How Ethiopians in the US cling onto their heritage

by Zelalem

Ethiopian American children in Washington

The traditional music plays and children, some dressed in Ethiopian costume, perform a traditional dance: Raising and lowering their shoulders to the beat.

Like millions of other children in the United States, these American-Ethiopians are at summer camp.

However, this one is about maintaining their connection with their roots abroad.

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Hermela Kebede, runs Washington's Ethiopian Community Centre

They still have to keep their heritage – that’s who they are, and it will make them proud”

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Hermela Kebede
Ethiopian Community Centre

The camp, which is for about 35 children, is at the Ethiopian Community Centre.

It is in a regular office block on one of the main roads out of the US capital, Washington DC.

A 21-minute drive away is the grand venue where African heads of state and President Barak Obama are discussing US-Africa relations.

As the leaders try to negotiate a new phase of that relationship, the Ethiopian diaspora community is grappling with how it should relate to back home.

Estimates vary, but there are thought to be more than 200,000 Ethiopians in the Washington metropolitan area, by far the city’s largest and most visible African diaspora group.

While integrated into American life, many of them do not want to lose that connection and are keen for their children to know where they have come from.

American-Ethiopian children at Washington's Ethiopian Community CentreDancing is one of the ways Ethiopian-Americans are encouraged to connect with their heritage

Mikiyess at Ethiopian summer camp in WashingtonChildren, like Mikiyess, are taught to speak Amharic as part of their cultural education

“They are here in the United States, but they still have to keep their heritage,” says Hermela Kebede, who runs the community centre.

“That’s who they are, and it will make them proud.”

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I speak Amharic, but English is my first language and I have more things from America”

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Eight-year-old Mikiyess

In another room, the children are listening to an Ethiopian folktale being read in one of Ethiopia’s languages, Amharic.

It is part of the effort to ensure they keep up their language skills as well as learn traditional stories.

Eight-year-old Mikiyess listens carefully.

He left Ethiopia with his family when he was two and has some vague memories of what life was like there.

He clearly gets the message of the camp.

“You need to learn about your culture,” he says in a flawless American accent.

“Because you can’t just learn about another culture and think, ‘Oh, I’m from that culture’, you have to think about your old culture too.”

Jokes and ignorance

But asked if he is more American or more Ethiopian, Mikiyess is hesitant, but admits feeling more American.

“I speak Amharic, but English is my first language and I have more things from America. I have a portion of things from Ethiopia and I eat a lot of the food.”

He reckons that from just watching his mother cook he now knows how to prepare the traditional dishes.

An Ethiopian immigrant hairdresser in a Washington salon

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The BBC visited Little Ethiopia in the US capital in 2013

Mikiyess looks set to grow up to be a fully-fledged member of the Ethiopian-American community, and join the thousands of others who are comfortable with a dual identity.

There seems to be a growing confidence amongst many of them.

Some who arrived in the 1970s and 1980s had endure a lot of ignorance about their home.

Ethiopian-born singer Wayna Wondwossen remembers being at high school at the time of the famine in Ethiopia in 1984.

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Melaku Negussie, an Ethiopian-American medic, in Washington

This is a wonderful opportunity to give back and be part of something transformational”

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Melaku Negussie
Ethio-American Doctors Group

“I have vivid memories of people making jokes about me, saying I was the fattest Ethiopian they had ever seen.”

Now she writes and sings about her identity.

Her latest album, The Expats, is a celebration of being different.

Many Ethiopian-Americans, who have become financially successful, are now looking to invest their money back home.

One group of medics, for example, plans to build a new private hospital in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, with money from investors as well as their own.

They hope the hospital will be as good as any facility in the US or Europe.

Melaku Negussie, who is co-ordinating the project for the Ethio-American Doctors Group, admits that there is money involved and a hoped-for return, but he says this is not just about the cash.

“Some of the doctors have actually told us that they’re committed to going back to Ethiopia to work, when this hospital opens,” he adds.

“There is an emotional attachment to their country and to them this is a wonderful opportunity to give back and be part of something transformational.”

Backlit people dance at sunset in Omo valley, south EthiopiaMost Ethiopian immigrants arrived in America in the 1990s after the Eritrean-Ethiopian war

That emotional attachment is clear to see at the Ethiopian community centre.

Camp counsellor Megidelawit Yirefu works as the camp’s dance teacher.

She came to the US when she was nine and is proud of her identity.

She now wants to pass her passion on to the children.

“My parents embrace a lot of my culture from Ethiopia, which reminds me of home and how I used to eat those foods,” she says.

“So culture helps me identify with who I am as an Ethiopian-American and stand out from the crowd.”

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