Exploring Africa in LA: A Little Ethiopia story (Part 2)
Written by Shaka Mali Tafari
Producers: Shaka Mali Tafari and Anyel Zuberi Fields
Digital producers: Crissy Van Meter and Andrea Domanick
Story editor: Gail Gordon
I remember the morning of 9/11. I was 14, a freshman in high school. Mama wasn't a big TV person, but she was glued to the screen that day. When she told me it was a terrorist attack, I immediately thought, Man, white people crazy.
Anytime Mama used the word “terrorist,” she was usually referring to a violent crime, carried out by white extremists or the police, but there was something different about her demeanor that morning. It wasn’t until I got to school that I found out that these terrorists were radicalized al-Qaida extremists. I didn’t know where the Middle East was, but I quickly deduced what my mom was thinking — she knew that Black immigrants like her were going to catch hell for what happened.
At school, I fielded questions like, "Do you know any muslims?" (Yes, of course I do.) "Are there muslims in Jamaica?" (Yes, Muslims are everywhere.) "Do you have a Muslim name?" (Idk, yes, no, maybe?) That was my first time having to defend my cultural background, as did so many other Black and brown immigrants.
Nearly a year after the 9/11 attacks, the motion to officially recognize Little Ethiopia was presented to city council on Aug. 7, 2002. I was surprised to learn the decision passed unanimously, given the negativity surrounding immigrants of color at the time.
But making Little Ethiopia official was now even more vital for immigrants and their children to have safe spaces.
LA’s first Ethiopian restaurant
Fekere Gebre-Mariam — known locally as Mr. Fekere — is the owner of Rosalind’s, the city’s first Ethiopian restaurant on Fairfax Ave., which opened at its current in 1988. More than a decade before that, Mr. Fekere was part of an early wave of young Ethiopians who came to the US for education in the 1970s. After leaving his hometown, Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa, in 1971, he landed in Albuquerque, where he finished high school. He relocated to LA a year later, finishing his education at USC in 1976.
“Once I got my education, I planned to go back home, but things changed when I was in school, and I was not able to go back,” says Mr. Fekere.
“If the Emperor was alive or in power, or if somebody else but the democratic government, I would have gone to Ethiopia,” Mr. Fekere says.
Thousands more would follow in his footsteps, and even more would flee Ethiopia altogether. By 1980, there were roughly 10,000 Ethiopians living in the US.
Mr. Fekere settled in LA’s Koreatown neighborhood and was working as a real estate agent when he first learned of a West African restaurant called Rosalind’s.
“Rosalind’s used to be located on La Cienega Boulevard, and it was owned by a Liberian woman," he explains. "She was a nurse at UCLA. Her husband was a teacher. And they opened the first West African cuisine on La Cienega Boulevard around 1975.”
But in the 1980s, the Liberian couple was ready to sell the place and retire, so they contracted Mr. Fekere to help close the deal. Mr. Fekere had a buyer for the restaurant, but the deal fell through.
“It was a beautifully decorated restaurant, just like you were in West Africa," he says. "I loved the place, and I decided to buy it myself.”
That same year, he relocated the now-Ethiopian restaurant over to its current location on Fairfax Avenue.
“When I came [to Fairfax] in 1988, before that, it was 100% Jewish businesses," he says. "Most of those Jewish business owners retired and their children moved back to the Valley. So it was kind of declining.”
LA was home to roughly 30,000 Ethiopian residents at the time. Equipped with liquor and entertainment licenses, Rosalind’s became the spot for East Africans looking for a little piece of home.
“By the 1990s, we used to bring a lot of singers from Washington DC and Ethiopia to entertain this place,” he says.
To my surprise, Mr. Fekere also owned the Rastafarian store next door that Mama and I used to visit back in the 1990s. But I was even more inspired when I learned that Mr. Fekere encouraged his friends and colleagues to also set up shop here in LA.
“By the 1990s, I invited a lot of Ethiopians to come and open a business. So things change,” he says.
Soon, Little Addis, as Little Ethiopia was commonly referred to back then, included other Habesha restaurants, grocery stores, salons, and a travel agency. And the LA Times dubbed Mr. Fekere “something of a godfather on Fairfax."
The future for Ethiopians in LA
first neighborhood in the USOver time, the Ethiopian community on Fairfax stretched south to Pico Blvd. Berhanu Asfaw came to LA in 1981 and studied computer science at Trade Tech. In 2000, he and his brother Getahun bought the legendary restaurant Messob.
The brothers, along with other Ethiopian entrepreneurs in the area, regularly gathered with Mr. Fekere at Rosalind’s to discuss what the future could look like for Ethiopians in LA.
“We decided to become an advocacy group, giving people a voice, and also involving Ethiopians in local and civic businesses,” Berhanu Asfaw says.
Two years later, LA’s Little Ethiopia became the first of the city's 18 ethnic enclaves recognize a culture from the African continent, and the first place outside of Ethiopia to be officially named for the country. It was also the first neighborhood in the US to be named after an African nation. In 2004, Little Ethiopia in D.C. became the second. Since then, there have been no others.
On Nov. 24, 2002, Little Ethiopia blocked off the street to celebrate its inauguration day and nearly 5,000 people came to celebrate.
“I know how difficult it is for an enclave like that to exist here.”
In the wake of 9/11, President Bush said, “The war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there.” Immigration would soon be in its crosshairs.
On Nov. 25, 2002, the day after Little Ethiopia’s inauguration celebration, the Bush administration launched The Department of Homeland Security. The DHS began with a budget of $18 billion dollars. Today, their cash flow has ballooned to nearly $100 billion, supporting new law enforcement and surveillance agencies like the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE.
While Little Ethiopia has thrived for over 30 years, few — if any — other African or Caribbean enclaves have emerged in LA and other cities where our communities are represented. I love Little Ethiopia, not only because I used to go there as a kid, but because I know how difficult it is for an enclave like that to exist in our political and cultural climate.
“Things were different without Mama.”
In 2004, the DHS deported my mother back to Jamaica. I was 16. America would continue to strategically police Black and African immigrants in the years that followed. Today, Black immigrants make up just 7% of the non-citizen population in the US, but make up 20% of the immigrants facing deportation.
In the years following 9/11, there was no discussion about mental health and therapy for Black children of deported parents. All anybody wanted to talk to me about was Child Protective Services. And while I never became a ward of the state, I did lose touch with the African/Caribbean identity Mama worked so hard to instill in me.
Transportation was always a challenge when Mama was gone, so I had no way of getting to the places that reminded me of cultures similar to my own — places like Juicy’s or The West Indian Market in Crenshaw. I stopped going to Little Ethiopia, as well.
I didn’t know how to introduce myself anymore. Things were different without Mama. I didn’t know to whom or where I belonged anymore.
“I used to take you guys to some African festivals … they’d have performances, and they’d have vendors display their artwork," Mama remembers. "I wish I could do more of those things with you guys when you were grown and could better understand what it was all about."
Having just celebrated my 35th birthday, Mama’s absence hit me pretty hard. On special occasions like birthdays, she’d deep fry a whole red snapper, with a little stew, cabbage, and callaloo on the side. I can see Mama now, bumpin’ Buju Banton in the kitchen, spliff in hand, burning frankincense and myrrh, and putting the finishing touches on my celebration feast.
Today, I take comfort in the fact that that very meal, save for a few changes, is on nearly every menu in Little Ethiopia.
The late Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic (and co-host of KCRW's Good Food) Jonathan Gold wrote in high praise of the various Habesha eateries on the strip. And just weeks before he died in June 2018, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s show “Parts Unknown” paid a visit to the neighborhood.
Scientists say that smell brings us back to our most vivid memories; when I’m in Little Ethiopia, I think of Mama.
Breaking bread with thy neighbor in Little Ethiopia
Culture writer and Atlanic staffer Hannah Giorgis says that the way she celebrates and shares her Ethiopian culture is with its food.
“From when I was quite young, my mom would make not injera itself, but all of the various, wet dishes to put on it,” Giorgis says.
She loves fan-favorite dishes like gomen and shiro, both of which remind me of popular Jamaican side dishes like callaloo and stew cabbage. I can smell the Ethiopian spices coming together in my mind.
Mr. Fekere’s daughters Meklit Gebre-Mariam and Lense were practically raised at Rosalind’s.
“You come to little Ethiopia and there are people who look like you, and it is such a community," Meklit says. "It's a warm, amazing feeling and also a bit of pride because it's like my family, my people, created this.”
And Ethiopian coffee is a big part of the culture.
“At the restaurant, they'll do a traditional coffee ceremony and show you the roasted beans. ... It’s just heavenly…It's such a beautiful part of Little Ethiopia,” Meklit says.
Mama wasn’t a big coffee drinker, but I do remember the aroma from those coffee ceremonies.
“What I remember is going into a restaurant drinking coffee. I got so wired from that coffee. I never thought coffee could keep me up, but that one did,” Mama says.
They’d bring the coffee out in what looks like a ceramic pot with a short spout. Steam and the smell of burning incense would fill the whole room when they brought the pot to our table. The whole ritual was a vibe, and it still is — a powerful way for us to relate to one another.
“Even when it's not about the food, that space has been very much a gathering place," Giorgis says of the neighborhood eateries. "If everybody comes into LA on Sundays for church — from Orange County, from Riverside, from the Valley — LA is where we all gather. Within the city proper, the easiest place to do that is Little Ethiopia."
It's custom to break bread with thy neighbor in Little Ethiopia. That’s why you can also find Eritreans there too.
Eritrea and Ethiopia
Despite a long history of conflict between these two bordering countries, Eritrea and Ethiopia’s cultures have a lot in common.
Dr. Abraham K. Adhanom is a professor at the School of Business and Management at Azusa Pacific University. He’s also taught Amharic and Tigrinya language classes through the African Studies Center at UCLA for over ten years.
We’ve become friends over the course of my reporting. I even celebrated Habesha Easter with him and his congregation, a ceremony that began at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night and lasted until 2 a.m.
Dr. Adhanom grew up in Eritrea, when it was considered to be the 14th province of Ethiopia.
“[Eritrea] actually became independent in 1991," he says. "An official referendum by the people declared Eritrea to be an independent country in 1993, with a referendum of 99% of the Eritrean people voting for independence."
A year later, in 1994, Dr. Adhanom came to the US on an international leadership grant scholarship. Here in LA, Little Ethiopia offers him that little slice of home we all crave from time to time.
“People come here to catch up, to have fun, to enjoy each other. And also, to kind of get an update of what's going on,” Dr. Adhanom says.
Over the past year, however, a brutal war has rocked Ethiopia. What began as a violent conflict between the government and regional leadership in the north has escalated into a civil war broken down along ethnic lines, which threatens to destabilize the entire region.
The northern Ethiopian state at the heart of the conflict is called Tigray. The Tigrayan people represent about 6% of the Ethiopian population. For nearly 30 years, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, better known as TPLF, was the country’s ruling political party.
For nearly two years, the current Ethiopian government has been at war with TPLF. Exacerbating the conflict is the fact that Tigray shares a border with Eritrea, a country that Ethiopia has been in civil conflict with since 1998, under the TPLF regime.
A peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia was reached in 2018, with both territories now fighting in tandem against the TPLF. Many civilians are being killed, displaced, or left starving without access to humanitarian aid. Everybody I spoke to in LA's diaspora expressed deep frustration and sadness over the conflict, and how the war is affecting the Habesha diaspora globally.
“The current conflict in Ethiopia is not necessary," Dr. Adhanom says. "This is a war that should have never been started.”
No one person can give a complete picture of the war crimes being committed by the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and TPLF forces, but I asked Dr. Adhanom to share his thoughts about the war and what it would take to find a resolution.
“The leaders – whether that's the Tigray people, or the Ethiopian people – have to be invested in the benefits for people socially, economically, healthcare-wise," he says. "Within Ethiopia and Eritrea we need what they call, the National Reconciliation. The Ethiopian government is responsible for Ethiopia, for whatever is happening in Ethiopia, and even if they are making mistakes, it's much better to work with the government and see how to participate in whatever is going on rather than simply trying to destroy whatever we see.”
But on a civilian level, it's difficult to work with any government when they are actively at war in your backyard. In September 2021, I met Jamal Moberek, a Tigrayan organizer and activist in LA. I followed him around as he coordinated with fellow organizers and law enforcement to protest the ongoing civil war. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon at the Santa Monica Pier and the beach was crowded.
“Just like the Ukrainian war, we wanted to talk about 500 days of rape, 500 days of burning crops,” Moberek says.
Nearly 100 Tigaru men, women, and children came to show their support. Many of them traveled more than 150 miles to be there. Throughout the protest, they shared heartbreaking stories about the violence happening in their communities back home. They also talked about the divide that exists within the Habesha community at home and abroad right now.
“It’s hard to ignore history repeating itself.”
Deciding how to talk about the war was the most challenging part of this project. I did not want to write a story about Black trauma. But how could I interview generations of Ethiopians about their food, traditions, and experiences in LA and not think about where they came from? It's also hard to ignore history repeating itself — it was similar acts of political violence that forced Mr. Fekere decided to stay in LA so many years ago.
The protest was illuminating, and it was powerful being there with Jamal and his people, raising awareness about a war that’s deliberately overlooked.
From the very beginning of this project, the Habesha community has embraced me. I reached out to Dr. Adhanom first. He told me the term "Habesha" is a term used to describe people of Eritrean and Ethiopian descent, and that Little Ethiopia is also representative of Eritrean people, despite the history of tension.
It was Dr. Adhanom who introduced me to Mr. Getahun and Berhanu Asfaw, the owners of Messob. They had a crowded restaurant the night I came to introduce myself, but they spoke to me for two hours. I felt like a nephew talking to his uncles.
So far there are no Tigrayan-owned restaurants in Little Ethiopia, but I was adamant about having their voices included in this piece. And then, by accident, I found Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant in Inglewood.
Of course, I fell in love with the place. I shared that I was producing a story about Little Ethiopia, and despite the tension within the community, or the fact that the restaurant is not even in Little Ethiopia, they were excited.
I spent most of my time speaking to the very sweet woman working behind the bar. Her name is Ms. Gebeyanesh and her daughter, Shaba, owned the restaurant.
That’s also where I met Jamal. It was the first time I had been there.
After I finished eating my meal that day, I realized I didn’t have my wallet. When I told Ms. Gebeyanesh about my honest mistake, she said that my meal was on the house anyway. She said that she was proud of me for wanting to learn more about her and her people. I insisted on paying, but she wasn’t having it. When I insisted a second time, she looked at me like I was crazy — a stern and playful act of tenderness.
I’ve seen that look on my Mama's face a million times, and knew better than to ask again. She made me feel loved, I felt welcome. And without her knowing, I still paid.
Julet “Mama” Burke
Shaka Mali Tafari
Mr. Fekere Gebre-Mariam
Dr. Abraham K. Adhanom