Ethiopian Community a Star of Chicago’s Ethnic Enclaves
The smell of sweet spices and fermented bread hangs rich in the air at Kukulu Market in Edgewater. Throughout the day customers of all colors—black, white, brown—shop the tiny storefront filled with traditional Ethiopian foods and other goods.
The grocery is just one of a handful of Ethiopian-centric businesses and centers in the neighborhood. Across the street is the well-known restaurant Ethiopian Diamond, a couple doors down is the Pan-African Association and a few blocks north is the recently built Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago (ECAC) building.
This area of Edgewater, which bleeds into Rogers Park and Uptown, is just one of the small but potent ethnic enclaves located throughout the city. And while this one in particular is Ethiopian and more broadly pan-African, there are plenty of other concentrated ethnicities in this vicinity as well.
“Chicago has always been city that has welcomed immigrants from its founding,” says Fred Tsao, policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Ethiopians could serve as a case study on how ethnic communities develop. Several decades ago, many came to Chicago for education and business opportunities, and as famine and unrest in Ethiopia developed in the 1980s, the number of immigrants and refugees from there increased, Tsao says. Eventually the population grew to become a legitimate community, and organizations like the ECAC formed to address the needs of immigrants in Chicago.
“Settlement varies from group to group. Chicago is well known for its ethnic enclaves, and as they develop and people in these communities start faring better in terms of language skills and jobs, they feel more comfortable moving beyond the community,” Tsao says. But for new arrivals, ethnic communities often serve as a saving grace.
Nadros Gerna, an immigrant from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, came to Chicago because of the large Ethiopian community and because of the family ties she has here. “The more you see a concentration of your people in a city, the more you want to go there and that keeps building,” says Gerna, who works as a waitress at Ethiopian Diamond and attends the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Every winter I want to leave Chicago, but here there are a lot of Ethiopians and so it is very social and hard to leave.”
She says her Edgewater neighborhood has even adopted to an Ethiopian way of life. “There’s several mini markets selling our food here, and restaurants too. We are just part of the fabric now.”
Most immigrants and refugees come to Chicago with at least some sort of support system in tact beforehand, Tsao says. The common thread across groups: The more established refugees and immigrants help the newer ones.
Refugees and Immigrants help each other and give guidance when it is needed, says Lilian Samann, executive director of World Relief Chicago, an organization that provides aid to refugees. “Even our staff is full of former refugees and immigrants that want to continue to help others,” Samann says.
World Relief works with refugees to help them become self-sufficient after 90 days in Chicago. But even after the three month mark refugees continue to seek assistance with World Relief, which offers several language classes among other services. Learning English is one of the determining factors of how quickly immigrants can assimilate. “It’s quite a thing to see folks’ language skills change dramatically in a short period of time,” Samann says. “It’s quite a highlight for us.”