From the late 1970s until 1991, Ethiopia was under the control of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was responsible for creating its infamously harsh communist regime. Due to the rise in fighting and violence, many individuals fled to the United States. Not only was the United States extremely fearful of communism, but there were refugee acts in place that made it easier for those coming from communist countries. Those who did immigrate, however, discovered a country that was just beginning to recognize civil rights for African Americans. Although this changed later on, individuals immigrating from Ethiopia found themselves subject of the same racial biases.
Leaving Ethiopia for the United States was vastly different than what many expected. While they were safe from civil war and communism, Ethiopian immigrants still face discrimination due to the color of their skin. Tom Gjelten’s book, A Nation of Nations, discusses in detail the racism that Ethiopians faced. He takes time to mention the opinions of a politician from North Carolina named Sam Ervin who states that he “doesn’t know of any contributions that Ethiopia has made to the making of America.”[i] During the mid-twentieth century, racism against African Americans was an ever present issue. Despite the 1960 U.S. Census showing that “Americans of African descent outnumbered Scandinavian Americans by a margin of two and a half to one,” those with dark skin were still forced to endure the cruel treatment of Jim Crow while living in the southern United States.[ii]
Thanks to modern technology during the twentieth century, historians have been able to conduct interviews with individuals who experienced what it was like to move from Ethiopia to the United States during the presidency of Mengistu Haile Mariam. One of these individuals was Aida Abdul-Wali. Abdul-Wali was born around 1966, and lived in Ethiopia until the age of eight. Abdul-Wali describes the suddenness of the civil war breaking out in Ethiopia, stating “it was a peaceful time, and the next thing you know, it was like a military takeover.”[iii] After moving to both Yemen and Egypt, Abdul-Wali moved to the United States at the age of fourteen to reunite with her mother in 1980. Abdul-Wali and her family stayed in the area of Northern Virginia, moving back and forth between Annandale and Alexandria. When asked about being an immigrant, Abdul-Wali considers herself and her family lucky. “My father was an American citizen, so when we came here he basically sponsored us. So we had our green cards and what not when we arrived.”[iv]
Unlike Abul-Wali, Rhoda Worku’s move to the United States was not so smooth. The civil war greatly affected the Worku family. Worku’s father and uncles, who were all members of Haile Selassie’s government cabinet were executed by Mengistu Haile Mariam regime.[v] Worku and her family were not allowed to leave the country at first, but eventually she was able to escape to live with Presbyterian missionaries in California. However, Worku agrees with Aida on the subject of naturalization. She states that the process was “very nice,”[vi] and that the exam for naturalization “wasn’t that hard.”[vii] Worku was also fortunate enough to escape the harsh racism that plagued the African American community until the early 1970s, but she also had a more difficult experience finding a job due to her lack of citizenship. It is not surprising that Rhoda has found success in running her own business, because that would have been her simplest option as an immigrant.
While both Abul-Wali and Worku never experienced full on crimes against their civil rights in the United States, they still had the difficult task of becoming citizens and acquiring jobs. Each group of Immigrants faced their own unique hardships when arriving in the United States, and each individual had his or her own special story that caused them to leave their first home.
[i] Tom Gjelten, A Nation of Nations (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 120.
[ii] Gjelten, 121.
[iii] Aida Abul-Wali, interviewed by Apasrin Suvanasai, Immigrant Alexandria: Past, Present, and Future, Adept World Management, August 25, 2015.
[v] Rhoda Worku, interviewed by Krystyn Moon, Immigrant Alexandria: Past, Present, and Future, Adept World Management, May 20, 2015.
[vii] Rohda Worku, interviewed by Krystyn Moon, Immigrant Alexandria: Past, Present, and Future, Adept World Management, September 10, 2015.