Ethiopians put down roots in Washington to build their largest U.S. community

Yeshimebeth “Tutu” Belay, publisher of the Ethiopian Yellow Pages, displays her latest telephone directory. (David Peterson/State Dept.)
Yeshimebeth “Tutu” Belay, publisher of the Ethiopian Yellow Pages, displays her latest telephone directory. (David Peterson/State Dept.)

When Johannes Argay decided to open a small market selling food and spices from his native Ethiopia, he wasn’t intimidated by all the competition at Build America Plaza in Falls Church, Virginia, where dozens of shops bear orange-and-brown signs in English and Amharic.

“It depends on the quality,” says Argay, who formerly owned a restaurant in New York City. Opening a cooler case, he adds, “This fresh injera especially, we get every morning from Dulles Airport, direct from home. This is the best injera in the city.”

Injera is the crepe-like bread made from the grain teff on which spicy Ethiopian food is served and eaten communally by hand. It’s a dining experience that many Americans savor.

“Americans love Ethiopian food,” says Ethiopian émigré Yeshimebeth “Tutu” Belay. “We use our hands to eat and we share — that’s the biggest thing. The outfits, the songs, the language and alphabet, all these things are attractions.”

Belay was determined to open her own business after moving to Washington in the late 1980s. “I knew if I did 8-to-5, I’d never accomplish my dream,” she explains.

She and husband Yehunie Belay, a well-known Ethiopian singer, first ran a restaurant in Washington’s historically African-American Shaw neighborhood. Eventually, she carved out her own business niche, compiling information on Ethiopian businesses, doctors, lawyers and others and soliciting advertisers for her Ethiopian Yellow Pages.

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