started to change. Over the last few months, Ethiopians have been hosting fundraisers, canvassing door to door, and spreading the word in churches—almost all on behalf of challenger Vincent Gray. Like much of the rest of the campaign, things could have been different for Adrian Fenty, if only he had paid his respects.
Of course, within the Ethiopian business world, the fiercest energy to defeat Fenty comes from a group of people who, by and large, can’t even vote in D.C.: Cab drivers, who were outraged two years ago by the switch from a zone-based fare system to a meter system that they say reduced their income by some 30 percent. Most cabbies live in Virginia and Maryland, but that hasn’t stopped them from electioneering for all they’re worth. (They don’t tend to dwell much on the fact that it was Congress, not Fenty, that forced the switch from zones; Fenty could have blocked it, and he did set the meter rates, but it wasn’t his idea in the first place.)
Setegn (he only gives one name) is an owner of Allied Cab Company, which employs some 800 mostly-Ethiopian drivers. He supported Fenty in 2006, even giving the candidate free rides in his cab, which scored him an invitation to the inauguration.
“That was the last time,” says Setegn, who does much of his business from the driver’s seat of a bronze-colored van cab. “After that, he closed the door.”
Taxis are just one industry. But because of the heavy concentration of Ethiopians in D.C.’s cab fleet, the zone-to-meter shake-up affected the entire community. Setegn says his drivers eat out at Ethiopian restaurants much less, have stopped paying their rent on time, and stop giving to their churches and organizations. That’s enough to turn far more Ethiopian business owners against Fenty than just the cabdrivers.
“I didn’t pay for the past two years a penny for the Ethiopian community,” Setegn says. “They keep asking us, ‘Do this, do that.’ We try our best.”
In 2008, a few Ethiopians in the taxi industry tried one way of playing politics to better their situation, allegedly attempting to bribe the D.C. Taxicab Commission chairman for new licenses. The ensuing federal investigation also swept up an aide to Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham.
The vast majority of cabbies, however, are taking a more respectable route, cutting checks in $20 to $30 denominations, which have significantly filled out Gray’s impressive small donor base. Allied Cab has coordinated with the other associations to reach out to anyone who will listen and vote, with a kind of energy and focus that Setegn hasn’t seen in his 10 years owning a company. Though he wouldn’t give specifics, Gray said at a forum in June that he was working with drivers to assuage their grievances.
Despite the concrete harms, the biggest reason Ethiopians give for opposing Fenty is more about insult than injury.
Dil Belay, a developer of single family homes in Eckington and Trinidad, has taken the lead in organizing the business community for Gray. He can’t think of one specific problem with the Fenty administration, and hasn’t asked anything in particular of the potential Gray administration, except respect—which the chairman promised, in a series of endorsement interviews.
“Look, right now, I am a volunteer to the Gray campaign,” Belay says, on a break from a stint as a poll watcher at Judiciary Square. “But look, I am a part of the process now. I am a volunteer, I’m not getting paid. I’m not asking for a specific benefit. I am asking for recognition. And I’m getting that.”
Disrespect can manifest itself on the ground level, in the form of discrimination and harassment from lower authorities like police, inspectors, permit officers. Taxi drivers complain of unfair treatment by inspectors, who slap them with $1,000 fines for underinflated tires. Tefera Zewdie, who has owned Dukem restaurant on U Street NW for 13 years, says that even if the problems weren’t originally Fenty’s fault, he hasn’t fixed them.
“If we are a victim of some sort of problem in our business, then we call for help, the police… look at us as if we are the criminals,” says Zewdie, who hosted a fundraiser for Gray at his restaurant. “Every time you speak a foreign language, you have a foreign accent, your case is treated a little bit different than those who are the native Americans. And that inside, that hurts.”
Nowhere are the benefits for a solicitous politician clearer than in Ward 1, where Graham has the adoring loyalty of many in the Ethiopian community. Several businesses helped coordinate his trip to their native land in 2004, and he’s been returning the favor with prompt attention to their needs ever since.
For the Ethiopian Community Service and Development Center, he showed up on the scene with supportive words the morning a fire devastated their original building on Georgia Avenue, and has landed earmarks for operational costs.
“When we have some issues, there is no bureaucracy, he responds on the spot,” Belayneh says. “Honestly, I need Jim Graham to continue in office. He is a great man. If you were in my shoes, you have somebody who is doing the job, responds to your needs, encourages you, and help you do good things for your people, we need multiple Jim Grahams in the council chambers.”
The last time the Ethiopian community mobilized for something in the D.C. Council, back in 2005, they were also just looking for recognition. Businesses and cultural organizations asked that the area around 9th and U streets be officially designated “Little Ethiopia,” to better attract tourists and market the cluster of restaurants to locals. (If you think about it, they might have a better claim to a title than the now Disney-fied Chinatown, where vaguely Asian script on fast food restaurants looks like a somewhat desperate attempt to hold on to a fading cultural influence.)
Faced with opposition from old-timer African Americans in Shaw, the measure died.
But from a business marketing standpoint, it may not have been necessary. To Tutu Belay, who named her restaurant on 9th Street Little Ethiopia—where she’s hosted fundraisers for Graham and At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown—the slight had little practical impact. Buses still drop hungry tourists on the corner three days a week, and she recently had a three-hour interview for a CNN International special that will air in October.
Tutu Belay (no relation to the developer) is coy about who she’s voting for mayor; thought her husband Yehune has already donated to Gray, it doesn’t pay for a prominent businessowner to be terribly vocal on either side of a contested race. In that way, she has something in common with her neighbor, Etete owner and parking lot entrepreneur Yared Tesfaye, among the only Ethiopian businessowners to have stayed steadfast for Fenty.
“We just donated because we’re in the business community,” said Tesfaye. “Every time someone’s in the mayor’s office, we donate.”
That kind of dutiful support has its limits, though: Etete doesn’t have a Fenty sign in its window. CP