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by Rebecca Taylor & Richard Hobbs

Context for Ethiopia Immigration

History and Government

The cradle of civilization rests within the borders of Ethiopia. Archeologists found the oldest known human remains in Ethiopia, Ardipithecus ramidus, believed to be 4.4 million years old. Dr. Donald C. Johnson, an American paleontologist, resurrected “Lucy” in 1974. Lucy’s remains are on display in the Ethiopian National Museum.

In the 10th century B.C. the Queen of Sheba (also known as Nigist Saba to the Amharic) traveled to Jerusalem to seek and test the wisdom of King Solomon. Their son Menelik I was the first in a lineage of rulers to reign over Ethiopia. Ethiopia emerged as a web of diverse kingdoms, ethnicities, and languages.

Modern Ethiopia emerged under Emperor Menelik II, who defeated the invading Italian army in 1896 at the “Battle of Adwa”, the first time an African army had defeated a European army. Menelik II’s death in 1913 led to a 4-year rule of his grandson and then the 13-year rule of his daughter Empress Zewditu, with Menelik II’s cousin Tafari Makonnen as regent and heir apparent.

In 1930 Tafari was crowned Emperor Haile Selassi I. Haile Selassie outlawed slavery, centralized his rule, and created a constitutional system, but remained all-powerful. He outlawed all political parties. After 56 years in power and following student demonstrations, strikes, an army mutiny, and devastating droughts in the 1970s that killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, Haile Selassie was deposed in September 1974. Haile Selassie’s mysterious death in 1975 ended the 3000-year Solonomic dynasty.

Ethiopia suspended the constitution and proclaimed a socialist state under collective military leadership known as the Derg. U.S. aid ceased and Soviet and Cuban aid began under Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, who became head of state in 1977. Mengistu’s reign of 14 years included fighting Eritrean secessionists and Somali rebels, suppressing those who opposed land reform (some called this “red terror”), receiving international acclaim for addressing illiteracy, and accepting worldwide famine relief in 1984 after as many as one million Ethiopians died of starvation and disease.

In 1991 the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an umbrella group of six rebel armies, seized the capital. The same year the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) gained control of the province of Eritrea. Both groups agreed that Eritrea should hold a referendum for independence, and in April 1993 Eritrea became the latest new African nation.

In May 1998 Eritrea initiated fighting regarding a border dispute. Eventually this conflict claimed the lives of 50,000 soldiers on both sides of the border and drained the ailing economies of both countries, with Ethiopia decisively retaining its border claims. About 400,000 Eritreans were displaced or evacuated from the border area. The two countries signed a UN-sponsored agreement in June 2000 to end hostilities.

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has nine states. A recreated constitution in 1995 brought Ethiopia a legislature composed of the Federal Council and the Council of Peoples’ Representatives. The same year Ethiopia held its first multi-party general election, although its legitimacy was questioned by many opposition groups. The Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, is elected from among the members of the Council of Peoples’ Representatives. The head of state is President Negasso Gidada, who is elected for a six-year term.


Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest nations. In 1998 the GDP was estimated at $33 billion and the per capita income at $560 (about a dollar and a half per person per day). Economic crises and food shortages in the 1980s were brought on by drought and civil war. Only a small portion of the land is arable, but nearly four fifths of the population works in agriculture or animal husbandry. Leading exports are coffee, cereals, sugar, leather products, gold, and oilseed. In spite of a more stable environment since 1985, new investments are minimal. The gross national product is growing more slowly than the population.

Ethiopian Immigration

Nearly all Ethiopians in the U.S. are political refugees seeking entry into the U.S. because of their fear of persecution by the government of their home country. In reaction to the 1974-75 civil war, in 1976 the United States received the first Ethiopians, which included Eritreans as well. In the years to follow, from 1976 to 1994, over 33,195 Ethiopians were welcomed into the United States as refugees. Ethiopians are still fleeing their homeland and seek refuge in neighboring countries. The quota of African refugees for fiscal year 2001 is 20,000 for the entire continent of Africa.

Most Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees and immigrants are from urban areas, unlike the majority of their compatriots. They have settled mostly on the east and west coasts in the U.S. and tend to be young and male. In Santa Clara County, when Ethiopian public assistance recipients were asked why they left their home country, the predominant reason was political problems and civil war in Ethiopia. An additional reason was to have better education.

Social Characteristics of the Ethiopian People

Ethnic & Religious Diversity

Ethiopia is an ethnically diverse nation with 90 ethnic groups. Of the total population, the largest groups are Oromo 29%, Amhara 28%, Tigrai 10%, Gurage and Somali, 4% each, and Sidama and Wolaita, 3% each. Ethiopians practice two major religions, Christian and Muslim. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was the official religion of the country from 1955 to 1974. In the 1960s there were over 17,000 churches in Ethiopia. In the period of the Derg (1974-1991) it was illegal to practice Christianity. The second major religion is Islam. Muslim mosques are increasing within the country. About 15-20% of Ethiopians practice animist religions.

Family Life

The father, oldest son or oldest daughter is typically responsible for making decisions in the family. The father is the main provider and is usually the spokesperson for the family, although in the U.S. the most acculturated person may take that role. Men are usually in charge of financial and funeral arrangements. Women are responsible for major caregiving. Women are expected to care for the sick, nurture and teach the children, and provide emotional support in crises. Elders are looked after and cared for by family members and not institutions. The extended family is important. In the U.S. many households include cousins and friends. In Santa Clara County, Ethiopian public benefits recipients report that children under 12 are most likely to be cared for by the mother (58%), father (25%) or grandparent (8%).

Health Care Practices

In heavily populated regions of Ethiopia, medical care is provided in hospitals and clinics. However, fewer than 40% of Ethiopians live within a two-hour walk of a modern health care facility. The ratio of doctors to patients is 77,000 per doctor. Main health problems in Ethiopia and causes of death are infectious and tropical diseases. The rate of infant mortality is among the highest in the world: out of 1,000 births, 116 die at birth.

Privacy and modesty are of great concern to Ethiopians. Personal information may need to come from a close family member. Individuals forego their personal rights to accommodate collective family concerns. A terminal or serious diagnosis should be told first to a family member; the family decides how and when to tell the patient. Similar to many immigrants from other parts of the world, Ethiopians have negative attitudes toward mental health counselors and psychiatry. Because of the stigma, symptoms such as depression and anxiety often go untreated. Mental illness is traditionally seen as the work of evil spirits, whereas physical illness may derive from naturalistic external forces or from God, social taboos, or magical sources.

Patients have a high pain threshold, have difficulty explaining degrees of pain, and avoid pain medication. Pregnancy is considered a dangerous state and the expectant mother is protected from physically or emotionally stressful situations. A midwife or older family member helps in delivery, except for urban Ethiopians who are used to hospital delivery. Traditionally, the father and male family members are not present during birthing, but this may be different with young fathers in the U.S. Childbirth is considered a joyous occasion, complete with food sharing and gifts. In Ethiopia, mothers are typically secluded with the baby for 40 days. Breastfeeding traditionally goes on for 23 months, and breastfeeding in public is accepted.

When a family member dies, close friends should be told first so that they will be there to provide emotional support to the family. A female family member should not be told first. Although emotions are generally restrained, at the death of a loved one it is common for family members to express grief through intermittent loud cries and the shedding of tears.

Educational System in Ethiopia

Even though education is compulsory from 6-13 years of age, only about one-third of the population is literate. Ethiopia possesses vocational schools and in-service training programs. The country also has several institutions of higher education, Addis Ababa University being the largest one. Teachers are highly respected.

About four out of every five Ethiopians living in the U.S. have some English skills, from fluency to basic understanding. Elderly Ethiopians typically have received minimal education in their home country and need translation and interpretation.

Ethiopians in Santa Clara County


Of the Ethiopian public assistance recipients who answered the survey, 72% are female and 28% are male. Amharic is the language most often used by all of the respondents. The average age is 35. At the beginning of 2000 Ethiopians had lived in Santa Clara County and in the U.S. on average 3.5 years. Most Ethiopians live in San Jose, Santa Clara and Milpitas. Almost every Ethiopian public assistance recipient has completed between 10-12 years of school. Ethiopians live in households that average slightly over 4 members. It is common for households to include non-family members. Of those surveyed most household incomes produce annual incomes between $10,000 and $30,000, with many falling below $10,000 annually.

Social Customs

Interpersonal Communication

Hugging and kissing on cheeks are common among family and friends, for both genders. Handshakes are more acceptable with unfamiliar persons. When approaching an elder it is custom to bow out of respect. While there is usually little eye contact while dealing with authority figures, this varies according to educational level, age, gender, and the number of years in the U.S. Ethiopians are generally polite and reserved and look down upon loud interactions or shouting. They are often late for appointments and social events. Showing interest in an Ethiopian’s culture or in his or her personal background is a good ice breaker.

Emotional Support

Adjusting to a new culture is difficult for many. When asked whom they talk to for emotional support, Ethiopian public assistance recipients in Santa Clara County favored friends or relatives rather than seeking professional help. A family member often provides homebound senior citizens or disabled persons in-home care. The Ethiopian community is centered around the family in times of crisis or need.


Modesty is an important trait in Ethiopian culture. Women wear colorful embroidered white dresses. Men often have tailored white shirts and are accustomed to wearing trousers. Many Ethiopians, especially those in the U.S. for a long time, dress like Americans.


Spice is part of the life that lives in Ethiopia. Spice as in hot chili powder, cardamom, and white and black cumin are used daily in meals that are prepared the traditional Ethiopian way. Ethiopians have three meals a day: a light breakfast and substantial meals at lunch and dinner. Ethiopian food is usually eaten with fingers, but silverware is used for other types of food. The main diet consists of enjera, a type of bread or pancake eaten with meat, legume sauce, or stew (called wot). The stew is tasty and spicy using a variety of condiments. Chicken wot is prepared for special occasions and guests. Beef, lamb and goat meat is commonly used. However, no pork is used in Ethiopian dishes. Fruits and vegetables are usually eaten during religious fasting. The drink preferred by many is a mixture of coffee and spice tea with cinnamon.

Religious Traditions & Holidays

Christian and Moslem families may say prayers, read the Bible or Koran, and attend church or the mosque. Holidays that are celebrated within the Ethiopian community include Ethiopian Christmas and the Ethiopian New Year. Ethiopian Christmas generally is celebrated two weeks after Christmas in the U.S., on the 8th of January. This occurs because the lunar-based calendar year used in Ethiopia is three years prior and two weeks after the calendar used in the United States. Ringing in the Ethiopian New Year on September 11th is celebrated with great enthusiasm; Ethiopians dance, sing and celebrate. Since these holidays are based on the lunar calendar, the dates vary from year to year.

Challenges in Santa Clara County

Of Ethiopians receiving public assistance, the highest levels of need indicated were more ESL (73%), housing assistance (62%), help finding a job (58%), help with citizenship (50%), and job training (50%). Roughly one third of the respondents stated they need help with medical assistance, dental and eye care, child care, and food.

In a similar vein, the 11 participants in the Ethiopian focus group concluded that the key challenges facing the Ethiopian community in Santa Clara County are the following.

  1. The high cost of rent among Ethiopians leads to overcrowding, sharing kitchen and bathrooms, lack of privacy, overall demoralization, and unhealthy eating habits, “because they are compelled to work more than one job in order to pay their rent”.
  2. Lack of access to vocational training that would allow higher paying jobs could be alleviated if Ethiopians had grants available and had a better understanding of how financial aid operates.
  3. Employment issues affecting Ethiopians include the lack of jobs related to their training and experience, little information about employment rights, cultural and language barriers, narrow-minded attitudes of employers, low wages and job insecurity.
  4. Affordable child care is an issue not only because both parents must work to survive, but also because children who stay home with their parents and do not attend preschool are less prepared for kindergarten than their kindergarten peers. Many parents do not have the skill set to prepare their children for elementary school.
  5. Persecuted Ethiopian family members who would like to join their loved ones in Santa Clara County and overcome the family’s sense of isolation in the U.S. cannot do so because of the lack of affordable immigration attorneys in Santa Clara County.

The Ethiopian focus group stated that women feel isolated because of the traditional way of thinking that men should be the breadwinners and women should stay at home with the children. Single mothers suffer particularly from the lack of health insurance, increased health problems, the high cost of living, the lack of child care, little educational opportunity, and domestic violence.

The focus group participants recommended a fuller range of community-based programs such as literacy, a day center for the elderly and children, sports programs for youth, singles programs, guest speakers and workshops on a variety of issues, and programs than can provide an outlet for Ethiopian art and music. They felt that more county outreach to single parents and the elderly would be important; that ESL needs to be specially tailored to less literate mothers who must care for their children; that Ethiopians need to be employed in government agencies like social services, the DMV, EDD, hospitals, the INS, etc.; and that more information should be made available regarding social services, health programs, and employment rights.


Ethiopian public assistance recipients feel most discriminated against by landlords and employers. Of those ever stopped by police, most stated that they did not feel respected and didn’t know they were breaking the law. They have a desire to know their legal rights before situations occur and not after.

Barriers to Education, Services & Benefits

Over one-half of Ethiopian public assistance recipients indicated that “not enough English” is their biggest barrier to accessing education, services, and public benefits. About 4 in 10 of the respondents pointed out the following barriers: lack of information, lack of affordable child care, and lack of time.

Employment & Working Conditions

Occupational Data and Barriers

Of the Ethiopian public assistance recipients who work, most are engaged in service sector jobs such as office workers, child care providers, and security guards. Some work as machine operators and in other manufacturing jobs. Of those Ethiopian public assistance recipients who have a different occupation in the U.S. than they had in Ethiopia, the biggest obstacles to retaining their occupation here is limited English skills (71%), the high licensing requirements in the U.S. (29%), and the lack of licenses or credentials (29%).

Working Conditions

Ethiopian public assistance recipients average 40 hours of work per week. Most families have one or two wage earners, most of whom work for one employer only. Of these Ethiopians, 88% reported having no medical benefits, 75% no sick leave, 63% no paid vacations, and 63% no pension or retirement plan. Most Ethiopians surveyed stated they work swing or graveyard shift or weekends, and 38% are required to work overtime. Almost all hold non-union low-paid service sector jobs.

Small Businesses

No Ethiopian public assistance recipients in Santa Clara County report having a business in their immediate family. In order to start a business, 100% of those surveyed would need information on how to get started, and the vast majority would want to know who could help them, believe that getting a loan would be a barrier, need help with business ideas, don’t know legal and permit requirements, and see language access barriers (not only because of their own limited English but also because of the lack of translated materials.)

Public Benefits in the Ethiopian Community

Knowledge and Adequacy of Benefits

Santa Clara County offers many services to supplement income and offer programs in promoting families to be self-sufficient. Of the Ethiopian public benefits recipients surveyed, roughly 9 of 10 stated that they are aware of the requirements to receive MediCal, and 7 of 10 know the food stamp requirements. Less than half stated they know the CalWORKS and CAPI requirements, and only 1 in 10 know the requirements to receive General Assistance or SSI. Most felt the benefit levels received were adequate. However, none of the CalWORKS recipients felt that the amount of time provided for training under CalWORKS was enough time to receive the training level needed for self-sufficiency.

Culturally Competent Services

Most of the Ethiopian recipients of CalWORKS, MediCal, and food stamps feel that they are treated with respect and that they communicate well with their county workers. They feel their worker knows their cultural background. At the same time, only about half of the participants in these three major benefits programs report that they receive written materials, phone calls, and orientations in a language they understand.

Educational Access in Santa Clara County

K-12 Education

Two thirds of the Ethiopian public assistance recipients have children under the age of 18 who attend school. The vast majority prefer to have their children taught bilingually, while 33% stated they prefer their children to be taught in English only. The services their children have received in their school include school lunch (82%), Healthy Start (73%), homework centers (55%), and counseling, after school activities, tutoring, transportation, and on-site child care. Most parents attend parent meetings. Parents state emphatically that they do not receive information from their children’s school in a language they understand.

Employment Training

Ethiopian public assistance recipients have received employment training primarily from adult education (67%) and to a much lesser extent from community colleges and community agencies. Clerical, secretarial, health care, and transportation are key areas of training received.


About 77% of Ethiopian public assistance recipients reported their English skills as “average” or “poor”. Only 15% said their English was “good”, while 8% said they had “no English skills”. The most important needs for English (83%) are for continuing education and for employment purposes. The best ways for these Ethiopians to learn English, they indicated, were by having English-speaking friends and by learning on TV. Also important to improve their English skills were having better ESL class schedules during the week, having classes closer to home, and learning from audio cassette tapes. Significantly helpful would be better transportation to ESL classes, computer learning, and ESL classes related to the job.


About 2 in 10 Ethiopian public assistance recipients are naturalized U.S. citizens. The greatest needs were for citizenship classes, help with the INS fee amount, and help with INS inquiries. Legal advice and literacy classes in Amharic would also be useful.

Communication & Outreach in the Ethiopian Community

Ethiopian public assistance recipients rely primarily upon TV in English to obtain important information. They also rely upon radio in English, friends, and family, and to a lesser extent the San Jose Mercury News and church sources. They do not rely upon means of communication in their own language, community organizations, or government communications. Of this group, 100% have TVs and telephones, the vast majority have radios and VCRs, less than half are equipped with computers and internet access, and none reported having fax machines or any newspaper subscriptions.

Although means of communication in Amharic are lacking, one radio program is available. Ethiopians can tune their radio to 90.5 KSJS every Sunday afternoon from 1-2 PM and listen to “Radio Ethiopia”. The formatted programming includes human rights, Ethiopian culture, and current affairs.

Ethiopians In Action: Dr. Birku Melese

Ethiopians have made many valuable contributions in Santa Clara County. Ethiopians participate actively in religious organizations and to a lesser extent in parent organizations at their children’s schools. Many Ethiopians have been in the U.S. for less than five years, are not yet eligible for U.S. citizenship, and cannot yet vote. As of December 2000 there were 1,088 registered voters in Santa Clara County who were born in the continent of Africa, and 412 voted in the March 2000 elections. Many were Ethiopians.

One Ethiopian who has contributed greatly to the community is Dr. Birku Melese. Dr. Melese was selected as the first Executive Director of Ethiopian Community Services (ECS) in 1992, the year after it was founded. ECS is a multi-service organization that assists Ethiopians in their adjustment and integration into American society. Key services include counseling, community orientation, job search, citizenship, interpretation, translation, client representation at agencies, and referrals. The office has grown from one to three full time staff members and serves hundreds of Ethiopian and Eritrean children, youth, adults, and seniors each year.

Dr. Melese began his university studies in Addis Ababa. He received a scholarship to Beirut, Lebanon. When Lebanon’s civil war forced all foreigners to leave in 1977, Dr. Melese continued his studies in the Philippines. There he received his Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Pacific Union College and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Administration from the University of San Tomas.

Upon his return to Ethiopia, Dr. Melese worked at Ethiopia Airlines and was trained in many departments before being offered the position of Director of Personnel in 1987. He was told that as a condition of the offer he had to join the Derg (the Communist Party). As a Christian, Dr. Melese could not accept this condition. He asked for a lower position that did not require party membership, but he was denied. “I was the only one out of 3,000 people with a Ph.D. and they wanted me.”

When the opportunity came to attend his cousin’s wedding in Napa Valley, he jumped at the chance. Once in the United States, he applied for and received political asylum. His wife, Siraye Dessie, later entered the U.S. and studied nursing. Together they have an 11-year-old daughter, Selam (“peace” in Amharic).