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East Africans in Oakland: A mother’s long journey, and sacrifice

on March 15, 2012

Many of the 20,000 people from Ethiopia and Eritrea living in the Bay Area call Oakland home. Oakland North is taking a look at the culture and history of the Ethiopian or Eritrean community in Oakland with “East Africans in Oakland” a series of profiles of everyday people living in the city.

In 1978, Atiga Arafa had to leave Eritrea. Well, what today is Eritrea—back then it was still part of Ethiopia, and the armies of the two countries clashed as Eritreans fought for independence. Afara says some of her family members were being kidnapped, so she fled to Sudan.

“The only way to survive was to leave the country,” Arafa remembers.

For the next nine years, she was on the move, going back and forth from Saudi Arabia to Sudan, trying to find a permanent country in which in live. Then, she had to leave Sudan.

This time Arafa had a family—three young kids, and a husband, but he’d disappeared during fighting in Sudan. It had taken her six months to get in touch with her brother, Ani, who was living in San Jose, California. She had to send a handwritten letter with someone leaving Sudan for the States, who would then locate her brother to deliver it. Ani sponsored the family, and Arafa and her kids Abdul, Amna and Abas made the move from Sudan to San Jose.

“It was difficult in the beginning,” Arafa says. “There was a lot of struggle.”

More than 30 years later, Afara, 50, is now a nursing assistant at Center for Elders Independence and lives in the San Antonio neighborhood in Oakland. She has three grown children, and she is proud to say they all graduated from college.

Afara and her family were among a large number of refugees who arrived in the United States from war-torn African countries in the early 1980s after the Refugee Act of 1980, which created a resettlement program that helped refugees find jobs. Sudan and Ethiopia were engulfed in Civil War, and thousands of North Africans fled their countries for the United States. Many came from what became Eritrea in 1993 when the country gained its independence.

According to Isayas Sium, a board member of the organization Eritrean Youth For Change-Bay Area, a grassroots group that promotes democracy in Eritrea, many people who have immigrated to the U.S. from Eritrea either are refugees or come seeking asylum. “The U.S. government knows the situation in Eritrea, and 99 percent of them can not return to Eritrea,” Sium said in a phone interview.

Afara speaks with a sweet and confident tone. She’s wearing a wrap on her head, covered by a loose white scarf that flows over her shoulders. On a Saturday afternoon in the Temple of Good Hope on 55th Street just below Shattuck Avenue She’s standing outside a meeting of a group of Eritreans from around the Bay Area who support the Eritrean government opposition group, the National Commission for Democratic Change (ENCDC). The group gets together monthly to discuss how to bring democracy to the autocratic Eritrean government. “We’re sick and tired of war,” she says.

Afara has been coming to the meetings for two years because she says she wants “to change what’s been going on back home.” She’s worried about family members who still live there, and is eager for them to have a better life. She pauses and turns and greets a man in Arabic as he walks in the building.

When Afara arrived in San Jose in 1981 with three kids in tow, she was scared. She didn’t speak much English or know her way around her new surroundings, including where to find a mosque. She wasn’t sure how she would be able to support her three kids.

So Arafa took on three jobs—as a housekeeper, an Arabic teacher and a caregiver for the elderly. “Weekends was like, I’m working 24 hours,” Arafa says. “I’d work all day here and then all night here. On the weekends I didn’t have to take care of my kids because my brother would help me.”

During the week, she started taking classes at San Jose City College to get her nursing degree. She also took on another job as a translator to make ends meet, and then realized she would have to drop out of school because she simply didn’t have the time. “Working, working, working,” she remembers.

Her personal life had its trials as well. Her husband showed up in San Jose after five years apart—he’d been captured in Sudan by the Ethiopian army, Arafa says, and had located the family when he was released. But the couple had grown apart in their years away. “We didn’t get along anymore,” Arafa says.

Arafa moved her family to Oakland in 2000. She said while San Jose has a larger Eritrean population, Oakland is “the connecter, the center of the Bay Area,” and is easily accessible from anywhere. The Bay Area Eritrean community holds many events in North Oakland, including a monthly youth gathering at the Good Hope Temple.

Arafa says that because Oakland, and the Bay Area, has such a large number of Eritrean people, she’s been able to keep alive cultures and traditions from her home country, and share them with her children, like making the spongy, sour flatbread Injera, which takes three days to prepare.

Though she left Sudan with little, she has been able to stock up on goods from back home at markets in the Bay Area. “The way we dress, what we eat, the way we cook, we kept our way even though we adopted the American way,” Arafa says.

One of her favorite traditions from back home is drinking coffee. In the Eritrean method, coffee is freshly ground and cooked in a clay pot. Afara says it’s a lot different in Eritrea than in the U.S. because if you don’t have time to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee with someone, if you’re in a hurry, “you have tea instead.”

Looking back now, the hard work was worth it, Arafa says. She earned her nurses assistant certificate in 2003. She’s proud that her three kids all graduated from college, earning degrees from UC Berkeley and San Francisco State. She’s remarried and has a 10-year-old son.

“There are people who came here and studied and got degrees, and some of us give it up to have the kids have the degrees,” Arafa says. “I’d rather them have the degree than me—it’ll be more useful and productive for those young people. Should the mother spend all their energy and money on herself?  I’d rather have my child get that benefit.”


  1. መርሃዊ ወልደጼን on March 15, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Unfortunately the interview is rife with inaccuracies. Granted, some of the comments are rhetorical, but should still be put into context. I also see no mention of the Eritrean community that started in the mid-1970’s and continues to this day nor the various youth initiatives in throughout the Bay Area including those in San Jose, Santa Rosa and of course, the oldest in the Bay Area, Oakland.

    The story of Ms. Atiga ought to be told but it is distinguishable from the story of most Eritreans here in the Bay Area. The Bay Area Eritrean community is one of the oldest in the United States and sponsors many activities in Eritrea including sponsorship of youth centers, women’s development centers and health clinics throughout the Eritrean countryside. Additionally the devastation wrought by the Ethiopian occupation of Eritrea is relieved in some measure by sponsorship from hundreds of Bay Area families of those orphaned or widowed by the conflict.

    • Abdul Idris on March 15, 2012 at 2:37 pm

      The previous reply is correct but misses the point that this is a story about one individual’s experience that draws on her Eritrean heritage. It was not, however, an expose on the community or the activities done by every segment of it.

      • Abdul Idris on March 15, 2012 at 2:44 pm

        One thing I appreciate about the comment is the polite feedback and mention of grassroots efforts currently undertaken by Eritreans inside Eritrea. This is the kind of dialogue and exchange that we would all love to keep building upon.

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