By Jenny Holm |
These days, Nani Girma sells a lot of craft beer, lottery tickets, and deep-fried savory pies called sambusas to her diverse clientele at Thirteenth Street Market (1300 Otis Place NW), the corner store in Columbia Heights that she renovated and has been running since 2006.
“The guys who have been living around here a long time, they call me ‘Ma,’ she says affectionately. “They’re like my family.”
She never envisioned her life might lead her to this corner, half a world away from Addis Ababa, where she grew up. Her life plans, like those of so many Ethiopians of her generation, were forced to shift in the mid-1970s, when a violent Marxist faction known as the Derg seized power from the monarchy that had reigned for some 3,000 years. They armed local militias and directed them to wipe out “counterrevolutionaries,”, effectively giving them carte blanche to kill.
Girma traces the start of her journey to Washington, D.C. back to May Day of 1976. ‘There was a big demonstration in Addis,” she says. “Soldiers just started shooting students like flies,” she says. “That was the day I knew I had to get out.”
Civil war, forced conscription, political repression, massive famine, and lack of economic opportunity pushed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians and Eritreans like Girma to leave their homeland in search of a better life in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Washington, D.C. quickly became a magnet for these immigrants and refugees. Many had relatives or friends who had come to D.C. for undergraduate or graduate studies before things started to fall apart back home, an effect that multiplied as more and more people came. The outbreak of another war in 1998, this one between Ethiopia and Eritrea, its neighbor to the north, brought another wave of refugees to the area.
The historic center of D.C.’s Ethiopian restaurant community was in Adams Morgan, along the 18th Street corridor. Meskerem (2434 18th Street NW), which has been operating continuously since 1985, is one of the last vestiges of that era. However, co-owners Nafisa Said and her sister Mohaba put the building up for sale in December, and the restaurant will close when it sells.
In the 1990s, as rents rose in Adams Morgan, Ethiopian entrepreneurs were among the first to begin purchasing and fixing up dilapidated properties along U Street NW, which had never fully recovered from the damage it suffered during the riots of 1968. They opened small shops, coffee houses, and restaurants catering to the city’s growing Ethiopian community. Tefera Zewdie, owner of the popular Ethiopian restaurant Dukem (1114-1118 U Street NW), was one of these.
“I didn’t have much money when I started my business,” he says. “My brother gave me a loan to start a carry-out. I was always cooking for my friends and they were always telling me that I should sell what I made.”
His carry-out business is still there, with one wall functioning as a market where he sells seven or eight different varieties of the spongy Ethiopian flatbread called injera, herbs and spices, jarred sauces, and a few other items. He later expanded into the space next door to open a sit-down restaurant and finally added the corner lot, a former liquor store, to make more space for diners.
“Thank God, this is America—like everyone says, the land of opportunity,” says Zewdie. “I’m very happy that I got the privilege to do what I’m doing.”
In 2005, an Ethiopian community group petitioned the D.C. Council to officially designate a stretch of 9th Street NW near U Street as “Little Ethiopia” in recognition of the many Ethiopian-owned businesses that had clustered there. The move spurred backlash among some longtime residents, who felt that bestowing such a designation would be an affront to the area’s historic significance as an African-American cultural hub. In the end, no official signage went up, but the many signs bearing Amharic lettering in restaurant windows make the point clear for passers-by.
Whereas most of Zewdie’s earlier customers were Ethiopian, the balance began to shift around 2010, he says. Now he sees every kind of face not only in his restaurant, but also buying Ethiopian spices and injera to cook with at home.
Girma also started making and selling her own injera at the corner store about two weeks ago. “More Ethiopians are coming to this neighborhood and asking for it,” she says. Until now, her selection has been largely made up of American staples.
Since her store opened, Girma has become a neighborhood fixture in her own right. Two years ago, the D.C. government designated June 23 Kebedshachew Girma Day (after her formal name) in recognition of her service to the community.
“I thought they hated me until then,” Girma says wryly. “I was always the one calling about the trash overflowing or people making trouble.” She smiles when I suggest that maybe they named the day after her in order to get her off their backs: “Well, it didn’t work!”
Conflict Cuisines is a registered trademark of Johanna Mendelson Forman, who teaches a course on it at American University.
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