It was about an hour into the afternoon rush at Ben’s Chili Bowl, and Kassahun Addis pushed through the back kitchen doors and made his way through the dining room to the front counter.
He lugged a red bucket full of soapy water from table to table, his skinny arms bulging under its weight as beads of sweat gathered on his brow.
This was his umpteenth trip of the afternoon: through the doors, past the folks chowing down on Ben’s famous chili dogs, to the counter with the line of customers snaking all the way back to the front door. Wipe. Wipe. And do it all over again.
It could have been a scene from Dinaw Mengestu’s novel ‘The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,’ where Sepha, an Ethiopian political refugee from Addis Ababa finds himself in Washington, D.C., doing manual work and wondering how he ended up here, of all places.
“How was I supposed to live in America when I had never really left Ethiopia?” Sepha wondered. “I wasn’t, I decided. I wasn’t supposed to live here at all.”
It was Kassahun Addis’ first week on the job and his first job in the United States.
Less than two years ago, Addis, 28, who holds degrees in political science and international relations, was a freelance journalist in Ethiopia covering political shenanigans and regional conflict for local newspapers, ‘Time’ magazine and ‘The Washington Post.’ But after being persecuted by the government for his work, Addis fled his homeland, first to Kenya and then to the United States.
Now, he’s cleaning tables and fetching napkins and condiments at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a black-owned landmark in one of the city’s most storied African American neighborhoods.
Addis is one of the more than 150,000 African immigrants to call Washington, D.C., and the metropolitan area home. And the numbers are growing. Year by year, as more and more of the city’s native-born blacks leave, historically African-American neighborhoods are evolving as gentrification hastens black dislocation, and new immigrant communities are forming in their footsteps.