ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Midwest’s Resilient Ethiopian Immigrants

Ethiopian immigrants embrace life in America’s Middle West.

Imagine leaving the temperate climate you have always known for a land of harsh contrasts: a place where the August sun bakes the earth mercilessly and where winter frosts can be even more unforgiving than the rough wind. Imagine yourself surrounded by exotic people, many hardly educated, appearing partly naked in the summer months in a place where city slums are more crowded and dangerous than the cities you once knew.

Imagine this, and you may begin to visualize the experience of an Ethiopian moving to St. Louis, Missouri. “I’ve been here almost ten years and I still can’t adjust to the climate,” laughs Abay, who grew up near the eastern border with Sudan. It is as strange to him to need air conditioning as it is to need central heat. Like most Ethiopians, he lived on the central plateau, where temperatures vary between 40 and 80 degrees. His peers report their shock when seeing males shirtless in the summer – Ethiopian custom demands modesty. Also difficult is adjusting to America’s cities, where the streets can be dangerous and illiteracy, high. Many Ethiopian immigrants are university educated.

Clearly, Americans do not see Ethiopia for what it really is. We see images of impoverished babies, desperate mothers and many soldiers. But how do Ethiopians respond to America? More importantly, how do our Ethiopian immigrants retain their distinct heritage, yet blend with mainstream American life?

Feleke Tadesse came to St. Louis in 1988, one of the more recent arrivals to an Ethiopian community that numbers several hundred. “The pace of life here is very fast,” he said, sitting in the realty office where he works not far from the city’s bustling Union Station and the famous Gateway Arch. “I expected that, but the extent was amazing.” Leaving the office at dusk, he paused by “The Meeting of Waters,” a sculpture marking St. Louis as the meeting place of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Feleke’s clothing – crew neck sweater, jeans and moccasins – displayed America’s influence.

Unlike earlier settlers who arrived in St. Louis as whole family units, many Ethiopians arrive alone. “You get lonely sometimes,” sighed Feleke. Many Ethiopians arrived in North America as single students. Some, like Abay, fled political persecution. His isolation was compounded further when the U.S. Federal government placed him in St. Louis. He had never heard of it.

The majority of Ethiopians belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In St. Louis, some find fellowship at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church near Forest Park. Built by Greek immigrants in 1930, the parish now opens its arms to these newcomers. The Ladies Benevolent Organization, or Philoptochos, holds an annual Christmas party for Ethiopian women and their children.

Ironically, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is not in communion with the Greek Orthodox Church. In the 5th century, the churches of Rome and Constantinople severed relations with the Armenian, Copt, Ethiopian and Syrian churches for their refusal to recognize the nature of Christ as defined by the Council of Chalcedon. Today in the New World, these time-worn differences, now recognized as linguistic, are being overcome.

Other prejudices have challenged these Ethiopian immigrants. Ethiopia was the only African nation that was not colonized by a European power, except for a few years of Portugese and Italian occupation. Ethiopians do not consider themselves black. Their independence, isolation and ethnic origins – the majority of Ethiopian tribes are semitic, kin to the Arabs and Jews – instead created a strong sense of Ethiopian identity, as descendants of the Queen of Sheba, the legendary queen of Ethiopia.

This strong sense of identity makes the adjustment to a color-conscious society like that of the United States difficult. Dawait Wolde Giorgis, an Ethiopia writer who served in the military under the last emperor, Haile Selassie I, remembers this obstacle in his book “Red Tears”:

“I was training with American army units in Georgia and Kentucky and for the first time in my life I was conscious of my color. It was very difficult for me in the South. I went to [our military attache] to ask to be returned home. His advice was that these were simply the realities of life in America, and that I would get used to it after a while.”

Getting used to it. This experience of an unpleasant color-consciousness is not confined to the South. St. Louis’s immigrants feel it today. One of Ethiopia’s historical strengths was a sense of national unity that transcended ethnic or tribal differences. In the United States they have discovered an uneasy struggle for peace in racial matters.

Tesfaye Boru departed for the New World when Emperor Selassie was still absolute ruler. Tesfaye’s grandfather fought in the Imperial Ethiopian Army when the nation expanded in the south, near modern Kenya.

Tesfaye was reared in an affluent home in Addis Ababa. He misses the cafes of that capital city, where people would gather to discuss issues great and small. Today he owns the Red Sea Restaurant on St. Louis’s Delmar Boulevard. Like the Ethiopian spots in other American cities (Washington, D.C.’s emigre community is the oldest and largest), the conversation revolves around more than the menu and the latest scores. Ethiopians gather to discuss issues, politics and how and if these matters affect their nation. But food also counts! As with all immigrant communities in the United States, food is a vital way of keeping native cultures and heritages alive.

At the Red Sea, kifto is on the menu – a traditional Ethiopian steak tartare – as are a variety of beef, chicken, fish and lamb dishes. Most are seasoned with a sauce called wat, a fragrant combination of diced onion, garlic, ginger and other spices sauteed in herb butter or oil.

In some ways, Ethiopian cuisine might be called “health food” by Americans. “You guys take a lot of sugar and salt,” Tesfaye says with a laugh. Injera, the soft, flat spongy bread that is Ethiopia’s staple, is always on the table. Pieces of the bread are used as utensils; “logically speaking, it’s the easiest way to eat.”

Food is also a medium of cultural continuity for Sine Berhanu, but in a different way. She came from Addis at the age of 22, married an American and had three children. Divorced at 40 and wondering what to do next, she was concerned, “I’ll be in poverty for the rest of my life.” A trip home sparked an idea.

“I went to Ethiopia after 20 years,” she related, “and I was so impressed by the easy, healthy and delicious food. And I said, ‘Why can’t we have this here?’” Her answer was Berhanu International Ltd., a company that makes and distributes “Lentils Divine.”

A walk around Berhanu International reveals lentils in burlap bags stacked on forklift palettes four feet high, a far cry from Sine’s first day of business.

Having convinced several skeptical businessmen to provide her with a packing machine, Sine went out with only 49 cents in her pocket and bought a bag of plain lentils. She blended them with her spices to produce “two point five” bags of “Lentils Divine.” After selling her first batch, she bought more lentils. Now her small, manual production line turns out nine flavors for major St. Louis supermarkets, a distributor in Spain and perhaps Japan as well.

“In America, if you put your heart and mind to it, you’ll make it,” she says, despite struggles of race and gender.

I met Feleke on December 23. Winter was only two days old; mild by St. Louis standards, but more than a match for a light coat. Feleke turned up his collar and stuffed his hands in his pockets.

The lights and bustle of Union Station were visible reminders of a Christmas brought long ago by English, Scots and Germans, a Christmas of fir trees, bells and St. Nick.

These images were foreign to Feleke, but his words spoke for all immigrants:

“I miss my family most of all. It’s like living a double life. I live here, but I live back home in my imagination.”

James M. Reilly, a St. Louis native, writes from New Jersey.

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