On the evening of September 11, 2010, the Ethiopian community celebrates Kiddus Yohannes, Ethiopian New Year, and the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association’s purchase of a community center at 8323 Rainier Avenue S in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of southeast Seattle. Approximately 1,000 people show up for the New Year celebration, but nearly half that number must be turned away when the new community center reaches full capacity. The community center is an almost 10,000-square-foot building that once housed the Faith Temple Community Church. It will be a gathering place for the more than 25,000 Ethiopian youth, parents, and elders who live in Seattle as of 2010, and will serve as space for tutoring, classes, Ethiopian holidays, and celebrations.
Origins of the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association
The first Ethiopians came to Seattle as students in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Most intended to get their education in Washington and then return to work and live in Ethiopia. But in 1974, these plans changed when the Derg, a Marxist military junta group, ousted Emperor Haile Selassie, bringing instability to the country. From 1974 to 2009, about 2.5 million Ethiopians fled the country in response to the oppressive Derg regime, the EPRDF party, which took power in 1991, war, and famine. In 1971, there were between 10 and 20 Ethiopians in Washington state; by the early 1980s there were about 200 Ethiopians, mostly in the Seattle area. These individuals sponsored Ethiopian refugees, many of who had already spent years in refugee camps in Kenya, Sudan, and Egypt and who may have also tried migrating to the Middle East and Europe.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Seattle’s small Ethiopian population had tried to organize some kind of community organization to help new immigrants. However, these groups were not knowledgeable enough about how to help, and they were ineffective. In 1983, some Ethiopians formed the Ethiopian Refugee Association, which later became the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association, formally incorporated as a 501 C (3) non-profit corporation in 1987. The initial goal of the ECMA was to help refugees to become good citizens, find work, and send their kids to school. Most importantly, it wanted to bring people together.
As a result of current political leadership in Ethiopia that promoted divisiveness among ethnic groups in order to strengthen its political position, tensions that existed in Ethiopia between Amhara, Oromo, Tigray,and other peoples continued to affect Ethiopians in the Seattle area. But in the past few years much of the divisiveness in the community has died down. The ECMA presents the new community center as a place for Seattle’s more than 25,000 Ethiopians and will not discriminate against religion, ethnicity or language, political affiliation, or culture. As Ezra Teshome, an Ethiopian community leader, points out: “'being ‘Ethiopian’ will not take away from other values,” meaning that Ethiopians can hold onto their own ethnic or religious identities and still consider themselves Ethiopian (Teshome interview).
Building a Community Center
The Ethiopian Community Mutual Association first came up with the idea of purchasing a space for a community center in 2002. Though the organization began to collect money, campaigning for the project was on again and off again until 2008. In 2008, the association elected new board members, who are all volunteers. The board decided to focus on two things: the need for a center and at least one paid staff member.
Membership increased dramatically and many people donated small amounts of money toward the project. By the summer of 2010, the community had raised $335,000 to use as a down payment and an additional $5,000 to use as a closing costs on the Faith Temple Community Church building. The association met its goal and on August 31, 2010, bought the new community center building for $1.6 million.
At the Center of the Community
The large number of people attending the September 11th New Year celebration reflected not just excitement about the holiday, but also excitement about Seattle’s first Ethiopian Community Center. The association will host programs for Ethiopian youth, such as after-school tutoring, Amharic language classes, cultural classes, computer classes, and arts and music events. The hope is that these programs will help Ethiopian youth develop their own identity and pride and teach them to be good citizens.
Some Ethiopian children have strayed from their immigrant parents, who often cannot speak English fluently, work two jobs away from their homes in order to support their families, and cannot integrate into American culture as quickly as their children can. As a result, some young Ethiopians have gotten involved in gang-related activities. Community leaders believe that youth programming at the community center will help address this problem.
For adults, the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association will help new immigrants coming to America on Diversity Visas find jobs and learn English. For parents, they will offer parenting and women’s empowerment classes. In addition, the association hopes to bring in police officers, health officers, and politicians to teach Ethiopians about the law, health and nutrition, and other issues pertinent to the well-being of the community. Finally, the community center will be a place for retired Ethiopians to spend time with one another, support each other, learn new skills, and help young Ethiopians learn their language and heritage.
The Ethiopian Community Center will also celebrate major Ethiopian events and holidays, such as the anniversary of the Battle of Adwa when Ethiopians drove out the Italians on March 1, 1896, Kiddus Yohannes, which is the Ethiopian New Year, as well as a celebration for new Ethiopian graduates at all levels and a summer family picnic.