When people talk about Rahwa Habte, it sounds like they’re talking about the sun — that she was powerfully bright, a center of gravity with an almost alchemical ability to make things grow.
“It’s almost like the word ‘community’ is too trite to describe the foundation she built just by being who she was,” said Hollis Wong-Wear, a songwriter and musician who spent much of her early career at Hidmo, the Eritrean restaurant and de facto community center Habte ran. “She was the engine, the nucleus, the crucible of that space — I saw her as a titan.”
Habte was a community organizer, activist, chef and entrepreneur who moved in many circles: at the nonprofit OneAmerica, she worked on immigrant advocacy with now-Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. At the city of Seattle, she helped establish the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs and initiated a program to involve the community in building the annual city budget.
But Habte was probably best known as the co-owner and prime mover at Hidmo in the Central District which, between 2006 and 2010, became a home-away-from-home for artists, musicians, youth groups, nonprofits, activists and neighbors.
Habte, 42, died on Aug. 27 from causes yet to be determined by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office — but friends and family, like Asmeret Habte, Habte’s sister, say she died from complications of a yearslong struggle with mental health and addiction issues.
Even through those difficulties, Asmeret Habte said, she was an example to others by being open about her struggles in public and on social media.
“She opened doors for East Africans and Black women where things like that are pushed under the rug and shushed,” said Selam Habte, another Habte sister. “She shared, and I’m hearing from a lot of people saying how brave she was, how nobody does that and it helped them.”
Habte was born in Eritrea during its war of independence and was a year old when her family was forced to leave, spending four years in refugee camps before arriving in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood in 1983. Habte was 5.
The family became an anchor and a resource for other immigrants, Asmeret Habte said, opening their home to recent arrivals and buying the property for an Eritrean community center.
“Our father said if someone seeks help, they will knock on enough doors to get it,” she explained. “But if you open your door first and make their trip shorter, that blessing is on you.”
From an early age, Habte was a tutor and organizer. “It just became automatic,” Asmeret Habte said. “ ‘Oh, we need this?’ She’d start organizing right away and we’d move tables, set things up, didn’t wait for permission.”
Habte attended Washington State University where she studied biology, but spent much of her time in student leadership, including at the Women’s Resource Center.
“Before Black Lives Matter, before the Indigenous or trans communities were lifted up, she was ahead of all of us,” Asmeret Habte said, “working in solidarity with the marginalized of the marginalized.”
Habte returned to Seattle and worked at the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas — where she befriended writer Octavia Butler, frequently driving her around Seattle.
In 2006, Habte, along with hip hop artist Gabriel Teodros and some others, went to Hidmo for the first time — and found out the restaurant was for sale.
“That night I went to Rahwa and Asmeret’s house,” Teodros said. “The three of us started brainstorming about what we could do with the restaurant: a space for meetings, an all-ages hip hop venue. They all came true.”
The two sisters bought Hidmo in December 2006. It quickly became a cultural epicenter with Rahwa in the kitchen — sometimes crowded with friends — cooking complex Eritrean dishes and mulling over cultural collaborations.
“Hidmo was a lot like CBGB was in New York for the punk community,” said Jonathan Cunningham, a longtime music journalist who worked at the restaurant for a few years, and is now a senior program officer at the Seattle Foundation. “It was just ground zero.”
Artists and organizations used it as a meeting hall, a performance venue and a general hangout space: musicians like Blue Scholars and THEESatisfaction, hip hop community nonprofit 206 Zulu, spoken-word group Youth Speaks, Filipina group Pinay sa Seattle, and many others. Hidmo hosted queer comedy nights, a weekly African music night, a monthly all-women hip hop showcase, the Seattle Fandango Project (a participatory music style from Veracruz, Mexico), Students for Justice in Palestine (which brought touring Palestinian hip hop artists) and much more.
“It was a place where you got to see people who looked like you, see your own struggles, celebrate your own beauty,” Asmeret Habte said. “For people not often seen, it was a place to feel whole.”
The restaurant closed in 2010, but a year earlier, Habte had already begun working for OneAmerica, helping register people to vote and run the $15-an-hour minimum-wage campaign in SeaTac.
In 2012, Habte went to the city, working on outreach for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and then to the Department of Neighborhoods, where she pioneered the participatory budget program and worked on immigrant advocacy.
She left the city in 2016 and her struggles became more intense.
“She had depression, anxiety, trauma,” Asmeret Habte said. “There were things she medicated throughout her life. There were many months of sobriety, some months not, always that yo-yo.”
Friends and family say the pandemic hit her especially hard as opportunities to connect with community — which she had spent her life building — dwindled.
“I would call this a COVID-adjacent death,” Cunningham said. “She was a Black, immigrant woman from war-torn Africa with mental health issues and addiction issues and she did not survive the pandemic. Those are bad odds, and she didn’t make them. I am angry, to be honest, at a level of system failure that allowed her to slip through the cracks.”
The whole city, he said, is mourning her. “They say when your work here is done, the Lord calls you home,” Cunningham said. “And I would like to think that despite everything, the creator will say: ‘Job well done.’ ”
Habte is survived by her mother Ethiopia Tekeleyes Beru and father Ogbe Keshi Habte, as well as her siblings Yonas Habte, Esayas Habte, Liya Habte, Senait Habte, Asmeret Habte, Selam Habte and Temesgen Habte.
Memorial contributions can be donated to In Loving Memory of Rahwa Ogbe Keshi Habte on gofundme.com. Details for a public community memorial will be forthcoming.