DC’s Ethiopian Community Fears For Family Amid Civil War

By Mike Haack| DCist

With tears gathering on the upper rim of her mask and two young children in her arms, Bitsom explains how it’s felt not being able to contact her family in the Tigray region of Ethiopia since the war there began.

“I barely sleep,” says Bitsom, a Montgomery County, Maryland, resident who asked that only her first name be used because she fears retaliation against her family in Tigray, located at the northern tip of Ethiopia. “I am always checking the news, trying the phone. I just wait for a miracle to happen.”


In addition to her children, Bitsom lives with her husband and younger sister. Their home is neatly decorated for Christmas, but the mood is somber.

Her 10-year-old son, K. (the family requested anonymity for him), has been thinking about his ailing grandparents in Ethiopia. “My grandmas have asthma, and it takes forever for them to get their nebulizers refilled,” he points out. “Without their nebulizers, they’re basically going to die.”

Abraham Habte-Sellassie, a priest at an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church in Northwest D.C., says he’s been discussing the situation in Ethiopia with his congregants.Miriah Miranda

Since the fighting started Nov. 4 with opposition forces striking several Ethiopian military bases and the military launching a swift counterattack, it has caused fear, agony, and sleeplessness for many in the D.C. area’s large Ethiopian community. It has also inflamed divisions within the Ethipoian diaspora, as people disagree about what information to believe and whether the military’s airstrikes and blockading of essential supplies from Tigray were justified.

The D.C. area is home to the largest Ethiopian population outside of Africa. (Exact figures are hard to come by, but estimates range from the tens of thousands to more than 200,000.) Many Ethiopian immigrants and their children remain connected to the East African country. Some send money to their families there, while others disseminate news to Ethiopia through YouTube, social media, and other outlets.

Abraham Habte-Sellassie, the head priest at the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church in 16th Street Heights, says nearly all of his sermons these days relate to the situation in Ethiopia.

Like many in the diaspora, Habte-Sellassie spent much of the last three decades attending marches in protest of the Ethiopian government led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which was unseated in 2018 due to widespread discontent among Ethiopians. It was notorious for suppressing dissent and dividing the country into ethnic regions where rights are granted based on membership in groups considered indigenous.


This system effectively favors regional majorities over the ethnic minorities living within the same borders. The TPLF has doubled down on these divisions in Tigray, even after losing national power. Tensions between that region’s autonomy and the central government came to a head in September, when Tigray refused to suspend its elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as the government had demanded. The government dismissed the elections’ results, and a military build-up ensued.

Locally, the Washington region is a stronghold for the “Pan-Ethiopian” point of view, which posits that Ethiopia’s regional system has only enhanced existing tensions within the country. The current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, has challenged ethnic federalism and is enthusiastically backed by some members of the diaspora. (Abiy received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.)

Prominently displayed in Habte-Sellassie’s office is a photo of him and Abiy. He supports the Abiy administration’s military operations against the TPLF in Tigray. “Right now, the government is going the right way, so it should be encouraged and helped,” says Habte-Sellassie.

Bitsom (center) and her family in Montgomery County, Maryland, have been thinking constantly about their relatives in Ethiopia. “I barely sleep,” she says. Miriah Miranda

Getachew Metaferia, a political science professor at Morgan State University and longtime resident of Silver Spring, says Ethiopian immigrants have their finger on the pulse of their native country. He watched from afar as the TPLF attacked and jailed intellectuals back in Ethiopia over the years.

Party members largely remained in Tigray until a recent assault by the government made their future unclear. On Nov. 28, after more than three weeks of fighting, Abiy declared victory in the region.

“The people are elated,” says Metaferia.

But others in the D.C. area are feeling the opposite way. Brinkete Hogas, who came to the U.S. as a refugee 30 years ago, fears for her family in Tigray. She says she’s been struck by the political differences between her and her close ones here.

“For them to celebrate [the government’s military actions], I realized, maybe we are not the same,” says Hogas.

Dade Desta, who moved to the D.C. area in 2004, echoed that sentiment, noting he’s been emotionally affected by the news out of Tigray. “You find many people saying this is justified,” he says. “But I don’t think they are aware of the scale of the war. The knowledge is very asymmetrical, as the war is.”

Communications from Tigray have been significantly restricted since November, with phone and internet services cut and aid and press agencies denied entry. The information blockade was partly lifted last Sunday in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital.

But also this month, the AP reported on a civilian massacre in the town of Mai-Kedra, where people were hacked to death with machetes and strangled with ropes. (A researcher at Amnesty International has said the massacre “is just the tip of the iceberg,” and eyewitnesses have said thousands of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea were involved, according to the Guardian.) Although it’s still unclear who’s responsible for these killings, swirling allegations about who ordered and executed them will likely cause additional grief and division.

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That equally goes for Ethiopians in the U.S.“[The war] is affecting people not only at the community level but also at the individual family level,” says Tsehaye Teferra, the founder of the Arlington-based Ethiopian Community Development Council, which serves African immigrants and refugees from around the world. “There have been intermarriages among different linguistic groups. I am told that there have even been breakups … because of this.”

Ethiopian immigrants are pillars of many of the social movements that have recently flourished in the D.C. area, including the labor and tenant movements. (Disclosure: This writer volunteers as a tenant organizer with Stomp Out Slumlords, a housing campaign of the Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America) But several of the community leaders DCist contacted for this story declined to comment about the situation in Tigray for fear of upsetting their constituencies.

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On a recent day at a local Panera Bread, Meaza Gidey, a feminist activist who was born and raised in Tigray and now lives in Northern Virginia, said she was worried about her community in Ethiopia.

“It’s about the entire ethnic group,” Gidey said. “I am not sure if, as a Tigrayian, I would be able to just forgive and forget this [war] and imagine myself as Ethiopian going forward.”

Helen, a Montgomery County resident who was present with Gidey and requested being identified only by her first name, showed photos on her phone of her relatives who died in the conflict. “My heart is broken,” she said, crying as she and Gidey left for the parking lot.

Even before the war started, 600,000 people in Tigray were receiving food assistance, Reuters reports. Having suffered from a major locust infestation earlier this year, Tigrayans are now facing worsened food insecurity due to the conflict.

Many observers predict the struggle will continue for the foreseeable future.

“I don’t think we are out of the woods,” says Susan Stigant, the director of Africa programs at the U.S. Institute for Peace. The Tigrayan fighting force, according to her, includes top brass from the former national defense force who could be regrouping. “This wasn’t just a breakaway militia,” says Stigant.

A protracted conflict in Ethiopia would have prolonged consequences for the D.C. region’s Ethiopian community. As Bitsom knows all too well, each day that passes without new information from her native country could spell loved ones in anguish.

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