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Several people from the Ethiopian and the African-American communities expressed their concern about Jonathan O’Connell’s article “Street Fighter” (11/5). I have noted some inconsistency and misquotations and out-of-context remarks of mine. I did not intend to create unnecessary controversy about the relationship between the two communities; however, I would like to apologize to those community members whose feelings have been hurt because of misunderstanding and misconceptions based on the article. The readers could have benefited from our attempts to bring the issues for constructive dialogue and debate instead of our blaming each other.
When O’Connell asked me a question regarding who would challenge us on renaming the stretch of 9th Street NW between T and U Streets, my answer was that some other ethnic-business owners might challenge the concept of naming it the “Ethiopian Boulevard.” I never identified African-Americans as posing a challenge in naming it “Ethiopian Boulevard” or “Little Ethiopia.”
It is a historical fact that African-Americans have suffered from slavery. We are talking about real people, real events, real sorrow, and the real separation of African people from their motherland, Africa.
In fact, there have been occasions when African-Americans and African immigrants have banded together to defend the human rights of the African brothers and sisters. On Nov. 12, 1988, skinheads from Portland, Ore., attacked three Ethiopian immigrants with a baseball bat and steel-toed boots, and one of the immigrants, Mulugeta Seraw, was killed. After the country was shocked to learn of the death of an immigrant from Guinea, Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times by New York City police officers, African-American community leaders united from New York City to California and raised their voices against police brutality in black communities.
A young African immigrant, Peter A. Njang, was tragically killed by a Montgomery County police officer on Aug. 12, 2004, in Silver Spring, Md. He had come to this country eight months before to fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor to heal the pains and wounds of the humanity. We lost him at a young age, and we will continue to carry his dreams of healing the community by dialogue on avoiding future violence.
Racism and xenophobia have many faces in our community. Discrimination against any individual because of language, sex, color, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnic background is inhuman and has no place in our community. When I was being interviewed on Joe Madison’s radio program several weeks ago, a disabled African-American human-rights advocate asked me a question: Why would a taxi driver not give him a ride to his home? He was demonstrating for human rights and justice in front of the Sudanese Embassy against the Darfur humanitarian crises. Besides apologizing, I told him that we need an open dialogue to address some of the issues we face at workplaces and on the streets of Washington, D.C.
We know that taxi drivers come from various cultures and countries. This behavior is indicative of a lack of sensitivity and respect for other human beings. Only through education, outreach, and dialogue can we enhance services for all residents.
Let me set my record straight. I worked as a community mediator at the Brooklyn Mediation Center after completing the community-mediation training program at the Cardozo Law School Mediation Clinic. As a volunteer program coordinator with the Harlem Restoration Project and Non-Profit Computing, I collaborated to distribute more than 3,000 refurbished computers to Harlem and Bronx faith-based organizations at no cost. To help close the worldwide digital divide, we shipped refurbished computers to Liberia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. I helped start the “Learn and Earn” educational program, in which students, after completing three months of computer training, would receive a refurbished computer free of charge. I assisted in establishing a computer lab at the Greater Metropolitan Baptist Church in Harlem. I taught Harlem residents basic computer software programs and the Internet for over a year before moving to Washington.
The article quoted me regarding Sisterspace & Books. This is an irresponsible use of a quotation that distorts my appreciation for the contributions the bookstore has made for many years. It was not meant as a comparison between African and African-American enterprises. The two communities have been working in harmony to help each other build knowledge and business. At no time have I even mentioned hostility between community members on this issue.
In the past two decades, the Washington region had attracted a very high number of African immigrants. According to a recent Brookings Institution study, African immigrants account for 16.2 percent of the recent arrivals in the Washington region, whereas they comprise only 3.6 percent of all new arrivals to the United States. African immigrants are a very diverse people with many different nationalities, histories, languages, religion, and cultures. African-Americans represent one embodiment of these diverse peoples and cultures. We are bonded by common ancestry and shared values for centuries even though we are dispersed on two separate continents.
Rachel Swarns, who is on the staff of the New York Times, covered some of the concerns in an Aug. 29, 2004, front-page article: “‘African American’ Becomes a Term for Debate.” To address the concerns of the two communities and the African refugee issues, we meet frequently in collaboration with representatives from academic institutions, as well as leaders of faith-based and civic organizations. The group intends to have televised town-hall-type meetings early next year, in the District of Columbia and across the nation.
Your highly respected paper can play a constructive leadership role in enhancing the dialogue between the communities. The beauty of democracy is to have an open, constructive dialogue to create a peaceful, secure, and prosperous nation. I wish you and the entire human race a happy and a prosperous new year!
Silver Spring, Md.