War-torn nation leads area in African immigrants Ryan Kim, Chronicle Staff Writer
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.
Tesfa Awoke fled Ethiopia for San Rafael in 1990, years after his his brother had been killed by the government,
his father had been imprisoned and war had broken the spirit of many of his countrymen.
Awoke, 39, was part of a wave of Ethiopians who fled a relentless cycle of war, famine and political instability to
settle in the Bay Area, newly released census 2000 figures show.
More people have come to the Bay Area from Ethiopia than from any other African nation and now number
4,396 in the nine counties, according to the latest data. Since the 1990 census, the local Ethiopian foreign-born
population has grown by 24 percent, with the largest concentrations appearing in Santa Clara County (1,950) and
Alameda County (1,444).
"There was political disturbance in the country," Awoke said the other day. "It was a matter of survival, there was
The African continent as a whole, which has in recent history sent far fewer immigrants than Asia and Latin
America, increased immigration to the Bay Area by 74 percent in the 1990s, second only to Latin America in
A total of 113,255 foreign-born Africans were living in California in 2000. Of those, 28,939 were living in the Bay
Area, including 3,561 from Nigeria, 3, 447 from Egypt and 3,208 from South Africa -- the largest contributors
Beginning in the early 1960s, Ethiopia struggled through civil war, as well as conflicts with neighboring Eritrea and
Somalia, that left many dead or arrested and sent millions of others in search of refuge.
The most recent immigration increase has also been prompted by the establishment of so-called Diversity Visas by
Congress in 1990, which provided visas to countries that have historically sent few immigrants to America.
"The population has grown in this area, primarily because of the Diversity Visa," said Tsedey Assefa, program
coordinator at Ethiopian Community Services Inc. in San Jose. "Many people are trying to take advantage of the
Assefa believes the Bay Area's Ethiopian population is more than four times the official figure, a discrepancy she
attributes to many Ethiopians being unfamiliar with a national census.
Assefa said many recent immigrants have reunited here with friends and relatives and have found work in largely
low-paying entry-level jobs, such as manufacturing or retail sales. She said the Bay Area's weather has also been
a major draw.
"The climate contributes to the immigration here," said Assefa. "It's more similar to Ethiopia."
While Santa Clara County boasts the largest number of Ethiopians, the most visible signs of the Ethiopian
community can be found in the Berkeley-Oakland area, where more than a dozen restaurants, shops and churches
have appeared, mostly along Telegraph Avenue, to serve the local population.
Fetlework Tefferi, owner of Cafe Colucci, an Ethiopian restaurant on Telegraph Avenue, said Ethiopians have
found a home in the area, where they can shop, eat and celebrate holidays like Ethiopian New Year's Eve, which
falls on Sept. 11.
Tefferi said the region's famed diversity has helped ease the transition for many newcomers.
"There are a lot of immigrants here so the environment, it's very conducive, " she said. "It's very welcoming."
Awoke, who came to this country alone, said he sometimes longs to return to Ethiopia but gets a taste of his
homeland during his weekly trips from Marin County to Telegraph Avenue.
"It's like medicine," Awoke said. "You can eat your mom's cooking, you can talk your language, you can meet
Chronicle researcher Kathleen Rhodes contributed to this report. / E-mail Ryan Kim at