Ferdos on Her Introduction to America (By Danny Harris)


Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. You can read his previous columns here.

“In 1982, I came to America at sixteen as a refugee with four of my younger brothers and sisters. At that time, my Mom was in Saudi Arabia and my Dad had recently died. I had a sister in Egypt, a brother in a Djibouti refugee camp and another sister in Greece. The whole family was scattered and I was the oldest one here and had to care for my youngest siblings all by myself. When we first came here, there were almost no Ethiopians in Minnesota. When we told our relatives where we ended up, they said, ‘Where is Minnesota?’ Nobody even knew such a place existed. Of course, the winter started and it was very tough. We also had the language barrier as I barely spoke English. Back home, we learned English from Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese teachers. When I first had an American teacher, no one understood what he was saying! We were making fun of him all of the time. We thought he had such a funny accent.

“In Minnesota, we were sponsored by a woman who helped refugees as a business. Before us, she sponsored 40 Cubans and made a lot of money off of them. She was working for the Church of God, which has good intentions, but she was just corrupt. She sponsored people and the church gave her money, but she did not give it to us. She would seek out donations, things from the garbage and other cheap things and give them to us instead of buying us the things we needed. She put us in a bad neighborhood, although bad neighborhoods in Minnesota are not like the bad neighborhoods here. We had clothes, money and maids in Ethiopia. In our life, we never had used stuff. We didn’t want it. We were in America and expected a better life. But, that was how we were introduced to America. When we finally realized what was happening and told people, they looked into it, but nothing happened to that woman. Later on, one of her sons went on to be a professional football player and she became rich. I have to laugh about it now. What else can one do?

“As she didn’t help us, we met another Ethiopian who helped me and put my brothers and sisters in school. As I started to take on more and more responsibility over the family, it became harder to stay in school. Remember, I was sixteen. I eventually left school and took three jobs to support everyone. But, with three jobs, I didn’t save a penny! Most of my money went to phone calls as I needed to talk with everyone from Egypt to Greece to Saudi Arabia to Djibouti.

“With time, I found ways to bring my family to this country one-by-one. Everyone is in America now except for two of my siblings who are still in Africa. Finally, when everyone was here and I was 20, I went back to school to be a pilot. I graduated before I got all of my licenses and then had to get a job. I told myself that I would make some money and then come back to get my commercial pilots license, but that never happened. After school, I got a job with FedEx in Minnesota and worked from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. as a manager. I had no time for anything else. In 1998, I transferred with my job to Washington, D.C. to be close to my two sisters who live here and to get away from the cold. When the opportunity came to leave my job and work in our family business, I jumped at it. In my life, I have worked enough for four people and needed a break! Now, my sister and I own Café Sureia in Brookland, which is named after my youngest sister. We make traditional American dishes, but add our Ethiopian spices to them. So, that’s the story of my life.”

Cafe Sureia is located at 3629 12th Street, NE.

36 Comment

  • “In Minnesota, we were sponsored by a woman who helped refugees as a business. Before us, she sponsored 40 Cubans and made a lot of money off of them. She was working for the Church of God, which has good intentions, but she was just corrupt. She sponsored people and the church gave her money, but she did not give it to us. She would seek out donations, things from the garbage and other cheap things and give them to us instead of buying us the things we needed. She put us in a bad neighborhood, although bad neighborhoods in Minnesota are not like the bad neighborhoods here. We had clothes, money and maids in Ethiopia. In our life, we never had used stuff. We didn’t want it. We were in America and expected a better life.”

    WHAT? What an incredibly strange quote? A refugee from a foreign country expected to have a better life in the US without hard work? I was born here and I spent my college years wearing almost entirely thrift store clothes.

    Guess what lady, you were mistaken! Nothing happened to that woman because she probably didn’t get anywhere near as much money to buy you things as you might think. Churches will give you enough money to get thrift store clothes, no church will buy you new clothes or pay for a maid for you.

    I’m hoping there was a language barrier issue here however… I’ve dealt with East African immigrants before who got all in my face about not having drivers and servants that they “deserve.”

  • Neener. You are a douche. Shut up

  • Having read this People’s District series here over the past few months, there’s a troubling, discouraging filare -a common repeating thread in too many of these profiles:

    a huge false sense of entitlement.

  • That reminds me of the cabbie who, in the course of arguing over a fare (this was during the zone system days), screamed that he was a scientist with a PhD back in his home country.

  • I’ve found that degrees of humbleness and entitlement certainly vary among immigrants from different countries.

    And the old adage still apparently holds true that some folks come here thinking that the streets are paved with gold, only to find something else entirely.

  • Note if she came in 1982, her family was probably a supporter of the US-Ethiopian relationship which frayed and eded in the late 1970s. The Soviets basically took over Ethiopia as a client state around then, and would have insisted on a purge (ie expulsions and killings, perhaps her father) of folks deemed non-socialist (or religious). So, she likely would have been used to a rather comfortable life prior to fleeing. While she may have too much sense of entitlement, I think we can perhaps cut a 16 year old girl some slack given the overarching issues at the time.

    The above got eaten by the blog so I am reposting.

  • interesting story, but it would be nice to now the reason for which ferdos left ethiopia? she describes a nice lifestyle there, and harsher one here, begging the question: why would one leave that?

  • p.s. Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes about the ‘entitlement’ issue discussed in the thread above, in her autobiography, ‘Infidel’: the more entitlement a refugee has, the less likely s/he will adapt and succeed in his/her country of resettlement.

  • Failing to see the entitlement. The chick was 16 years old when she came here. Unhappiness with new surroundings sounds like a typical teenager to me. She came here, worked hard, and now helps to run a family business. Typical immigrant-American story. Good for her.

  • It is an interesting story but I do have to agree with some of the other comments about the sense of entitlement. She comes to the US as a refugee and she expects fine new things and maids?

  • Are we reading the same story? This woman talks about how she worked from the age of 16 until now to support her family.

    Why are people so quick to judge and jump on the negative? I don’t see entitlement, but a story of someone who had to make the best of her situation.

  • i tend to agree with anon 12:02. while these stories are interesting and enlightening in many ways, they also tend to be a rife with a sense of entitlement.

  • people are focusing on one quote in this piece. a quote about what she thought as a 16 year old girl who was raising her sisters by herself. the real meat of the story is about how she worked hard to make a better life for herself and her family. read the entire story before you judge.

  • lab rat: under the Derg and during the Ethiopian civil war many Ethiopians from wealthy families and those who had an education were the most vulnerable to execution and imprisonment due to their association with capitalist motives.Given the timeline we know of her story it is likely that her family fled as refugees to avoid death.

    I’m not going to begrudge her a comment that the sudden life change from privileged teen to destitute refugee was a difficult one. I’d have a hard time as well if I had to flee my country, face long-term separation from my family and give up everything that had once been familiar due to political turmoil and war when I was still in high school!

  • See my comment above and read more about Ethiopia in the late 70s and early 80s to get the context for her. Read about Haile Selassie, the Derg, and the US/Soviet competition for Ethiopia, its role in the famines of the time, relations with Somlaia (ie Ogaden). The large local Ethiopian community is directly resulting from those events.

  • Just for those who aren’t familiar with the refugee system, refugees aren’t just “immigrants” who choose to move to a different county. They are fleeing war and persecution. In a lot of cases, espeically in Africa, they live in refugee camps until the UNHCR determines that repatriation is not a possibility and then they start the resttlement process. UNHCR works with goverments and non-profit agencies to resettle the refugees in other countries. In the U.S., Congress establishes the number of refugees to be admitted from each region each year. In most cases, refugees have lost everything so come here with absolutely nothing and rely on resettlement agencies to get them started. The federal goverment provides specific types of funding for refugees for a specific period of time (five years ago, it was 3 months, don’t know if it has changed since then). Please for a second, imagine moving to another country, where you don’t speak the language, because your own country is a battlefield. Whatever education you had means nothing if you can’t communicate it. People who were working as doctors in their home country are now working as janitors. It is a difficult life to be a refugee. To have “everything” at home, then have your home ripped apart by war, then move here and have nothing, be nothing.

  • Interesting that the focus of comments is on her alleged entitlement and not the woman who manipulated and took advantage of refugees for personal gain. That makes me angry, much more than one line about wanting new clothes. Sad to see it hasn’t brought similar responses from others.

  • PSA–I don’t think anyone here needs to be lectured on the definition of refugee.

  • Only commentators on PoP could take a story of a refugee who got a slice of the American Dream through decades of hard work and sacrifice and turn it into a story about some whiny b****. Shocking. I think I’m going to stop reading comments from now on.

  • Odgen, a poster asked “why would someone leave that?” referring to the great lifestyle this refugee apparently had prior to moving to the US. So, forgive me but it does seem that some people do need a refresher. PSA, thanks.

    I don’t see any sense of entitlement here – no where did she say she expected to have maids in this country. I see it as her talking about the difference in what is considered wealth/success here versus her home country: “stuff” one does not really need (USA) versus fine clothing and the ability to provide others with work (Ethiopia). Having maids sounds like a huge luxury here, but if you’ve lived in a truly, truly poor nation (extreme poverty- think Haiti), you know that anyone with a job can afford to hire some of the countless people willing to (begging to) work for next to nothing. The point is that she had some culture shock. And she was smart enough to realize she was being taken advantage of – good for her.

  • People, did any of you bother to read the piece? That one single quote was completely shocking which is why I quoted it to read and re-read to make sure I understood what it was saying.

    I read the entire article, DUH, but the most interesting part, the dog-bites-man if you will, was the comment about the maids.

    I too had an argument with an East African cab driver who said he was a lawyer at home but was stuck being a cab driver here and how unfair it was. I told him that he was probably a great candidate for US law school but how could he hope to understand our legal system without attending a US law school first. Let’s say 1994.

    Another time an Ethiopian woman wouldn’t clean up after her dog and after our ANC rep hung up signs I pointed them out to her and she went ballistic on me saying that she was not my slave to clean up dogsh*t and where she lived she had servants to do that! Literally spitting with rage. Let’s say 1999.

    Another time an East African man lectured me on the “problem” in the USA was that we let women work, didn’t teach them who was boss, etc.

    In all of those cases, if life is so backwards or weird here, just go back home. I know that if I did the same thing as a US citizen in Japan, the Japanese would go nuts about “ugly Americans.” It’s perfectly legitimate to point out these issues as we find them.

  • I don’t think some of y’all understand the difference between the definitions of ENTITLEMENT and EXPECTATION.

    She had likely heard how great America was – after all that is (or at least was) what we liked to brag about. And she obviously had privileges before. When she gets here she realizes that there are Americans who take advantage of others. What a let down (and what the person who was supposed to help did or didn’t do really was wrong). But for pity’s sake she was 16! And not an American who was 16 who likely would feel a sense of entitlement about their own country.

    Sure the myth wasn’t ever the reality and maybe she (and a lot of immigrants) are a bit naive but she was 16! If she really felt entitled she wouldn’t have worked and made a better life for herself.

  • Neener, ok, so some people never adapted to US culture. some are sexist, some are not the best neighbors. I’m not arguing with you there. But the cabbie, and this woman? She never said she expected you to pay for her maids. you drew that conclusion from her saying that she used to have maids. She said she used to have a comfortable lifestyle before her country got torn apart and she ended up as a refugee. The cabbie likely worked hard for his law title before the same thing happened to him. What are you so upset about, that they have the GALL to feel upset about that? And maybe voice that sorrow? Jeez, man, have a little empathy. So you had to wear thrift store clothes, cry me a freakin river. Don’t compare your situation with people who were persecuted and fled a war-torn country in horrible conditions.

  • As an immigrant (from Europe), I can tell you one thing: the world has an image of the USA that is very different from reality.

    People think that in the US it is easy to have a nice big house with a yard, 2 newer cars, and their 2 kids will get the best education in the world, and life will be worry free. People think it is easy to make money in the USA and good, easy jobs are plentiful. The reality is that it’s pretty hard and people are struggling.

    They arrive here with these expectations. They got off the plane at JFK and on the drive to Brooklyn, they look out the window and they have never seen such poverty and filth in their own country. (if they came from Europe.) They end up working minimum wage 12 hour/7 days/week jobs at shady businesses with no health insurance – and that’s if they’re here legally. If they’re here working illegally, they will be paid even less. Their expectations are generally not fulfilled at all.

    This is why so many immigrants from my country come here for 1-2 years to work like dogs, live in utter poverty and filth, and go back. Amusingly enough, when they get back home they all say they had fluffy, well-paying jobs and accommodations because of embarrassment, perpetuating the allure of the USA.

    What I’m trying to say, is that even in Africa, there *are* people who have much higher standards of living than you and I. The perception exists that in the USA, it will be even easier and nicer – and this is not true for many people.

  • ugh. this conversation is making me long for the days of the “People’s District” posts on the homeless dude on H street or the Baby Daddy.

    the usual tripe from neener.

  • Ferdos, congratulations on your accomplishments. You do not hear that frequently about many 16 year olds (privileged or not) who are responsible enough to take care of themselves let alone multiple siblings. It sounds like you adapted quickly, worked hard, go to school, and save up some money to open up a family business. It sounds like a selfless, gutsy, person getting successful on her own term. Keep going.

  • Anonymous 12:02 here again;

    When I wrote:

    “Having read this People’s District series here over the past few months, there’s a troubling, discouraging filare -a common repeating thread in too many of these profiles:

    a huge false sense of entitlement.”

    Nobody seems to have picked up on was I was referring to the other profiles in this series as well like these non-immigrants which share in this huge false sense of entitlement which I find disturbing and disappointing:

    our neighbor, 32 year old absentee father of five Derek, “there ain’t no difference between us. It’s what’s in your heart that matters.”

    and our 76 year old neighbor Baker, “police around all of the time now that these places are here and harassing us. We ain’t doing nothing but hanging out, been doing that for 30-40 years with no problems. We around every day, some of us work and some of us don’t, I’m like a an endangered species.”

  • You guys, we live in a city where our city-mates lament poorly-made lattes and go postal when someone with more than 5 items gets in the express line at Safeway.

    This is what the woman thought. At least she’s honest. Guess what, 99% of what people in the U.S. say about the country talks about how wonderful and fair it is, and a good portion of people in this country think that everyone in the world secretly aspires to “get what we have” or something. Surprise – some aspects of life are actually better outside the United States.

    I think her comment and expectation reflects the (incorrect) image that this country overwhelmingly presents to the world, and to itself. “Don’t have a job? It’s your own damn fault, because you can do anything here…”

    People who are refugees leave because their lives are in danger, and this country *supposedly* takes pride in helping those individuals. Taking refugees is a way of respecting basic human rights, not going above and beyond the call of duty and doing “favors” for ethnic minorities.

    For the people who make such comments – I hope when YOU are in a position to seek the help of other countries someday because the US’s power and status decline, you find kinder people than most immigrants and refugees find in the US.

  • Kudos to her for taking care of her siblings, working hard at Fed Ex and finding a better way for herself by helping to run the cafe.

    Americans sure have weird feelings about immigrant attitudes. We expect everybody to be upbeat about coming here. Complex emotions and failure confound our national self-identity.

    I love that she is honest about what she was used to, before her father died. Modern household child-slavery still exists in countries like Eygpt and Haiti, where people “take in” poor children and keep them out of school and force them to work like dogs for no pay. So maybe it’s not so surprising that you have refugees coming here who weren’t used to getting their hands dirty.

    I was born here, speak English, have a college education and find a barely middle class life in DC to be a constant struggle. I guess I am in culture shock without ever leaving! Where’s my gosh darned maid?! Wouldn’t that be a trip, to walk around Petworth with a butler following me to scoop my dog’s poop?

  • My daughter and I had breakfast at Cafe Sureia last week. Ferdos is one nice lady! And I like her cafe.

    I did not detect a sense of entitlement. But I’m dense like that.

  • What are you so upset about, that they have the GALL to feel upset about that? And maybe voice that sorrow?

    First off where do you get the idea that I’m upset about this? Where do you get the idea that I’m COMPARING myself wearing thrift store clothes with a refugee. Not only didn’t I write that I can’t imagine someone taking the time to twist my words to suggest I did.

    I absolutely and truthfully believe that all immigrants who move here without wanting to completely accept US culture without complaint should consider moving back home. This is the same way that when I dated people after age 19 or so I told them that I’d accept them as they are, but they had to accept me as I am or else they needed to reconsider why they were dating me. I absolutely believe that a minority of immigrants have no business leaving their homeland. Read the comments from dc_publius about people moving here, not liking it, and moving back. That has been my experience with many immigrants I was friends with- 3/4 of them decided to move back because the culture wasn’t right for them- there is no crime in suggesting someone who is unhappy here move back. The wonder of the free societies are that labor has freedom of movement almost anywhere in the world and we really have to stop thinking that once someone moves here that they become American- they can move back or move somewhere else if they so choose.

  • Neener – I agree immigrants who are not happy with their life in the USA should look into moving to a better place; however, for you to suggest that all immigrants “completely accept us culture without complaint” … sounds childish. How about telling them to incorporate American culture into their culture (which by the way is impossible not to do). Perhaps you are the one who is having difficulty accepting the immigrants. Just saying.

  • I don’t need to accept immigrants, that’s part of my point. No American needs to accept immigrants. They need to accept us. Do you see my point? If we say, for instance, that Haggis cannot be made in the US because it doesn’t meet our health guidelines or that children under 16 can’t get married legally or that you need to speak English to obtain a pilot’s license, that’s ok, even when it upsets an immigrant’s cultural sensibilities.

    I am pro-immigration but I do not support people bringing their cultures here in ways that conflict with our culture. I have rarely found serious conflicts and have no more than about 10 incidents over my lifetime that I felt immigrants stepped over the line. Three of which I mentioned above. I also knew a guy in class in college from some middle eastern country who refused to speak to unmarried women or take classes from women professors citing that it was unacceptable. I once talked to a clerk at Costco who refused to touch cans of Spam which confused me until I realized it was a Muslim thing. I once went to a Home Depot in VA on the night shift and not one single employee spoke English and they recommended the wrong product to me. I had about 5 other incidents where a store owner or clerk lied to me and claimed we never had this discussion, etc, when the sale went bad. I’ve had at least 5 immigrant store clerks swear up and down that something was a certain way but then I stopped processing the order when I realized they were lying to me. I’ve almost no such incidents with US citizens that I can recall- maybe 2-3. The people I remember could be from East Africa but also Greece, Russia, South America, etc.

    Simply put, I don’t have to put up with that kind of behavior in my own country. When I speak to French colleagues I speak French. When I speak to South American colleagues I speak Spanish. This is in my own country. Americans the world over are criticized for being Ugly Americans for not respecting local customs, the same applies here and I’m not going beyond anything that isn’t already expected of me.

    When it comes to respecting women’s rights in the US Human Rights trumps an immigrant’s cultural expectations.

  • I am not aware of any culture that prevents people from speaking English. Also, I don’t think there is a law in the USA that forces people to speak to or take a class from a women, or forces a Muslim to touch cans of spam. No harm done here. It is up to each business to hire individuals who can communicate enough to present and sell their products, if they don’t then they lose business. It is hard to believe all those clerks lied to you, I am thinking the most probable cause is misunderstanding each other. Also, what is American culture anyway? I thought it is the melting pot of all other cultures.

  • Ferda is always at her shop, working. She remembers all her customers, even me, who shows up all too infrequently. She remembers my kids names and is truly friendly.

    I sense the conversation here in the comments is more about the commenters than about Ferda. My grandmother was an immigrant too and I don’t think she expected the sweat-shop sewing jobs she ended up with. Yeah, that pissed her off a little. America was supposed to be a place of hope, not alcoholism fueled by lost dreams and long low-wage hours at crappy jobs. Her kids, FWIW, also work(ed) crappy low-wage jobs and got crappy educations… I am only the 2nd person in 100 years of that line of my family to get a high school education. And not for lack of working hard. It’s such a gamble coming to the US – and yeah, more than a few folks can get bitter thinking it was supposed to be better than this.

    But that’s not about Ferda. Who is a pretty cool lady. To the folks who cry ‘entitlement’, try one of the spicy hot cocoas at Sureia and relax. And wonder what you would do if you had to give up whatever you have (no matter how rich or modest) and reinvent your life in, say, Bangladesh, without a support network. You too might have moments of thinking you were being treated unfairly.

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