Monday, March 14, 2005

Ethiopia Tries to Woo its Emigrants Home

According to Arizona Central, government officials said at least 1,500 emigres had returned to Addis Ababa and that they were launching an aggressive campaign to woo more, offering tax breaks on importing belongings and flexible land ownership laws. In Washington, they said, embassy officials had been going door-to-door in Ethiopian-American neighborhoods, urging patriotic entrepreneurs to move back...

Driven Away by Upheaval, Drawn Back by Success
The cigar smoke was thick at the swank Office Bar. Danny Davis, a stylish businessman raised in Washington, D.C., huddled with other Ethiopians visiting from the United States, sharing tips about the best local neighborhoods, most promising investment opportunities and best restaurants to munch a burger.

"I am so happy I am moving back," said Davis, 37, wearing a buttery leather jacket and sipping a whiskey. He's the owner of Pearl Restaurant and Lounge in Washington, but he plans to move with his wife, who is now pregnant, back home to Ethiopia next year. "There is real energy and movement in Addis. I tell my Ethiopian friends in D.C. they've got to go back and see what's going on."

A few blocks away, Woosen Ayalew, 44, a former resident of Fairfax, Va., runs the City Café, a coffeehouse that serves American-style doughnuts along with tiny cups of Ethiopian espresso.

"Ethiopia is experiencing a brain gain," Ayalew said. "Even just five years ago, no wanted to come back. Now everyone wants to come back and be a part of helping to build the country."

In many parts of the world's poorest continent, the chatter among ambitious people is usually about which Western embassy issues the fastest visa. About 20,000 skilled professionals leave Africa for Europe or the United States every year, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency.

Among Ethiopians, however, many young emigres from the business and professional set are looking to return. This unique situation can be attributed in part to the financial success of Ethiopians in the United States, and in part to a campaign by the government to woo them back, said Kinfe Abraham, president of the African Economist magazine.

The greater Washington area has the world's largest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Africa, many of them driven away by protracted periods of famine and political instability. Last year, Ethiopians in the United States sent home $6 million in remittance money, eclipsing coffee, the country's biggest export, which earned $4 million.

But increasingly, Ethiopians who made their fortunes in the strip-mall spice stores and bakeries of Fairfax and the packed restaurants of Adams Morgan say they want to do more than send money home. All over Addis Ababa, eateries and offices are opening with such names as The Olive Garden, New York, New York, and The Boston Professional Building.

Government officials said at least 1,500 emigres had returned to Addis and that they were launching an aggressive campaign to woo more, offering tax breaks on importing belongings and flexible land ownership laws. In Washington, they said, embassy officials had been going door-to-door in Ethiopian-American neighborhoods, urging patriotic entrepreneurs to move back.

"There is the sentimental pull of home and at the same time a thriving business atmosphere," Kinfe said. "Successful people feel they owe something back to their country. Ethiopians love their culture. They want to come back. They just want to know they can also support their families here."

Despite a history of poverty and political problems, Ethiopia has long been regarded as a cultural capital of Africa. A recent celebration here, honoring the late reggae singer Bob Marley's 60th birthday, drew Africans from around the world. Many praised Ethiopia, the country Marley honored in his songs. "Babylon is falling, Ethiopia is calling," a Jamaican reggae group sang at the festival, encouraging Africans living abroad to move here.

One reason the country holds emotional resonance for Africans is because, unlike its neighbors, it was never colonized and was able to retain its cultural and religious traditions. Ethiopians have their own way of telling time and their own calendar.

The country has a long history of art and crafts, with a unique style of thick furniture, gauzy white cotton fashions and cuisine served around a low table, where diners use napkin-like injera bread to scoop up vegetables, sizzling fish and meats. While MTV-culture has had some impact, Ethiopian music stars are far more popular than foreign imports. The country has its own music awards.

It's also a place where literature has been highly respected, even during repressive times. While imprisoned from 1977 to 1987 for running a student movement, Nebiy Mekonnen, now editor of the newspaper Addis Admas, gained international honors for translating the entire text of "Gone With the Wind" on 3,000 torn cigarette packets. He recently visited the Washington area for poetry readings and to persuade emigres that the political situation was better and that they should come home.

It was political oppression that caused many Ethiopians to flee in the early 1980s, when the now-exiled communist dictator, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, confiscated the property of the upper classes and put opposition party members in jail.

Tadiwos Belete, an energetic man of 40, left Ethiopia when Mengistu took over. His family fled to neighboring Sudan, where he washed dishes and scraped by as a refugee. After securing a U.S. visa, he settled in Boston and worked as a waiter while going to school. He saved enough to open a small Ethiopian restaurant, which did well. Then he opened a hair salon, and it became so popular that he opened a second.

With money in the bank and a stable political situation in Ethiopia, Belete returned recently to Addis Ababa, where he built the gleaming Boston Day Spa. The $2 million club houses a full-service spa and salon with steam rooms, vibrating massage chairs and a hair-braiding room. Upstairs is a posh bar with puffy velvet couches. Belete also plans to build another spa in Debre Zeit, a town 33 miles southeast.

"It's not charity work," Belete said, a wearing white linen shirt, beige pants and a wide smile as he showed a visitor the Ethiopian mosaic artwork in the spa's lobby. "There is a lot of opportunity here, and a lot of people who are happy to have these services."

The Boston Day Spa is located on Bole Road, a lively strip so filled with Ethiopian-American businesses that it's called "wha's up avenue," a reference to the slangy English a lot of returning emigres speak.

Yet for all the buzz, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average life expectancy of 42 years, a per capita annual income of $100, and 172 of every 1,000 children dead before age 5, according to the World Bank's World Development Report for 2004.

But officials hope that after the first investors come, doctors, lawyers, educators and other professionals will follow. The government is especially eager to attract those in the medical profession. At present, there are more Ethiopian doctors living in the United States than in Ethiopia.

"Most of the friends I graduated with are now in the U.S.," said Dr. Abdu Ibrahim, who was rushing off to deliver a baby in a private Addis Ababa clinic. "I want to tell the medical profession to come back. But I also understand why they left. It can be frustrating."

T. Dosho Shifferaw, 51, is the inventor of the exercise machine Bowflex. He moved to California's Bay Area in the 1970s and became a millionaire. Recently he has been visiting his homeland often, setting up water pumps in poor rural areas and hosting an inventors' conference last month to encourage young scientists to come back. Now, he said, he, too, was feeling the pull to return.

"The whole country is changing. I want to be part of a place where things are really happening," said Shifferaw, 51, during a recent evening at the Office Bar. "Maybe some of us are like Polish-Americans and Greek-Americans and feel we will never really move back," he said. "Then again, you don't forget your heritage. Sometimes if you have a chance to go home again, you take it."

Washington Post

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