Seattle's Eritrean community is small compared to other immigrant groups in Seattle, with a little more than 5,200 people in King County. But it is one of the highest concentrations of Eritreans in the country.
It’s nearing midnight and the students are long gone from the Communications Building on the sprawling University of Washington campus. On the third floor, Mihret Dessu empties garbage cans, her ruffling of plastic bags disrupting the silence in this empty hallway.
Dessu moves hurriedly. Her shift is almost over, but she still has one more floor full of classrooms and offices to clean.
She’s been emptying university garbage cans for the past 15 years. But long before that, when she was but a girl, Dessu became a guerrilla fighter in her homeland of Eritrea, a small nation of 4 million people along the Red Sea at the eastern edge of North Africa. Back then, in the 1970s, Eritrea was fighting for independence from an oppressive regime in neighboring Ethiopia.
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At the age of 15, Dessu began training with AK-47s. She was no aberration. Female soldiers filled in where men were lacking, by some estimates making up 30 percent of the resistance movement and building a reputation as formidable soldiers.
By 1980, Dessu was fighting side by side with men. Then, in a battle outside Eritrea’s capital, a bullet pierced her lower leg.
“I fell down right away,” she says. “When I got up, no walking.”
Decades later and half a world away, sitting on a chair in an empty lecture hall, she rolls up her pant leg. The bullet scars on her calf, the entry and exit points, are clear.
Luckily, she says, the rest of her family was not harmed. But some of her friends were killed.
Now 47, she remembers feeling compelled to join the movement for Eritrea’s freedom. “For no money,” she says. “For our country.”
Dessu’s story is echoed throughout Seattle’s Eritrean community, a community that, compared to other immigrant groups in Seattle, is small — a little more than 5,200 people in King County. But it is one of the highest concentrations of Eritreans in the country, representing more than a quarter of the estimated 18,000 who have migrated to the United States in the past 40 years.
Most came as the war all but destroyed the country and drove hundreds of thousands to refugee camps. Community leaders say their numbers here continue to grow as more refugees arrive from a still troubled Eritrea or resettle from other parts of the United States.
But while the little community has been settled in the area for years, Eritreans have remained largely under the radar, often lumped with other immigrants from East Africa. Still, their footprints are here, all around the city.
Most Eritreans arrived in Seattle during the 1980s and ’90s, as word spread that Seattle was a city with good opportunities and temperate weather similar to Eritrea’s capital of Asmara.
As they had in other parts of the country, Seattle’s Eritreans came with the help of the federal government and often sponsored by churches. The immigrants began to find jobs in the service industry as parking-lot attendants, taxi drivers and janitors. Many still work those professions, but others carved out a niche in professions such as health care and are beginning to the climb the economic ladder.
Mostly sticking together, they gravitated to the Central District, Rainier Valley and North Seattle.
On Cherry Street near Martin Luther King Way, a minimart’s name is written in Tigrinya, one of Eritrea’s official languages.
A few blocks north of Northgate Way, an Eritrean cafe serves as a gathering spot. In the same row of businesses, there’s a beauty salon and a minimart also run by Eritreans.
Across the street, one of the community’s biggest churches in Seattle — the Eritrean Kidisti Selassie Orthodox Tewadeho Church — holds services for a packed house every Sunday.
Hundreds of worshippers form a steady line as they head to the main worship hall, but not before kissing the wooden doors at the entrance. The smell of incense dominates the air, and piles of shoes are scattered in the lobby.
Services sometimes last up to four hours. Gallons of tea and dozens of loaves of bread are served as snacks to tide the crowd over.
For the first generation of these immigrants, places like Kidisti Selassie are where the Eritrean culture still thrives. But some see their children and fear that their proud heritage, forged on the battlefield, is disappearing.
WAR DEFINES the history of Eritrea’s emigrants. Almost all left the country because of their role in a decades-long war for independence.
Eritrea has been a conquered land since 1885, when the Italians invaded. After Italy was defeated in World War II, the territory was given to Britain temporarily while the newly formed United Nations decided its fate. The U.N. handed over Eritrea to Ethiopia as a semiautonomous region. But in 1961, Ethiopia sent troops and officials to Asmara.
Eritreans fought back, first as a guerrilla movement led by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). Many in the community here joined ELF in the struggle, many suffered, and many were displaced. In all, around 500,000 Eritreans fled to refugee camps.
War raged for 30 years before independence was finally recognized in 1991. For the first generation of immigrants, the wounds both physical and emotional are still palpable.
The husband of Dessu’s co-worker, Asmelash Haile, named his oldest son after the river where he fought Ethiopian troops for 21 days. Haile lost his leg in the fighting, and shrapnel is still embedded in his skull.
Now he is among those worrying that the next generation will not appreciate this history. He tries to pass it on to his children and hopes they’ll be proud of what he fought for.
“Just now, they’re beginning to understand,” Haile says.
And yet, he knows what his people are up against. The younger generations are growing up alongside American kids, absorbing their culture and traditions. And, ironically, there is a rift in the community over the very struggle that united them in the homeland. Eritrea’s president is from a group called the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which emerged from and then fought the ELF during the war, eventually gaining the country’s independence.
When former members of the two groups converged in Seattle in the 1980s, Eritrea was still under Ethiopian control, uniting them in the common cause. But once Eritrea gained independence, ethnic differences emerged, along with disagreement over how the Eritrean government was running the country.
Tsegay Berhe, an adviser for the Orthodox church, explains there is “a sense of uneasiness among our people about the direction of the country, the implementation of the constitution and the respect of the rule of law. It is with this context, one has to see the heated political discourse in our community.”
These days, Eritreans worship in several small Protestant churches in the North End as well as at Eritrean Kidisti Selassie and a second Orthodox church, Debre Genet Kidisti Sellassie Orthodox Church in the Central District, where Sunday crowds can swell into the hundreds.
It is primarily in the churches that parents are trying to keep their heritage alive.
MUSIC BLASTS from the speakers onstage at the Eritrean Community Center in the Central District next to the Orthodox church. The dancing to honor women is about to begin.
Several dozen Eritreans have gathered for International Women’s Day, which is celebrated in big fashion back home with parades and all-day parties to commemorate the contribution of women soldiers.
In Seattle, dance, food, coffee and company do just fine.
First come the children. From a storage closet next to the stage emerge seven girls holding hands and forming a line. The girls, still new to the movements of this traditional dance, bop their shoulders up and down herky-jerky. The line wavers as a couple of the girls get distracted by all the spectators. Adults come up and put dollar bills in the girls’ dresses, signaling it’s the adults’ turn.
The women take to the floor. Once again, shoulders begin bopping up and down, this time in rhythm. One woman shrills, another grabs a drum made of an old oil canister. As she drums, she pitches back and forth, kicking high.
All are wearing white shawls over long dresses. Most have inked their hands and feet with henna in intricate designs. The men watch a bit, then join in, forming their own circles
With years of practice, the adults dance gracefully. But some of the children sit bored.
One, Johanna Wasse, impatiently waits for the night to end. When Wasse was younger, she used to dance, but at 13, she’s too old for that now.
She prefers hip-hop over traditional Eritrean music, saying it sometimes gives her a headache. “My dad plays it all the time,” she says. “I get used to it.”
“IT’S A CLASH of cultures,” says Tekeste Ogbamicael of the challenges his community faces in raising their children. Ogbamicael, a former teacher who fought in the resistance for six years, now directs the Eritrean Community Center. He and others say the sons and daughters of Eritrean immigrants have had trouble fitting in. The traditional dances seem strange to an American culture that does not fully understand what an Eritrean is.
Simon Tesfamariam, now 23 and active in a nascent Eritrean youth movement, says that when he was younger and tried to show people where Eritrea was, it wasn’t even on the map.
At school and in their neighborhoods, “The blacks wouldn’t consider us blacks,” says Yosan Berhane, now a student at Bellevue Community College. “The whites would label all us blacks.”
How to establish your identity in these circumstances?
Meanwhile, the parents complain that in Eritrea they could spank and discipline without fearing the cops coming to get them. Respect for adults is a communitywide value there, they say, and teachers are treated like parents.
Here, they say, schools are not as strict, families don’t all have the same values. They think that’s why some of the second generation went off-track, joining gangs and committing crimes.
In 2006, gang violence plagued the community. A gang named the East African Posse made headlines after a string of crimes and their eventual arrests. Some were Eritrean.
In the well-connected Eritrean community, anytime a young one gets off track, everyone knows.
“Embarrassed, you feel embarrassed, pain,” says Berhe, the church adviser. The young “will be American in many ways. But they should know who they are. Every father and mother is a symbol of Eritrean nationalism. The sense of culture is instilled in (the children). We have a great sense of values. Our challenge is how to transfer those values into the next generation.”
People like Ogbamicael, Berhe and Tesfamariam are giving it a try. Tesfamariam helped start the Seattle chapter of the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEY), an organization promoting Eritrean culture. Along with a group called United Eritrean Parents, NUEY has organized workshops for parents to learn tips on raising their children.
Tesfamariam has also been active in setting up basketball tournaments and after-school programs to give children some good alternatives.
“We’re a fairly new immigrant group to America,” he says. “We didn’t have the foundations.”
With these recent efforts, those foundations are being built, and there is hope that new arrivals will find a better footing in their new land.
MOHAMMED MAHMUD Afera prays to Allah in a living room decorated with paintings of Jesus.
His 9-year-old son, Mahmud, kneels beside him; they bow and begin to recite lines from the Koran as Mahmud’s little sister flops down beside them, trying to follow along. Afera “does that like five times a day,” says Debesai Gebre from the couch.
Both Gebre and Afera are from Eritrea. Gebre, a Christian and former guerrilla, left his country 20 years ago. Afera, a Muslim, is one of the newest arrivals. He and his family fled their farmland after a border war with Ethiopia broke out in 1998.
Afera and his family arrived in Seattle last year after living in Baltimore, where he was placed by the State Department. In Baltimore, an acquaintance told Afera about the community here. With only an address in hand, no English and little money, Afera and his family boarded a plane and made the cross-country trip. Arriving in Seattle, Afera, who knows Arabic, found a Somalian cabdriver and managed to ask to be taken to the address, which was for the Eritrean Community Center.
The majority of Eritreans in Seattle are Christian. But it doesn’t matter what religion Afera is. Bound by an abiding sense of patriotism for the land they’ve all left behind, the community has taken in this fellow Eritrean and tried to help him get on his feet.
That is why, on a rainy Sunday a year ago, Afera found himself living in Gebre’s one-bedroom apartment.
Afera’s life in this country is just beginning. His children, ranging from 10 years old to diapers, are just discovering their new home. Mahmud speaks with wonder about learning to use the Internet and e-mail.
Their Americanization has begun.
But this farmer, who doesn’t know how to drive and admits he’s qualified only for manual labor, is focused on one thing. Through Gebre, he speaks of providing for his family. For them, he says, “I want to work.”
In Eritrea, conditions have not improved. More than 100,000 refugees remain in Sudan. Many of those refugees, like Afera, will find their way to the United States. The Eritrean community in Seattle will likely continue to grow. So, too, will the challenges of raising their children.
Manuel Valdes, a former Seattle Times reporter, is now an Associated Press reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com. Betty Udesen is a former Seattle Times staff photographer now working on independent projects.