Historically, despite a longstanding sympathetic relationship with the United States, Ethiopians rarely sought citizenship in the country. In fact, before the Ethiopian Revolution in 1974, the equivalent Ethiopian word for “immigrate” did not exist without a negative value judgment. The closest term denoted a staunchly felt cultural stigma against “rootlessness” and “helplessness.” So although the United States had a long-standing relationship with Ethiopia for providing quality education, Ethiopians rarely moved to the U.S. permanently, but rather preferred to come for higher education and return home. When the military junta known as the Derg overthrew Haile Selassie’s regime in 1974, however, and executed mass killings and detentions, there was an exodus of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees to the United States fleeing for their lives. (An estimated 500,000 people lost their lives, were brutally tortured, or were imprisoned during the Derg’s reign, which lasted until 1987.) Many of the Ethiopians who came to California settled in Oakland’s Temescal district, sometimes referred to as “Little Ethiopia.” Now Ethiopians and Eritreans live throughout the East Bay, but maintain restaurants, shops and other businesses on Telegraph Avenue. Intermingled with a variety of other cultures’ cuisines are over ten Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants currently in operation in this 0.386 square mile neighborhood.
Fetlework Tefferi, who owns Café Colucci, one of the most popular Ethiopian restaurants in the East Bay, and Brundo grocery store, explains that the sense of community created by the congregation of Ethiopian businesses on Telegraph Ave. helps to mitigate the culture shock Ethipians inevitably feel upon arriving in the US, and cites the proximity to the university as a “natural draw” to the area. “Ethiopians congregate around schools,” she describes, “It’s like prestige, education.” Fellow Ethiopian business owner on Telegraph and friend, Genet Asrat, says that in the 1980’s, when she and many other Ethiopians first came, the neighborhood’s international aspect made it “very easy to mix.”
The Ethiopian Community and Cultural Center (ECCC) was established on Telegraph Ave. in 2001 and contributes a great deal to assist and empower Ethiopians and Eritreans in the area. This is no small feat, as the Bay Area has one of the largest Ethiopian and Eritrean populations in the country, alongside Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta and Houston. The ECCC, a non-profit organization, supports an estimated 20,000 Bay Area Ethiopian community members through a variety of social and cultural programs that run the gamut from immigrant case management services to cultural adjustment services to business and computer training classes. Its mission is “to advance the social and economic well-being of low income individuals through a comprehensive community development strategy, offer assistance with immigration general services, promote job development, offer access to healthcare, help create small businesses, and senior caregiving programs.”