Unlike Cubans, Ethiopian Emigres Remain Too Fragmented, Scattered to Impact US Politics

On Friday morning, Blen Mesfin (name changed upon request) was early at work at Starbucks on McPherson Square, downtown Washington, D.C. One of her frequent customers, named Monica, leaned over the counter while ordering coffee and mumbled a word or two in Amharic, “Simish Manew.” Monica was honing her Amharic accent with the help of Blen, who has been working for 10 years in the same joint, ever since she came over here in the United States from Semen Mazegaja, in Addis Abeba.

Blen was excited for next Tuesday, November 8, 2016. She will vote for the first time in favour of a candidate in the American presidential race which Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Manager, Robby Mook, has described as “absolutely tightening.” A day before, Clinton was locked in the race with the Republican candidate Donald Trump judging by a public opinion poll jointly taken by the Washington Post and ABC. In Florida, each had 45pc support by those polled, while the independents Gary Johnson had four percent and Jill Stein two percent. In North Carolina, the polls showed Trump leading by three percentage points, having 47pc of support from voters polled.

Despite volatile and often changing results from polls, who may be a resident of the White House for the next four years will be decided by no less than 200 million Americans early next week. Like Blen, many Ethiopian Americans would be thrilled with the prospect of Clinton`s victory; yet, the near possibility of Trump`s win terrifies a lot out of people. Blen is just one of them.

A resident of Rockville, Maryland, Blen and her husband, who is in IT, have decided to vote for Clinton, for she believes the Democrats “are better for middle income families.” But she has her disappointments with the policy of Democrats such as Obamacare, which has soared her insurance payment to 260 dollars a month.

Nonetheless, Blen`s family is one of the hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians immigrants who call the United States home now. No one knows exactly how many people of Ethiopian origin live here in North America, although numbers range between a little close to half a million, according to Ethiopia’s Ambassador in Washington, D.C., Girma Birru, to a little over a million, as estimated by David Shinn (PhD), former US Ambassador to Ethiopia.

Aside guesses and individual estimates, a survey made by Rockefeller Foundation-Aspen Institute in 2014, on immigrant groups from 15 countries, shows a much lower figure. Although the second largest communities originated from Africa, at 251,000, Ethiopians are only next to Nigerians in the size of Africans in the total immigrant population of the United States. A little close to 47pc of them are American citizens such as Blen, who have arrived here in large numbers since 2000.

Many of them work in the service sector and earn lower median income that pay between 36,000 dollars to 50,000 dollars a year, the lowest among the 15 countries the Foundation surveyed. Working five days a week, Blen earns an annual income of 27,000 dollars, while raising a three-year-old daughter. If it was not for the additional 90,000 dollars her husband brings home, she would have joined close to 80pc of Ethiopians here, who are not in professional or in managerial positions. No less than 20pc of them live under the official poverty line, earning less than 16,000 dollars a year.

“Before I got married, I used to top up my income from Starbucks taking second job in a supermarket,” Blen told Fortune.

Ambassador Girma concedes that, “our share is in the lower ladder of the economy.”

In fact, Ethiopians earning over 140,000 dollars a year are sheer three percent, while those with over 90,000 dollars in annual income are 11pc, compared to the total population ratio of 25pc. One of these Ethiopians is Tomas Abeba, 35, who owns a restaurant he opened eight months ago on 9th & U Street of Washington D.C. It is the part of the city where large number of Ethiopian businesses are concentrated, after many of them moved from Adams Morgan area back in the 1990s.

Inside his restaurant, the Right Spot, on Thursday late morning his wife, Liya, stood behind the counter while in the background the television blared with minute by minute update on the presidential race. The polls were coming in showing a marginal lead in Florida by Trump, making Tomas a bit nervous. He was dressed in a white work T-shirt while busily occupied somewhere in the kitchen.

A father of two, Tomas is one of the Ethiopian American voters determined to give his card to the Democratic candidate. Like him, many Ethiopians seem to have strong affection to the Democratic party, and vote up and down the ticket, including for the presidential ticket. This time around though, the choice is not easy for many, for Clinton`s baggage in her email saga and Barack Obama`s legacy in promoting same sex marriage and abortion deeply disturb Ethiopians who hail from a rather religious and conservative society.

Ethiopians are believed to have immigrated to the United States and elsewhere in four waves. It was very unlikely for Ethiopians to have settled overseas back in the 1950s and 60s when they travelled largely for education. If there were any, they were far too few and far between such as the 144 students who left for Western countries in the 12 years since 1922. It was rare to see Ethiopians file for political asylum back then; only 61 of them were granted with their requests in the decade between 1950s and 1960s. In the following decade, only two Ethiopians were granted asylum, including in 1965 to Brehanu Denqie, then Ethiopia`s ambassador to the United States.

The second wave followed the rise in Ethiopia of the military Marxist government in the mid-1970s, when authorities in the United States decided to resettle 1,000 refugees from Sudan, beginning in 1981 when there were only 10,000 Ethiopian emigrants. It is consistent to the general growth of immigrants from Africa in the past four decades. It increased from 80,000 in 1970 to about 1.6 million in the period from 2008 to 2012, doubling each decade, according to a U.S. Census Bureau.

People like Blen (who came 10 years ago) and Tomas (16 years ago) are part of the fourth wave which saw the arrival of Ethiopians constituting close to 60pc of Ethiopian emigrants here today.

And they are well educated, according to surveys by US Census Bureau. Ethiopians with first degree represent a quarter of their community, a similar ratio for the American national figure. A graduate of mechanical engineering from the University of Southern Illinois eight years ago, Tomas is one of these accomplished Ethiopians. Those with advanced degrees in masters and PhD are 12pc among Ethiopians emigrants, one percentage point higher than the rate for the general American population.

Former Ambassador Shinn, who believes the size of the apolitical Ethiopian emigres is very much underestimated, is impressed with the “rate Ethiopians are integrating themselves in the American society.”

Nonetheless, Ethiopian Americans remain far from being a force to be reckoned with in American politics. Although heavily concentrated in Washington D.C., and scattered around 175 cities across the United States – with only two residents in Lafayette for instance – Ethiopian emigrants are nowhere close to Cubans in impacting American politics and use of their cards to curry the favour of presidential and congressional candidates.

Late arrivals in the early 1970s compared to Ethiopians, Cuba generates the tenth largest immigrants to the US soil. At more than 1.1 million, Cubans represent 2.8pc of the immigrant population here, compared to Ethiopia`s 0.6pc. Unlike Ethiopians, 77pc of Cubans are concentrated in Florida, a swing state which is one of the four states that will determine who wins the presidency next Tuesday.

“Almost universally, and up until very recently, Cubans were hostile to the Castro government,” noted Shinn.

Although the size of Ethiopian Americans with political fervour on issues back home is no less to be underestimated, unlike Cubans they are fragmented in their allegiances to political groups. Ambassador Girma sees Ethiopians in America with divided loyalty to three political groups clustered around those who arrived here during the first wave opposing the Emperor, second wave opposed to the military government, and those opposing the current government he serves.

“There is no defined community here,” says Girma. “The communities here are highly politicised, charged and limited by their respective activism. They work on the one percent that divides them.”

With the Ethiopian Community Development Council being the largest, the survey carried out by the Foundation discovered that 45 Ethiopian Diaspora organisations are operating in the United States largely focusing on social services including immigrants` warfare, integration and the development of Ethiopia. Indeed, Ethiopians in the United States sent the largest amount (181 million dollars) of remittance in 2012, followed by those in Israel (82.5 million dollars) and in Sudan (58.5 million dollars), making them vocal and engaged in the state of affairs back home.

Girma would rather like to see a community, which he partly perceives as “angry but at the same time loyal, hardworking and intellectual,” with competitive members winning in the mainstream system of America and the support of his government toward these goals.

“The government should redirect its orientation in how to deal with the Diaspora,” the Ambassador told Fortune.

The culture of engagement is mostly defined by the vocal element in the Diaspora, which is far from cordial with his government. His Embassy was a subject of repeated intrusions. Quite recently, three young opposition activists jumped into his residence, walked as far deep as his dinning room while he was having lunch with his family. This has prompted the Ethiopian government to warn its American counterparts on the failure to secure its embassies and diplomats, and that it could result in a tit-for-tat response.

Protest rallies and opposition gatherings in Washington, D.C. are all too common. Mid last week, there was a rally of cab drivers, driving around the streets of the capital waving Ethiopian flag, and marked with posters cautioning Americans passing by on their tax money used in supporting “a dictatorial regime” in Ethiopia.

Unlike the Cubans whose objections to the Castro regime paralysed United States foreign policy hostile to Cuba for decades, it seems their impact goes no father than that. Except winning the attention of couple of congressmen, such as Mike Coffman, and senators such as Benjamin Cardin, Shinn noted almost always that the executive side of the US government stayed on a friendly side of the fence with the Ethiopian government. Although economic cooperation and democracy as well as respect to human rights are on the table, shared concerns on security and joint efforts in fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa are prime goals of this relationship.

There will be little to change in foreign policy towards Ethiopia whether Clinton or Trump gets elected next week, both diplomats predict. Unusual for previous campaigns for the White House, Africa in general has received almost no mention during the debates and campaigns among the current candidates. However, Shinn sees a continuation of Obama`s policies towards Ethiopia in the case of Clinton`s victory, but with little tactical adjustments in approach.

“I doubt if she`ll be much different from others before her,” Shinn told Fortune. “She must have decided that there is no mileage to be gained by putting Africa on her map during her campaign. Only in the margins will there be changes in the likelihood of her presidency.”

Although Ambassador Girma would agree and foresees no change in foreign policy in store come Clinton or Trump, the White House under the latter would remain unpredictable when it comes to policy towards Africa in general. That there is not a single specialist on Africa on the Trump campaign team reveals the attention the continent will likely get if he gets elected. Shinn describes Trump as an empty vessel to fill up when it comes to countries in Africa.

“We just don`t know what Trump`s policy in Africa will look like,” Shinn, who is an old hand in the American foreign service, with long years of record in Africa, says. “With Trump, Africa will be left to the experts.”

He foresees the next American ambassadors to Ethiopia and the Africa Union (AU), both hosted in Addis Abeba, will have their biggest challenges in “getting attention from the Trump administration.”

For obvious reasons though, Trump has won a rather notorious attention from Ethiopians in the United States. Many like Blen and Tomas find it hard to contemplate his possible victory and fear that their well-being will be threatened with his presidency.

“I`ll go back to school,” said Blen, who completed dental care training few years ago.

Tomas, who strongly opposes Trump on the basis of his lack of experience in politics, and his policies on social security and immigration, will vote for the third time next week. Should his preferred candidate loses, he will continue running his restaurant where he employed no less than 10 staff.

“Unless he kicks me out,” he told Fortune.






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