Black History Month* is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of blacks in U.S. history. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. In honor of this, EthiopiaOnline decided to compile, out of many, just 10 Ethiopian-born individuals (or native Ethiopians) in the U.S. who have made noticeable [positive] contributions to the society. [Alphabetically, by last name]
Highlighting 10 Native Ethiopians During Black History Month
1 | Alfa Demmellash
Alfa Demmellash was born and raised in Ethiopia. Her mother fled the country as a refugee when Alfa Demmellash was just two years old after losing two of her siblings in the ongoing civil war. Alfa stayed in Ethiopia with her grandparents. After 12 years in Ethiopia, She came to the U.S. and reunited with her mother in Boston (even if we are not able to put Alfa’s inspiring family story here, we suggest you to read it on Huffpost).
Alfa Demmellash studied Government at prestigious Harvard University and she was particularly interested to learn about the underlying political, social, and economic dynamics that led to the unrest that had separated her from her mother for so many years. At Harvard, she met her future business partner and husband Alex Forrester. Within a few months after her graduation, Alfa Demmellash and Alex Forrester co-founded the New Jersey-based Rising Tide Capital – a non-profit organization whose mission is to assist struggling individuals and communities to build strong businesses which transform lives, strengthen families, and build sustainable communities.
Since founding Rising Tide Capital, Alfa Demmellash has been receiving a number of accolades and recognition. In 2009 she was profiled as a CNN Hero and recognized by President Barack Obama during a speech at the White House. She was named one of Forbes‘ “Most Powerful Women Changing the World with Philanthropy” in 2012 and a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum in 2015. She has appeared on Larry King Live and the Suze Orman Show and was named a “40 Under 40 Dream Maker” in Essence Magazine‘s 40th anniversary edition, along with receiving a slew of other national media coverage.
2 | Gebisa Ejeta
Gebisa Ejeta, PhD, was born and raised in a small rural community in west-central Ethiopia. He completed his early education in his native country including a BS in Plant Sciences from Haramaya University (the then Alemaya College) in 1973. He attended graduate school at Purdue University earning his Masters (1976) and PhD (1978) in Plant Breeding & Genetics. In 1979, Dr. Gebisa Ejeta joined the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and conducted seminal sorghum research in Sudan for five years. In 2009, he won the World Food Prize for his major contributions in the production of sorghum.
Dr. Gebisa has served on numerous science and program review panels, technical committees, and advisory boards of major research and development organizations including the international agricultural research centers (IARCs), the Rockefeller Foundation, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), and a number of national and regional organizations in Africa. He was a member of the team that launched the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa, a joint effort of the Rockefeller and Gates Foundation. Dr. Gebisa has served the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the largest publicly funded agricultural research consortium in the world as member of its Science Council (2008-2010) and currently as member of its Consortium Board. He is also a board member of Sasakawa Africa Program. Dr. Gebisa was recently designated special advisor to USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah (2010-2015). Currently, Dr. Gebisa is a distinguished professor at Purdue University.
3 | Meklit Hadero
Meklit Hadero is an Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter composer, and cultural instigator. She is known for her soulful performing style, and for combining jazz, folk, and East African, especially Ethiopian, influences in her music. Born in Ethiopia, Meklit was raised in the U.S. and attended Yale University, where she studied political science. When she talks about her study (political science), she says:
“I studied political science at Yale, but I always thought of a liberal arts education as developing a relationship to language, writing, and complexity, learning to take streams of thought from multiple disciplines and develop your own opinions about the world, to engage with information and culture in a present-time way. Even though I’m no longer in the field of political science, those meta-ideas are ones I put into play every day.” (TED)
After college, and after a few years in Seattle, Washington, Meklit moved to San Francisco and found the Red Poppy Art House – an on-site exploration in cultural-artistic-community engagement in the residential sector of the Mission District of San Francisco. Meklit’s debut album, “On A Day Like This” was released in 2010 and has brought her to the international stage. Since then, she has four more albums, the last one, “When The People Move, The Music Moves Too,” released in June 2017. Listen to this, one our favorites from Meklit: I Want To Sing For Them All, By Meklit + Feat. Andrew Bird.
Meklit Hadero is the co-founder of San Francisco-based “The Nile Project,” an art-education-leadership collaboration aiming at transforming the Nile conflict by inspiring, educating, and empowering an international network of university students to cultivate the sustainability of their ecosystem.
4 | Liya Kebede
A model, maternal health advocate, clothing designer and actress Liya Kebede was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. While she was attending Lycée Guebre-Mariam in Addis Ababa, a film director spotted her and introduced her to a French modeling agent; and eventually, at the age of 18, Liya moved to Paris where she was debuted as model.
Liya later relocated to New York City. Her big break came when fashion designer Tom Ford asked her for an exclusive contract for his Gucci Fall/Winter 2000 fashion show. Then in May 2002 she was on the cover of Paris Vogue, which dedicated the entire issue to her. In 2003, Liya Kebede was named the newest face of Estée Lauder cosmetics, the only Ethiopian to serve as their representative in the company’s 72-year (as of 2018) history.
Besides her modeling profession, Liya has stared on a few feature films. In 2009, she starred in Sherry Hormann’s film Desert Flower – an adaption of bestselling autobiography of Somali-born model Waris Dirie by the same title. Liya has in Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2006) and Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War (2005).
In 2005, Liya Kebede was appointed as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. She then founded the Liya Kebede Foundation, whose mission is to reduce maternal, newborn and child mortality in Ethiopia and around the world. In 2013, Liya was named one of Glamour’s Women of the Year for her philanthropic work through her Liya Kebede Foundation.
5 | Dinaw Mengestu
Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. His family left Ethiopia during the war when he was two years old and immigrated to the United States. Dinaw Mengestu is a graduate of Georgetown University (B.A. in English) and of Columbia University (M.F.A. in fiction). He is the recipient of a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a Lannan Literary Award, and received a “5 under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation. His first but worldwide acclaimed novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, was named a New York Times Notable Book and awarded the Guardian First Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, among numerous other honors. Since his first book was published in 2007, he has received numerous literary awards, and was selected as a MacArthur Fellow in 2012. Dinaw serves on the advisory board of Warscapes, an independent online magazine that provides a lens into current conflicts across the world. His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Granta, New York Times, and other publications.
“Obviously, I come from a family of immigrants,… and if you pay attention to the environments around you, you get a sense of who these people are. The character is driven by a search for a sort of home … what I think is a pretty universal and pretty common feeling.” Dinaw Mengestu – NPR
The excerpt of can be found on NPR.
6 | Maaza Mengiste
Maaza Mengiste is an Ethiopian-American novelist and essayist. She was born in 1974 in Addis Ababa, but left at the age of four when her family fled the country which was under the bloody Derg regime (a.k.a “red terror” era). She spent the rest of her childhood in Nigeria, Kenya, and the United States.
Maaza Mengiste is a graduate of New York University (M.F.A in creative writing) and also studied in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar. She was also nominated for Pushcart Prize, American literary prize published by Pushcart Press that honors the best “poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot” published in the small presses. Maaza Mengiste’s first novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” was named by the Guardian as one of the 10 best contemporary African books and has been translated into several languages and was on several ‘Best of 2010’ lists, including Publishers Weekly and Christian Science Monitor.
Maaza Mengiste is not only writer/novelist. She has also been involved in human rights and social issues. As her native-country-fellow Dinaw Mengestu, Maaza serves on the advisory board of Warscapes. Maaza also contributed the documentary film Girl Rising – a film that tells the stories of nine girls from nine developing countries and their journey to education. Maaza’s writinge have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian and Callaloo Journal, among others.
7 | Brook Negussie
Brook Negussie was born in Ethiopia and educated in Europe and Canada. He is a life-long social entrepreneur dedicated to promoting technology access. Over the past fifteen years, Brook has held leadership roles in international technology companies. This work has included telecommunications, satellite communications, media and social networks.
Brook Negussie’s business experience has been clearly defined by his efforts to provide learning resources to schoolchildren throughout Africa using satellite radio and internet connectivity. He began eLearnAfrica because of his commitment to expanding educational opportunities to under-served communities. Through his vision, eLearnAfrica is aimed at making world-class, locally relevant educational materials and learning resources available to students throughout the African continent by harnessing technology and social media networking.
Launched in 2016, the eLearnAfrica online educational platform offers an array of opportunities to African students at every stage of higher education and career development: test prep and tutoring; individual courses from the world’s best universities; full degrees; vocational training; and industry-standard professional certifications. It is accessible through desk-tops, as well as mobile devices.
8 | Marcus Samuelsson
Marcus Samuelsson was born, as Kassahun Tsegie, in 1971 Ethiopia. At the age of 2, Marcus and his elder sister, were adopted by his Swedish parents, Lennart Samuelsson and Anne Marie.
After becoming interested in cooking through his maternal grandmother in Sweden, Marcus studied at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg where he was raised. After graduating in 1989, he apprenticed in Switzerland before moving on to France in 1993. In 1994, Marcus Samuelsson left for the U.S. and began an apprenticeship at Aquavit, a Nordic restaurant in New York City and he quickly became an executive chef. In 1995, just a few months after being named executive chef, he received his first three-star rating from the New York Times—at 23 (then the youngest chef to receive the honor). In 1999, Marcus was received the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef Award and again in 2003 the foundation named Marcus the best chef in New York City.
Marcus Samuelsson has been featured on television including on CNN, MSNBC’s The Dylan Ratigan Show, as a judge on Top Chef, Iron Chef USA, Iron Chef America, Chopped, and frequent guest appearances on Today. He previously hosted his own television shows, The Inner Chef and Urban Cuisine. He also was a judge in the show “My Momma Throws Down.” In 2015, he appeared in an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown with Ethiopia being the focus of that episode’s visit. These appearances as just a few of the many.
Marcus Samuelsson has also opened several restaurants, the first being Red Rooster in New York’s Harlem neighborhood in 2010. Ginny’s Supper Club (New York City), Marc Burger (Chicago), Tienda Roosteria (London, UK), Streetbird Rotisserie (New York City) and Marcus’ Bermuda (Bermuda) are some of the others which are owned by this Ethiopian-born world acclaimed chef – Marcus Samuelsson.
9 | Elias Wondimu
Elias Wondimu was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. At early ages, Elias had the dream of pursuing a profession in medicine, he gave up that dream to become a journalist – hoping that the journalism profession would let him make a plausible difference in his native country and in the world, as well.
Elias moved to the U.S. in 1994 and resided in Los Angeles where he joined the Ethiopian Review magazine as editorial staff. Passionate about Ethiopian and African issues, Elias Wondimu was able to see a void in the American book market. In 1998, he founded TSEHAI Publishers and, against tremendous odds, Elias has distinguished himself as one of the leading publishers in African literature and academia in the U.S. Since its foundation and dedicating itself to African literature, TSEHAI Publishers has published a wide and diverse range of books –historical, cultural, political, social, biographical, some to mention. Tsehai Publishers is at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Harriet Tubman Press is the newest imprint for TSEHAI and celebrates Black voices in the academic and literary world.
In February 2017, Elias Wondimu was awarded Grand Officer of the Imperial Order of Emperor Menelik II – the Ethiopian Crown’s most distinguished award.
10 | Atti Worku
Atti Worku was born in Adama, Ethiopia in 1984. Before relocating Atti Worku won Miss Ethiopia beauty pageant in 2005 and went on to represent her country in the Miss Universe pageant held in Bangkok, Thailand. After moving to the US in 2005, Atti Worku represented world-renowned brands, including JC Penney, Neiman Marcus and Dillard’s.
Atti Worku’s career has spanned across industries and continents, but it has always adhered to one central tenet: great things can spring from rough conditions if they’re given the right nourishment. She participated in fundraisers like the Children’s Cancer Fund, Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS). In 2007, Atti launched Seeds of Africa – a New York-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate and nurture children and their families by providing quality education and community development programs.
Atti Worku’s Seeds of Africa helped raise $1.3 million to support a new school construction project in Ethiopia, increased the operating budget from $20,000 in 2008 to $550,000 in 2015, launched a pilot after school program in Adama, and opened the organization’s first school serving children from pre-kindergarten to elementary school. Seeds of Africa now serves over 120 children in its school and more than 50 mothers in the community development program.
Atti Worku attended Columbia University, where she made the Dean’s List and graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Sustainable Development. She currently lives in New York City.