Blocked Mobility

By the 1990s, Ethiopians formed the largest subset of African immigrants in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, accounting for nearly 24% of all immigrants from the continent.[1] Ethiopians chose Washington, DC as an emerging gateway for their success, yet their lives were significantly altered upon arrival. Ethiopians were subjected to “blocked mobility,” whereby they experienced both structural and personal prejudices.[2] For instance, one could easily assume that whatever job an individual performed in Ethiopia would transfer comparably to the US; however, this was not the case. Despite the fact that Ethiopians primarily possessed higher education and were from middle-class backgrounds, their foreign credentials were typically unrecognized in the US, leading to downward mobility by taking lower skilled jobs.[3] This lack of recognition also led to many immigrants creating their own jobs through self-employment and entrepreneurship.

Ethiopians were not traditionally known for having entrepreneurial aspirations; however, due to blocked mobility and in order to serve a growing ethnic population, they turned to such pursuits. Immigrant-owned businesses catered to co-ethnics through grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants, and served neighboring populations with a number of other services.[4] Creating an ethnic commercial landscape led to a mixed embeddedness that established a context which considered both the strategies and outcomes of Ethiopian entrepreneurs within a diverse area.[5] What started as a way to gain employment ultimately created jobs for other Ethiopians and organized an entire community of networks and social activity.

A concrete embeddedness developed from social networks established through commerce. Socially, immigrant businesses led to ethnic place-making by providing sites of social interactions catering to co-ethnics.[6] Key among these physical locations was the ability to garner close connections while preserving ethnic identity.[7] Likewise, an abstract embeddedness developed through local socioeconomic and political institutions, as Ethiopians formed networks with the local government in order to realize involvement and gain better access to services.[8] As an example, Ethiopian engagement led to establishing the Office in African Affairs in Washington, DC in 2006.[9]

[1] Elizabeth Chacko, “Ethiopian Ethos and the Making of Ethnic Places in the Washington Metropolitan Area,” Journal of Cultural Geography 20, no. 2 (2003): 27.
[2] Marie Price and Elizabeth Chacko, “The Mixed Embeddedness of Ethnic Entrepreneurs in a New Immigrant Gateway,” Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies (2009), 337.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 336.
[5] Ibid., 331.
[6] Chacko, “Ethiopian Ethos and the Making of Ethnic Places in the Washington Metropolitan Area,” 21.
[7] Ibid., 29.
[8] Price and Chacko, 335.
[9] Ibid.