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East Africans in Oakland: Here to stay

on July 9, 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 communities in Oakland with “East Africans in Oakland” a series of profiles on everyday people living in the city.

The visit was supposed to be brief. Maereg Haile, then 13 years old, and her mother, Rahel Woldehanna, were only going to visit the United States for a couple weeks, enjoy sunny San Diego and scout out the area a little bit in preparation for a possible move. Instead, the visit became a permanent stay for Haile. Her mom found a job, and 13 years later, and she hasn’t been back to Ethiopia.

“We just wanted to test it out,” Haile said. “But we ended up staying.”

Haile, 26, is a program coordinator for Pacific Foundation Services in San Francisco, a company that connects foundations with non-profits seeking funding, and she now lives near Lake Merritt. Haile is short, bright-eyed and confident, and goes by “Mimo,” a nickname given to her by her father which is also the name of a pastry shop in Ethiopia her mom used to frequent when she was pregnant.

Haile loves living in Oakland, she says, because “it’s so calm and soulful, and everyone is so chill.” She likes that though it’s a city, Oakland can feel like a small town depending on the neighborhood. “There are places you go to and see the same familiar faces,” she said.

And though she hasn’t been back to Ethiopia since she was a girl, she’s found a home among Oakland’s Ethiopian population. “Everyone knows somebody, some way, somehow, so we’re all connected,” she said. “We definitely help each other out. I’ve noticed our culture is really sincere—my friends who are Ethiopian and Eritrean, I’ve noticed, are so helpful of one another. It’s so cool.”

Haile was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, in 1986, into a large family. She was the second child born to Woldehanna, and her father, Dereje Haile, had seven kids of his own from a previous marriage. Haile said she spent a lot of time with her mother when she was a kid, and loved her school, a large all-girls Nazareth Christian school that went from elementary school through high school.

Haile said she loved American popular culture as a kid. She remembers being enamored with the movie “Titanic” and thinking that everything was perfect in the United States. “I must have watched that movie 30 times,” Haile said of the James Cameron epic. “That and ‘Coming to America.’”

So when her mother told her that they would be taking a trip to this fantastic place, where “money literally grows on trees” she said she thought, she was eager to go. For her 13th birthday, one month before she was set to leave, her father gave her a visa as a present. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Haile said. “I remember thinking when my dad gave me the visa, ‘My dream has come true. This is amazing.’”

Haile said saying goodbye to her family, especially her father, was the hardest part of leaving Ethiopia. But she didn’t realize just how difficult it would be at the time—Dereje became ill and died after the family had arrived in San Diego and Haile never saw her father again. “Leaving my dad was really hard,” Haile said. “I still haven’t gotten over it.”

Her father’s passing also threw off the family’s plan. Dereje and his children were supposed to move with Haile and Woldehanna to the States, but that was now in doubt. “That shook up a lot of things, what we had planned,” she said of her father’s passing.

Haile’s mother had picked San Diego as the place to visit because it’s where a family friend lived, and they wanted to find a place with a warm climate. But they only stayed in San Diego for about six months before Woldehanna found a job as a nurse’s assistant in San Jose. Though the family was moving again, Haile said she was excited. “I was just thinking, ‘Oh, a new city again!’ she said.

Haile said while her mother was getting settled in San Jose, Haile lived with her mom’s friend and her family in Oakland for a few months. Haile became especially close with one of the daughters, Miti, who was three years older and had been living in the US for more than five years. “I could confide in her whenever I was going through something,” Haile said. “Whatever it is, it was cool to have someone who went through those early stages of adapting, and can help you out with whatever they know.”

Haile moved back with her mom about a year later, to an apartment building in Hayward where a lot of other Ethiopians lived. Haile said the residents in the building were tight-knit—women would help each other cook and she would often babysit for other families. “It was a family,” Haile said. “It was like big ol’ house, but just individual apartments.”

The house would get a lot larger soon enough. Now that her mother was more financially secure and settled, she could afford to bring the whole family over. The two-bedroom apartment was soon filled with Haile’s seven brothers and sisters from her father’s side of the family. Haile shared a room with the girls, with the boys sleeping in the other bedroom and her mom on the couch. “It was a bit of an adjustment for me because I was spoiled for a while,” Haile said, starting to laugh. “But I eventually let it go.”

After graduating from Tennyson High in Hayward, Haile chose to attend UC Davis because it’s close enough to the Bay Area where that could get away and also come visit on the weekends. “I learned that from Miti,” she said.

At Davis, Haile became involved with the African Diaspora Cultivating Education, a student run program that focused on retaining African and African American students at Davis, and doing outreach to high school students as well. “I ended up loving every minute of it,” she said.

She said she studied pediatrics because she likes kids, but she said there was some pressure because “if you’re Ethiopian, there’s a stereotype that you have to become a doctor, lawyer, nurse–something that makes sense and makes you money.” But ultimately, she said, it wasn’t for her. She said she became interested in the non-profit sector while in college, and realized she could find a job doing something she really wanted to do, not had to do. “I found out you can kind of venture out and have an open mind and see the beauties of the world in many ways,” she said.

Haile moved to Oakland last year, after living in San Francisco with her mother after graduating from college. Her mother also recently made a move, this time back to Ethiopia. “She’s really happier,” Haile said. “I’m happy for her. It’s definitely something that’s understandable. For a lot of our parents and older people in the Ethiopian community, it can be really hard to live out here and adjust as fast as I did.”

Haile has plans to return to Ethiopia as well, and see what she’s been missing for half her life. She has a trip planned for February, and is eager to get to know her father’s side of the family and see what the country she was born in is like today.

“I’m sure I’ll feel like a foreigner at first,” she said.


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