Ethiopian Americans in NOVA

Like other immigrants, Ethiopian parents living in Alexandria, Virginia have a difficult time instilling traditions from their homeland in their children. This is especially true for children who were not born in Ethiopia, or those who left Ethiopia for the United States at a very young age. There are many factors that control how much a second generation Ethiopian Americans engages the culture from their parents’ home country.


(Map of Ethiopia courtesy of CDC)

A common experience of the children of Ethiopian immigrants is situational identity.[1] Children can choose “how much” of their Ethiopian background they want to share with others based on where they are or who they are around. For example, kids would most likely act differently around their peers at school than they would at an Ethiopian gathering, such as church or meetings. Kids face enormous pressure to fit in in the United States, so it is understandable why they would not want to stand out or look different.

One factor that determines how much second generation Ethiopian Americans connect to their heritage is how much their parents or grandparents identify with their background. If parents constantly instill a sense of “strong pride” in their “national and ethnic heritage,” then their children will be more likely to follow suit and will be more inclined to have a “meaningful ethnic identity” in their new homeland.[2] In order for children to stay connected to their heritage, it is imperative that their elders are constantly fitting in Ethiopian activities and traditions into everyday life. One way that parents can do this is by transferring Ethiopian “legends, myths, memories, values, and special rites and rituals,” which allows children to feel a part of a community.[3] Kids also held onto their culture by attending festivals and Ethiopian churches. This allows second generation Ethiopians to “internalize Ethiopian pride and culture.”[4]


(Ethiopian Festival in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Ethiopian Heritage Society in North America.)

One example of a young Ethiopian American is Afomia Wendemagegn, a high school graduate who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. In an interview from the Alexandria Legacies oral history program, Wendemagegn discusses the ways that she has kept up with the traditions from her home country. Wendemagegn and her family travel back to Ethiopia every few years so she is able to stay connected to family, and she also believes that staying connected to her Ethiopian heritage is incredibly important. Wendemagegn explains: “…it’s nice to…feel like you’re a part of something else, alongside being part of American culture as well.”[5]

Second generation Ethiopian Americans connected at varying levels to their heritage. However, like most second generation Americans, they had a mixture of cultures from both their homeland as well as their new home. These children often became a mixture of the culture they were receiving at home, as well as what they were receiving from their neighborhoods, class backgrounds, friends, and lifestyles.[6] It is mostly up to parents of these children to ensure that ethnic pride is instilled in them from a young age to keep them connected to their heritage.

[1] Elizabeth Chacko, “Identity and Assimilation among Young Ethiopian Immigrants in Metropolitan Washington,” Geographical Review 93, no. 4 (October 2003): 494-495.

[2] David Levinson and Melvin Ember, eds., American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1997), 269.

[3] Elizabeth Chacko, “Identity and Assimilation among Young Ethiopian Immigrants in Metropolitan Washington,” Geographical Review 93, no. 4 (October 2003): 500.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Afomia Wendemagegn, interview by Krystyn Moon, Alexandria Legacies, Office of Historic Alexandria, June 4, 2015.

[6] Levinson and Ember, 268.

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