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In September 2001, Abdul Kamus slowly accompanied two Sudanese refugees from his car to Howard University Hospital. The refugees were brothers, both about 20 years old, and perilously thin. They had left their parents before the age of 10 to escape civil war and traveled to Kenya, surviving on one meal every other day. They had arrived in the United States recently and Kamus was taking them to be treated for anemia and digestive problems.
As they passed through the hospital’s Georgia Avenue entrance, Kamus remembers, a member of the hospital staff snickered at the boys and others began to laugh. Kamus was shocked that such hostility could take place in a hospital, but the source of the taunting didn’t surprise him: American-born blacks. Telling the story brings tears to his eyes. “They don’t know us,” he says. “They don’t care that we exist.”
Kamus, the 48-year-old de facto leader of D.C.’s Ethiopian community, is bent on changing that attitude. Rather than avoiding confrontation with D.C.’s African-American community, Kamus wants the city to rename the stretch of 9th Street NW between T and U Streets “Ethiopian Boulevard,” in order to formally acknowledge Ethiopians’ contribution to growth in Ward 1. “We are bettering U Street, especially at 9th and U,” he explains. “Two years ago, no one would work there.”
Community leaders generally seem amenable to the Ethiopian Boulevard idea. As of mid-October, both advisory neighborhood commissioners whose districts border the intersection at 9th and U Streets had said they would likely support the effort in some form, although both cautioned that the idea might elicit hostility from African-Americans on the street. Commissioner Philip Spalding says he thinks the idea “might bring up some smoldering racial tension from black residents who might not take lightly to having the street renamed.”
An informal survey of African-American U Streeters confirms Spalding’s prediction. John C. Snipes, known as “the mayor of U Street,” has owned a number of businesses on the street and now works on U Street historical projects. Snipes vehemently opposes Kamus’ idea, pointing to the long history that African-Americans have had in the area. “Why would we name it the Ethiopian Boulevard when they’ve only been [on the street] for two or three years?” he says. “I resent that—why would they get to do that? They look like me, but they don’t think like me.”
Serita Lewis, who works at Salon Essence on U Street’s 1000 block, echoes this sentiment. “A lot of the Ethiopian businesses have the money to afford the $45 per square foot that it costs to have a business here, but that doesn’t mean it’s their history,” Lewis says.
Kamus has already anticipated resistance from black residents who might consider the naming a further assault on the African-American culture being pushed out by gentrification. During his three years as program manager for D.C.’s branch of the Ethiopian Community Development Council (a job he left last month), Kamus says, he spent much of his time responding to antagonism from the African-American community. He says he still receives calls from African refugees complaining about black building managers, teachers, or police officers mistreating them. “The image is: They are going to take our jobs. They are out to take our housing,” Kamus says. “They’re saying, ‘This is not for you.’”
An Ethiopian refugee who settled in the United States in 1984, Kamus says his vision for building a successful community stems from watching Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York form strong businesses from nothing. After arriving in D.C. from New York in 2001, he replicated their strategy of providing support systems for new arrivals. Kamus has helped hundreds of Ethiopians find housing, enroll in schools, find jobs, and start new businesses.
Having seen immigrants yank themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps to become U Street business owners, Kamus has a difficult time understanding how African-American– owned businesses in the area fail. He raises the example of Sisterspace & Books, a black-owned business on U Street that was evicted when it fell behind on rent: “My question for them is, with [60 percent] of the city being African-American, how come there’s no one supporting you? People who don’t speak English are succeeding with their businesses and sending their children to private school.”
Kamus is aware that opinions like this won’t endear him to the African-American community—the owners of Sisterspace & Books refused to even respond to his comments. But in between picking up refugees from the airport, Kamus has learned to work the political system so that he can speak his mind and still have some leverage when it comes to pushing a pro-Ethiopian agenda.
On Sept. 16, Kamus held a press conference in front of Dukem, a U Street Ethiopian restaurant, to request better police protection for African-owned businesses on the thoroughfare. According to Kamus, the businesses had experienced an unusual number of robberies, break-ins, and incidents of vandalism during the summer. But unlike other community crime-fighting initiatives, Kamus’ had local star power. At 1:30 p.m., a cream-colored Volkswagen Beetle convertible pulled up and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham emerged, sporting a slight sunburn.
Graham had just returned from a five-week trip to Ethiopia, for which Kamus had arranged his travel and lodging. Graham, as well as his director of multicultural policy and community relations, Ted Loza, had spent the trip gathering a better understanding of Ethiopian culture. Upon following Kamus to the podium, Graham said “Tena yestelgn”—a greeting in Amharic, Ethiopia’s primary language. Kamus and the restaurant owners beamed.
Recently, Loza said he had never heard from an African-immigrant advocate before Kamus arrived. “He came to D.C., he asked the right questions, and [he] isn’t afraid to ask,” Loza said.
Kamus’ lobbying of Graham has paid off in big ways for the Ethiopian community. In March, after Metro fired about 30 Ethiopian parking-lot attendants after discovering millions of dollars in parking revenue was missing, Kamus complained to Graham, a Metro board member. Graham forcefully defended the fired Ethiopians at a press conference.
With Graham’s support, Kamus has tackled a variety of issues related to Ethiopian welfare in D.C. One of his greatest accomplishments was the April passage of the Language Access Act. Submitted by Graham, the law requires the city to provide translation services in Amharic. Kamus has since lobbied for the city to create a mayoral commission to serve the African refugee community, noting that the mayor currently has an nine-member Office on Latino Affairs and a five-member Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs.
Ethiopian Boulevard would be the jewel in Kamus’ crown—an official recognition of Africans’ assimilation into the District. Kamus says he is trying to improve relations with African-Americans—he recently began meeting regularly with African-American leaders to try to better understand their perspective. But the connection he’s made with politicians will likely determine the future of 9th Street. Graham says he will support the idea of the boulevard: “People don’t appreciate just how much our immigrant community contributes to the city—the Ethiopians in particular.”
Kamus’ brand of politics gives him confidence that in the end his African-American opponents on U Street will have no choice but to accept him—and his boulevard. “The African-American businesses are dying,” he says. “Would they prefer to have the European culture move in?” CP