Toronto’s Ethiopian Community

Established in the east end, Ethiopian culture focuses on harmony and hospitality. Written by Krystyna Cap and originally posted January 11, 2011.

For those who have ever eaten in an Ethiopian restaurant, they know that it’s an experience unlike any other. Sharing platters of injera and wat with family and friends, one digs in, without reserve, and uses one’s hands to break off pieces of the yeast-risen, sourdough flatbread to scoop up the stews of meat and vegetables.

 

Dukem Restaurant

The first time I tried Ethiopian food was in a small restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland, coaxed into sampling the dishes by a friend who had just come back from time spent in northern Ethiopia. It’s truly an experience meant to bring people together, sharing generous plates of richly coloured, flavourful food. That’s what Michael Kidus, owner of Dukem Restaurant in Toronto’s east end says his restaurant aims to do: “Customers are encouraged to share food because it gets them smiling, laughing, talking and truly enjoying the experience.”

According to Michael, when patrons first come to Dukem, they often don’t know much about the menu, but due to the diverse palette of Torontonians, who are seeking more multicultural fare, they gravitate to the exotic selections and are eager to experiment. I was treated to my own platter of meat and vegetables, including collard greens; cabbage, carrot and potato stew; beef tibbs; and spicy lentils – a fan favourite.

Dukem is a city southeast of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and, according to Michael, conjures up images of home for those who eat in his authentic Ethiopian restaurant at Danforth and Donlands. “The restaurant’s name brings to mind images of the market place in Dukem – the fresh fruits and vegetables and meat for which the city is known.”

Michael Kidus, owner of Dukem Restaurant (right)

Michael explains that, next to the injera, the coffee ceremony is an important part of Ethiopian culture and cuisine. Performed in the presence of visitors after the coffee has been roasted, ground and brewed in the traditional jebena, or clay coffee pot, the host pours coffee out of the jebena in one continuous stream-often at a height of one foot or more-for all guests without stopping between cups. It’s a mark of friendship, respect and hospitality to partake, and one that Dukem Restaurant offers to its patrons.

Michael’s restaurant is one of the many Ethiopian establishments that have sprung up in the city’s east end over the past few decades. More recently, the Globe and Mail reported on efforts to designate a four-block area from Greenwood Avenue to Monarch Park, “Little Ethiopia.” Although community leaders have yet to convince the Danforth-Mosiac BIA to carve out a section of the city for the approximately 11,000 Ethiopians living in it, Toronto remains privileged to have a group with such rich history and culture as part of our multicultural landscape.

Migration to Canada

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa. Replete with natural and man-made wonders, it’s the land of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the Illiad and the Odyssey, and the reputed “birthplace” of modern man.

From about the 1st century B.C., the Aksumite Empire – a precursor of modern Ethiopia – grew to be a major commercial player between the Roman Empire and Ancient India, and the first major empire to convert to Christianity. At its height, its lands included parts of present-day Eritria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Even as the empire declined, successive centuries saw the ascent of new monarchs and the birth of a nation that successfully escaped the European Scramble for Africa in the nineteenth century.

Twentieth-century Ethiopian history was punctuated by the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, who undertook the country’s modernization. He played an integral role in the development of the Organization of African Unity, and in staving off Italian aggression in the 1930s. Selassie’s famous appeal to the League of Nations in 1935 made him Timemagazine’s Man of the Year.

Haile Selassie’s regime came to an end in the early 1970s, when a Soviet-backed revolution installed a Marxist regime known as the Derg. Employing brutal tactics involving terror and forced deportations, millions of Ethiopians fled the political instability for the seventeen years the Derg was in power. Many Ethiopians eventually immigrated to Canada by way of Europe, with over 13,000 settling in Ontario alone between 1974 and 1998.

“Most Canadians know Ethiopia through the famine and crisis [of the 1970s and 1980s], but I want them to know we are beyond that,” says Muluken Muchie, owner and editor of the Toronto-based Ethiopian newspaper, Hawarya. “We are grateful for the assistance we received at the time, as well as the opportunities, but we are a people of culture and history, and we look forward to sharing that with our Canadian friends.”

 

Today, Ethiopia is home to over 85 million people and represents the second most populous African nation. Its diverse population is comprised of 80 different dialects and three major religious groups-Christian, Muslim and Jewish. According to the 2006 census, Canada’s Ethiopian community numbers more than 20,000.

Muluken Muchie, owner and editor of Hawarya

Muluken arrived in Canada in 1986 and, one year later, began undergraduate studies in economics at York University. While at York, he brought his finacé to Canada, and the couple married after Muluken graduated. Today, they have two children, which he says is a great pleasure. “Seeing them go to school and seeing Canada through their eyes – the language, the values – that’s one thing we’re very happy about.”

Muluken began Toronto’s first Ethiopian newspaper, Hawarya, in 1995. In Amharic, “Hawarya” means “disciple,” or “apostle,” which Muluken chose based on his desire to connect with other Ethiopians, and to encourage them to go out and reach the rest of the community. The newspaper began with a mainly Ethiopian readership, but has since expanded to include readers of Djiboutian, Eritrean, Somali and other East and West African origin due to numerous English-language features.

Front page of Hawarya Newspaper

When Muluken began the newspaper in the mid-1990s, it was a one-man operation. Growing over the years, the paper now includes a staff of freelance writers from all over the globe, including a multicultural writing staff right here in Toronto. Over the past fifteen years, Hawarya has been a key expatriate source of political, social and economic commentary on Ethiopia for the Toronto Starthe Globe and Mail and the New York Times. Now it continues its original aim of tackling political and social issues affecting Ethiopia, but has also assumed a more active role in encouraging the immigrants to participate in all aspects of life in Canada.

Toronto’s Ethiopians

For Canada’s early Ethiopian immigrants, unemployment and underemployment were major problems, particularly as many Ethiopian immigrants arrived in this city with professional degrees and advanced training in a variety of occupations. Finding employment commensurate with their skills and education proved difficult and throughout the 1980s, many Ethiopians opened restaurants and small businesses across the city.

Some of church fathers at the St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox church in Toronto

“The biggest challenges were the language, integration and having to figure out their identity,” said Muluken, speaking of his own experiences as well. “Since this was the first time they were outside their own country and their way of life, it was difficult for many.”

In Toronto, a variety of associational and community groups sprang up to help immigrants transition more seamlessly into a new life in Canada. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Canadian Muslim Community in Toronto, and the Ethiopian Association in Toronto have been hubs for community and social service programs for Ethiopian-Canadians for decades.

Muluken Muchie (2nd from right) with the St. Mary Choire

When asked what Canadians should know about this country’s diverse Ethiopian community, Muluken emphasized the fact that Ethiopians are proud of their history, culture and traditions. “We value difference and we live together under one flag. We have more than eighty dialects, and three major religions, and yet, we’ve managed to live without interethnic and religious conflict. We respect and honour each other,” he said. “That’s why we feel at home in Canada.”

To learn more about Hawarya, visit http://www.hawarya.net/
To learn more about Michael Kidus’ restaurant, Dukem, visit http://www.dukem.ca/

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