Housing Complex

Little Ethiopia Grows Up: One of D.C.’s biggest immigrant communities steps off the political sidelines.

Dil Belay once supported Adrian Fenty, but now he's all in for Gray. (Lydia DePillis)

Dil Belay once supported Adrian Fenty, but now he's all in for Gray. (Lydia DePillis)

Back in 2002, Daniel Belayneh started the non-profit Ethiopian Community Services and Development Council because he noticed a clear injustice: Two homeless Ethiopian immigrants had frozen to death in the street, and nobody noticed or cared. When a Hispanic man was found dead under similar circumstances, he says, the tragedy made the newspapers and attracted attention from politicians.

Eight years later, he feels like Ethiopians are receiving the same treatment from the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty. Belayneh started a homeless shelter for down-on-their-luck African immigrants, but had to shut it down last year after expected city funding didn’t come through. He invited Fenty to attend a ribbon cutting for a new free clinic his organization had started, but the mayor didn’t show up.

Belayneh says ECSDC represents Ethiopians in D.C., helping new immigrants become law-abiding, productive citizens. But he’s never once been able to get so much as a meeting with Fenty. And now, though his organization is formally non-political, he’s ready for someone else to run things at the Wilson Building.

“We need somebody who listens to us now in office, to answer our questions. We don’t need somebody sitting there and ignoring our calls,” Belayneh says, with consternation. “I’m telling you, can you imagine, I live in Washington, I am in charge of 80,000 people in D.C., they deny me access to his office? I’m telling you, it’s just unbelievable!”

The Ethiopian community has been a rising cultural and economic force for decades now—9th Street NW restaurateur Tutu Belay’s Ethiopian Yellow Pages for local businesses, which started out 17 years ago at 80 pages, now weighs in at over 1,000. Centered around 9th and U streets NW, the community has become the most visible ethnic presence in the surrounding area, with other clusters of businesses in Adams Morgan, Petworth and along the Maryland border near Silver Spring. But they haven’t thrown their weight around politically, many still hesitant about opposing authorities after leaving their country to avoid political persecution (Belayneh himself was a member of the constitutional assembly of Ethiopia before he was jailed for protesting the government). There’s no Ethiopian PAC, no caucus, no official mayoral forum.

This year, that started to change. Over the last few months, Ethiopians have been hosting fundraisers, canvassing door to door, and spreading the word in churches—almost all on behalf of challenger Vincent Gray. Like much of the rest of the campaign, things could have been different for Adrian Fenty, if only he had paid his respects.


Of course, within the Ethiopian business world, the fiercest energy to defeat Fenty comes from a group of people who, by and large, can’t even vote in D.C.: Cab drivers, who were outraged two years ago by the switch from a zone-based fare system to a meter system that they say reduced their income by some 30 percent. Most cabbies live in Virginia and Maryland, but that hasn’t stopped them from electioneering for all they’re worth. (They don’t tend to dwell much on the fact that it was Congress, not Fenty, that forced the switch from zones; Fenty could have blocked it, and he did set the meter rates, but it wasn’t his idea in the first place.)

Setegn (he only gives one name) is an owner of Allied Cab Company, which employs some 800 mostly-Ethiopian drivers. He supported Fenty in 2006, even giving the candidate free rides in his cab, which scored him an invitation to the inauguration.
“That was the last time,” says Setegn, who does much of his business from the driver’s seat of a bronze-colored van cab. “After that, he closed the door.”

Taxis are just one industry. But because of the heavy concentration of Ethiopians in D.C.’s cab fleet, the zone-to-meter shake-up affected the entire community. Setegn says his drivers eat out at Ethiopian restaurants much less, have stopped paying their rent on time, and stop giving to their churches and organizations. That’s enough to turn far more Ethiopian business owners against Fenty than just the cabdrivers.

“I didn’t pay for the past two years a penny for the Ethiopian community,” Setegn says. “They keep asking us, ‘Do this, do that.’ We try our best.”

In 2008, a few Ethiopians in the taxi industry tried one way of playing politics to better their situation, allegedly attempting to bribe the D.C. Taxicab Commission chairman for new licenses. The ensuing federal investigation also swept up an aide to Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham.

The vast majority of cabbies, however, are taking a more respectable route, cutting checks in $20 to $30 denominations, which have significantly filled out Gray’s impressive small donor base. Allied Cab has coordinated with the other associations to reach out to anyone who will listen and vote, with a kind of energy and focus that Setegn hasn’t seen in his 10 years owning a company. Though he wouldn’t give specifics, Gray said at a forum in June that he was working with drivers to assuage their grievances.

Despite the concrete harms, the biggest reason Ethiopians give for opposing Fenty is more about insult than injury.

Dil Belay, a developer of single family homes in Eckington and Trinidad, has taken the lead in organizing the business community for Gray. He can’t think of one specific problem with the Fenty administration, and hasn’t asked anything in particular of the potential Gray administration, except respect—which the chairman promised, in a series of endorsement interviews.

“Look, right now, I am a volunteer to the Gray campaign,” Belay says, on a break from a stint as a poll watcher at Judiciary Square. “But look, I am a part of the process now. I am a volunteer, I’m not getting paid. I’m not asking for a specific benefit. I am asking for recognition. And I’m getting that.”

Disrespect can manifest itself on the ground level, in the form of discrimination and harassment from lower authorities like police, inspectors, permit officers. Taxi drivers complain of unfair treatment by inspectors, who slap them with $1,000 fines for underinflated tires. Tefera Zewdie, who has owned Dukem restaurant on U Street NW for 13 years, says that even if the problems weren’t originally Fenty’s fault, he hasn’t fixed them.

“If we are a victim of some sort of problem in our business, then we call for help, the police… look at us as if we are the criminals,” says Zewdie, who hosted a fundraiser for Gray at his restaurant. “Every time you speak a foreign language, you have a foreign accent, your case is treated a little bit different than those who are the native Americans. And that inside, that hurts.”

Nowhere are the benefits for a solicitous politician clearer than in Ward 1, where Graham has the adoring loyalty of many in the Ethiopian community. Several businesses helped coordinate his trip to their native land in 2004, and he’s been returning the favor with prompt attention to their needs ever since.

For the Ethiopian Community Service and Development Center, he showed up on the scene with supportive words the morning a fire devastated their original building on Georgia Avenue, and has landed earmarks for operational costs.

“When we have some issues, there is no bureaucracy, he responds on the spot,” Belayneh says. “Honestly, I need Jim Graham to continue in office. He is a great man. If you were in my shoes, you have somebody who is doing the job, responds to your needs, encourages you, and help you do good things for your people, we need multiple Jim Grahams in the council chambers.”

The last time the Ethiopian community mobilized for something in the D.C. Council, back in 2005, they were also just looking for recognition. Businesses and cultural organizations asked that the area around 9th and U streets be officially designated “Little Ethiopia,” to better attract tourists and market the cluster of restaurants to locals. (If you think about it, they might have a better claim to a title than the now Disney-fied Chinatown, where vaguely Asian script on fast food restaurants looks like a somewhat desperate attempt to hold on to a fading cultural influence.)

Faced with opposition from old-timer African Americans in Shaw, the measure died.

But from a business marketing standpoint, it may not have been necessary. To Tutu Belay, who named her restaurant on 9th Street Little Ethiopia—where she’s hosted fundraisers for Graham and At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown—the slight had little practical impact. Buses still drop hungry tourists on the corner three days a week, and she recently had a three-hour interview for a CNN International special that will air in October.

Tutu Belay (no relation to the developer) is coy about who she’s voting for mayor; thought her husband Yehune has already donated to Gray, it doesn’t pay for a prominent businessowner to be terribly vocal on either side of a contested race. In that way, she has something in common with her neighbor, Etete owner and parking lot entrepreneur Yared Tesfaye, among the only Ethiopian businessowners to have stayed steadfast for Fenty.

“We just donated because we’re in the business community,” said Tesfaye. “Every time someone’s in the mayor’s office, we donate.”

That kind of dutiful support has its limits, though: Etete doesn’t have a Fenty sign in its window.  CP

Visit the Housing Complex blog every day at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex. Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com.
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  • gdmt

    You answered your own question. Again!
    In the WCP endorsement of Fenty you guys ask, "Instead, Gray’s message is about style, about how a mayor must be more “respectful.” What does that mean?"
    I think a pretty good chunk of this story addresses that; you even conclude a paragraph with "Like much of the rest of the campaign, things could have been different for Adrian Fenty, if only he had paid his respects."
    I know that you, Lydia, probably didn't write the whole endorsement, but you should be embarrassed, I think. It's entirely inconsistent with all of WCP's stories. You downplay the importance of "respect" in this story, but clearly it's an issue.
    This is another example of Fenty dismissing the concerns of marginalized parts of the city. Feeling like you don't have a seat at the table is definitely a problem, just not one that the all-white writing/editorial staff at the City Paper has to worry about.

  • Lydia DePillis

    Important clarification: I had nothing to do with the endorsements. I just write about people, some of whom happen to be upset with Mayor Fenty.

  • HillChris

    "I am in charge of 80,000 people in D.C."

    In charge of?!? Uhhh... delusions of grandeur often?!

  • Mr. Zane

    Very interesting from Canada!! The mayor should pay attention to every community's need in the city. Mr. I'm in-charge of 80,000 people in D.C., please what are you smoking? I suggest enjoy the beautiful organic Ethiopian coffee. If the Mayor did a good job for the majority, he'll be re-elected. If the above article is also true, then it is very sad and the mayor does not deserve to have another term. The mayor should remember he/she is for every community in D.C.

    Good luck every one!!

  • Kurema

    I would like to thank you for what you revealed to the world and encourage you to continue your good job.
    Mayor fenty has literally killed over 7000 District cab drivers with their families and children. Perhaps he is doing it in purpose to clear the way for monopoly stake holders by creating a hostile environment on the drivers who comprise all races and ethnic groups around the world or simply who are the mosaics of the diverse Washington community.
    The switch from the zone system to meter was not a problem as it is always described as the cause of the dislike. Instead the decision making process and subsequent measures he took are the main reasons. As this policy decision may affect the life of many he should at least have some study in front of him, but he couldn’t produce one. Hence, his random aristocratic order have destroyed the livelihood f many households. Can he tell why he reduced the millage rate determined by the WMATC? Does he have any logical reason or legitimate interest to do so?...None. Drivers in the neighboring jurisdictions charge $2.00 per mile where as drivers in the District are allowed to make $1.50 per mile, can he justify this?...No.
    On the one hand he vows to make the fare directly proportional to the service; on the other hand he put a cap of $19.00 maximum. Isn’t it contradictory to the very principle? Any good reason?..Hell No.
    The arbitrary and capricious rules he signs regarding regulating the industry is also important to have a look. A hack inspector can issue a $1000.00 citation for each and every inflated or deflated tire. Regardless of the material science or the dynamics of the vehicles and parts, the skill of those who are supposed to manipulate, and the knowledge and training of the personnel to use his/her discretion to fine are questionable. Simply compare it with what Toyota have been fined for its 9.5 million recalled vehicles; less than $2.00 per vehicle.
    Several of such new rules can be quoted, but these are enough to show how the drivers are being systematically abused.
    However, the drivers have made it known to him in many occasions for no avail, and I would like t ask what one wants them to do?
    Anyway, this will help us to gauge how every day business is conducted in his office.

  • kul

    “I’m telling you, can you imagine, I live in Washington, I am in charge of 80,000 people in D.C., they deny me access to his office? I’m telling you, it’s just unbelievable!”

    This is very funny. Mr. Dawit thinks that he is in charge of 80,000 Ethiopians simply because he managed to form a small self-serving nonprofit organization. OMG!!! Forgive me for not knowing the person who is in charge of my community!!! I am still LAUGHING OUT LOUD!!!!!
    I have a good advice for Mr.Dawit. He should know that nonprofit organizations are prohibited by law from conducting political campaign activities to intervene in elections to public office. His organization may be revoked its tax-exempt status and the IRS may impose excise taxes.

    PS. I am indifferent about the two Democratic DC mayoral candidates. I honestly think they don’t give a damn about us. That’s my take.

  • Skipper

    Fenty literally killed 7,000 taxi drivers and their families and children?

    Oh. That's not nice of him.

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  • fufa

    Dear Lydia,
    Thank you for your honest report. Like any other immigrants, Ethiopians also are hardworking people. But the harrasment and intimidation that we are going through is unimaginable. This criminal activity comes from the lazy element of the society who is jelous of success and do not appreciate any progress and the reward of hard work. This element of the American society is a burden to this nation and want the rest of the populas to be part of it. I wish I would be wrong!!

  • RobShaw

    Is the ECSDC distinct from the ECDC? From what I know of the Ethiopian community in the District, they're just as divided as other communities. I think at one point in the last 10 years the soccer league split over a relatively minor grievance.

  • Markose

    Mr. Belayneh,

    You said, “I live in Washington, I am in charge of 80,000 people in D.C.”.

    Let me ask you Sir, I am an Ethiopian origin who has lived in Washington DC for many years. What do you mean when you said you are in charge of Ethiopians like me?

    As a residence of Washington DC and a member of Ethiopian community, I will inquire a formal investigation for what you and your so called nonprofit organization is doing in Washington DC in the name of Ethiopian immigrants. I will also inquire from the IRS whether or not the nonprofit status you got (Certainly under 501 C 3) exempts you from the political activity you have been engaged in.

    In the meantime, I urge you to stop using your nonprofit organization as a tool for political campaign purposes.


  • PA

    “We don’t need somebody sitting there and ignoring our calls” who is the one ignor ethiopain people call . I couldn’t believe this words came from your mouth Mr Daniel Belayneh. don’t you even feel shame when you say I am in charge of 80,000 people in D.C that is just direspacting ethiopian people around DC ,
    what ever Mr Tefera Zewdie said is true ,infact he and his wife should be the one who run the ethiopian community not Mr Daniel .

  • HHIV and Mr Daniel Belayneh

    HIV and Mr Daniel Belayneh : This need to investagetion last year Mr Daniel Belayneh have got free Condom from DC puplic health medical center to destruput fro ethiopian community , because he asked that ethiopian people who are living around DC are afeecting by HIV as the result of shortage of conndume , and after he got those condom and the money to desturpute them ; he didn’t even bother to put the condom front door , he keep it in his office , , he gole was just to make money by ethiopain community name

  • alu

    Dil.. why don't you stop!!!!!!!!!!!!!! buddy you messed up your family in ethiopia with there property on asmera road and now you go to america and want to destroy the respected ethiopian community.. I support you being investigated by the government for different fraud....

    look out the next girma lebbo

  • Binyam

    As much as I admire the gut of my country man Daniel Belay, I question his political involvement. As a leader of non-profit organization, he can not endorse or campaign for any political candidate. My brotherly advice for Daniel, check with your attorney before you put your organization in danger.

  • maferia

    80 shi ale 80 million what is the big deal? lemen tera enehonalen. esu ahun 80 shi ethiopiawi besere new selale yemenatw neger ale? andandochachew berasachew yemetemamen chiger kelelebachiw besteker andu gura nefa belen be broken English kerker lemegetemena kese lemehed enaseferaralen. Yehene 80000 Ethiopiawi ezi seweye lay kese file adergual lemen bebale mekgnenet. Ene DC noralhew gen esu ande Ethiopiawi mereda neger kesera enen I'm in charge of him ayedelem baby sit him belegn kerem ayelegnem. bebeza bebeza konjo ye birra keled yehongnal enji :) materebu mekegnoch...teneshoch. yefelegewen bel esu yeshalal kenanete ye deha lijoch ye ethiopia tarikun yemeteafelalgegu ensesoch. maferiawoch!

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  • Roman Ababa

    After i read the above comment about the Mr. Daniel Belayneh , I feel like those who made there comments are , either they don’t know Mr. Daniel or they are jealous of him . I personally know Mr. Daniel, He proven him self as a great leader in our community. He was one of the best known youth organizer and young politician. What i am saying is, he knows what he is doing! Great leader’s never afraid narrow minded people, so, Daniel is. Mr. Daniel, we know that you are capable of doing great things, we really on you in any aspect you doing. Keep up!!!! Roman A. PHD

  • Mesfin Tesfaye

    Big sorry for Ethiopian who are against each other, killing each other. Why? I don't know the individual (Daniel Belayneh) but heard about him from those who know him very well ( Americans). I have been told that he is very smart with great leadership personality He said his organization represent 80 thousand people, so what is wrong with it? All Ethiopian community represents the people residing in DC area. Hey lets be open! Let encourage and support our leaders and support each other like Latino.

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