Friday, May 20, 2005

As Ethiopians Prosper, A Safety Net Is Displaced

Hermela Kebede is consumed by worry. It pinches her forehead and tugs at her throat, making her voice sound tight. She sits in a small, airless office under a poster that shows a smiling girl with cocoa skin. "Ethiopia," it says. "Thirteen months of sunshine."

More than 30 years ago, Kebede left Ethiopia to study business administration in the United States. Now, at 56, she is the leader of the Ethiopian Community Center, which she said is the country's oldest organization of its kind. It offers English classes and more elementary help to the nation's largest Ethiopian community.

This should be a happy time. In November, the center will celebrate its 25th anniversary. Kebede is planning the party. But things are so expensive these days in the District, and money is so tight. The big hotels once charged $1,500 for a room and let you bring your own food. Now they charge $3,000 and want money for catering, too.

"I really want to do a celebration. Not just of the community center, but of the whole community," Kebede said. "The problem in the District is finding space."

Lately, finding space has been Kebede's focus and the source of her anxiety. Four years ago, rising rent forced the center to move from 14th and K streets NW to its present location, a warren of cramped offices on a shabby stretch of Georgia Avenue. There's a computer lab and an office for a social services coordinator. But there's no room for so many other things Kebede would like to have: a day-care center. After-school programs. Even the center's English classes had to be moved to borrowed classrooms on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Now, with property values skyrocketing across the region, the center stands to lose even this humble home. The building is owned by a real estate speculator who paid about $900,000 for the property, along with the building next door, three years ago. In July, he plans to execute a contract to sell the properties for four times that amount. The buyer plans to tear down both buildings and replace them with a "mixed-use" development, which sounds to Kebede like a code word for "fancy condominiums."

She is tortured by those facts. First, because the center tried to buy the building in 2001 but failed to raise the down payment. Second, because the speculator is himself an Ethiopian immigrant, and a relatively new one at that.

"He is lucky," Kebede said bitterly. "He told us, once it's sold, he will give us three months. In not more than six months, we will be out of here."

The building's owner, Seid Omer, visits the center often. On a recent morning, he sat in Kebede's office and offered assurances that demolition wouldn't begin until April, so Kebede has nearly a year to find a new building. And he will help her do it, he said, because the center is a "very special place."

Eight years ago, Omer left Ethiopia to study at Grambling State University. He didn't speak much English. But in Louisiana, there was no Ethiopian network, no community center to assist him. "I wish this kind of place had been there," he said, "because it's hard moving to the U.S., trying to understand the system. It's really difficult."

At 27, Omer appears to have the system figured out. He moved to the District and bought his first condo in 1997, before the real estate boom, using credit cards for much of the down payment. He sold it for a "good profit" and bought more land, including the building on Georgia Avenue.

In 2002, the place had been on the market for three years without drawing a serious offer. Rundown and damp in the basement, wedged between a huge liquor store and a parking lot with a rusty chain-link fence, the building doesn't look like much. But it lies two blocks south of the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro station and not far from the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights.

"We saw the future," Omer said.

Again, Omer borrowed on credit cards -- at 18 percent interest, he said -- because he couldn't get a commercial loan to buy the Georgia Avenue property.

"We sacrificed a lot, took a lot of risks. I still have $70,000 on credit cards," he said.

Omer knew the property was bound to make a good profit. And fast. "We didn't give any long-term leases," he said, not to the community center or to the home health care business upstairs.

But Omer never raised the center's $1,600-a-month rent, either. How could he do that when the center was teaching English to the cousin he brought from Ethiopia two years ago?

"Even renting has become so expensive. We know it's difficult," he said.

After a bidding war drove offers on the two properties over the $3.5 million asking price, Omer decided to sell. The development of Georgia Avenue "is good for all of us," he said.

It's hard for Kebede to argue with that. The real estate boom has benefited many of the estimated 100,000 Ethiopians who immigrated to the Washington region over the past quarter-century, many of whom arrived as refugees in the years after the 1974 military coup. They bought taxicabs and shops and restaurants, building the biggest and most vibrant Ethiopian community in North America, according to the Ethiopian Embassy, while sending money back to one of the poorest nations on Earth.

While the old arrivals prosper, the community center is focusing on the new ones, including a young housewife whose husband left her last fall with no job, no English language skills, no working papers and two young children. Kebede forestalled the young mother's eviction (again, the landlord was Ethiopian), found her a new apartment, urged her into English classes and is helping the public elementary school deal with her emotionally fragile son.

Every couple of months, someone fresh from Ethiopia turns up at Dulles International Airport with nowhere to go. The taxi drivers know to take such people to Kebede.

Kebede, who has worked at the Ethiopian Community Center full-time since 1992 and was a board member before then, estimates that hundreds of people who own property and have good jobs were helped by the center. Many of them are trying to help. Last fall, a board member hosted a fundraiser that added $30,000 to the center's building fund, which now stands at $65,000. But in Northwest, where the Ethiopian community is concentrated, $180,000 is needed just to buy a building the appraisers say is "no good," Kebede said. More money would be needed to demolish such a place and build something new.

In this market, she said, $65,000 "is not going to do anything."

Raising additional money has proven difficult. Though Ethiopians have prospered in the District, many are still caring for poor relatives back home. It's hard to get their attention, said Tamiru Degefa, 49, a merchant who showed up at the center near lunchtime to check his e-mail.

"People work two, three jobs. They're busy. They don't give" to causes outside their own families, Degefa said.

"Tamiru is one person who benefited from the community center and now gives to the community center," Kebede said, offering her friend a tired smile.

"I want people who come after me to benefit," he replied. "The center is something that binds us together. This is our safety net."

Washington Post

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