The first time Abezash Tamerat returned to her native Ethiopia, she walked out of the airport terminal’s sliding doors only to turn around and walk right back in, briefly overwhelmed by the press of beggars and taxi drivers clamouring outside.
Tamerat had left Ethiopia as a child and grown up in foster care in Georgia. Now she was going back as a 20-year-old to rediscover the far-off, unfamiliar place that had shaped her identity.
She arrived with about $40 (Dh147), trusting in a credit card in a country that even then, in 2003, had no ATMs. A week later, she was back at the airport trying unsuccessfully to change her ticket and get an early flight home to Atlanta.
Frustrated, she gave her quest another chance, staying on to find her birth family, learn Amharic and start a home for HIV-positive orphans. Later, she founded Artists for Charity, a network of artists, volunteers and donors that supports the home. After many more trips, Tamerat, now 34, finally made the decision that more and more members of the Ethiopian diaspora are making: she returned to Addis Ababa for good last year.
An estimated 2 million Ethiopians live abroad, driven out by years of war, famine and economic hardship. A report by the Migration Policy Institute puts the number of first- and second-generation Ethiopian immigrants in the United States at about 250,000.
Now, courted by the Ethiopian government, many are bringing back money and skills acquired in the West, helping to transform a society still hobbled by the legacy of the 17-year communist dictatorship that ended in 1991. Over the past decade, a country that was once a byword for famine and privation has seen consistently high growth, welcoming foreign investment and pouring money into infrastructure.
The homecoming is not easy for most. Returnees confront not just a complex bureaucracy, but also frequent suspicion from those who stayed and weathered the hard years. Yet they have changed the face of Ethiopia’s cities — launching businesses, opening art galleries, cafés and salons, and founding hospitals.
“The things that are happening and moving through the city are initiatives of the diaspora’s vision. They are trying to bring what they know here and pushing some standards,” said Tamerat, citing customer service as an example.
“You would go to a restaurant years ago, and it was almost like you were going to get yelled at,” she recalled.
The government has started to see overseas citizens as a potentially rich resource, holding its first “diaspora day” last August to showcase investment opportunities.
“We badly need their participation, their know-how, their skills and resources,” said Tewelde Melegetu, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, which handles diaspora affairs.
He did not have figures for how many have come back or started businesses in recent years but said that in the past six months, 2,600 have returned, compared with 600 in the same period the year before.
In the past, Ethiopians were not known for emigrating. Those sent abroad for education in the 1960s mostly returned home. But that changed with the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and the establishment of the Marxist Derg regime.
In the ensuing bloody purges, dubbed the “Red Terror”, thousands of Ethiopians, especially intellectuals and businessmen, fled abroad.
“During the Derg years, for a while, everyone who could get out got out,” said Jorga Mesfin, a 38-year-old musician whose family fled when he was 14, eventually settling in Atlanta.
Doctors, lawyers and musicians left. The country’s famed “Ethio-jazz” sound, born in the 1960s, disappeared only to be reborn in the United States among the diaspora community.
“For a while, even the [Ethiopian] pop hits were being exported from the US into Ethiopia,” said Mesfin, who moved back in 2007.
“Coming back here was like finding peace,” said Mesfin, who with other diaspora musicians has revitalised the Addis Ababa music scene. “You feel like you are where you are supposed to be.”
On a Thursday night, the African Jazz Village nightclub at Addis Ababa’s Ghion hotel is packed with foreigners and Ethiopians listening to Mesfin’s band and its smoky fusion of jazz and traditional Ethiopian sounds.
“The community appreciates you coming back,” he said.
Despite its recent strides, however, Ethiopia is still very much a developing country, with sporadic electricity, choking traffic, inadequate roads and an often-obstructive business climate.
Returnees struggle to adjust to daily life, many hindered by their poor Amharic. Some complain that local Ethiopians treat them like tourists, charging them premium prices for services.
For every member of the diaspora who makes it back to Ethiopia, there are many who give up and leave again.
There are “just very basic things that when you don’t have them figured out, really stress you out,” said Blayne Tesfaye, 27, who grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and moved to Ethiopia five years ago. “There were definitely a few moments when I called my mum and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here’.”
But with her US education, Tesfaye found a job in public relations and was soon working with multinational companies from across Africa at an age when many of her American peers were still on post-college internships.
Addis Alemayehou, 45, came back in 2001, part of the first wave of exiles to return, before there was even talk of an Ethiopian economic miracle and the country was still recovering from a war with neighbouring Eritrea.
“Ethiopia is built on a network of people,” he said. “It’s who you know, and that’s who opens doors for you. Your platinum credit card is your name” — something that as a newcomer, he did not have.
Now, however, his public relations firm, 251 Communications, is in demand as Ethiopian companies look to expand. Over the past 15 years, he has watched the diaspora change the country, and half-jokingly uses the cleanliness of restaurant bathrooms as one indicator.
“When I first moved here, going to a decent washroom in any restaurant was a major challenge,” he said, laughing. “The diaspora folks started coming and putting up restaurants and cafés and putting an emphasis on making sure the washroom is clean, and all of sudden the locals started doing the same.”
Although the communist regime was overthrown nearly 25 years ago, Ethiopia remains a tough place to do business. Dorina Asmanio’s friends are impressed that it took her only five months to navigate the bureaucracy and open Il Posto, her fusion Italian restaurant with a chef from Washington.
The half-Italian, half-Ethiopian 34-year-old, who used to live in New York and Washington and moved back here a year ago, recalled once having to resort to tears to persuade two customs inspectors to put aside their rivalry and approve the imports of her restaurant’s furnishings.
“If you come with the mentality of doing business just like the way it is in the US, you are not going to survive,” she said. “I tried to be humble and understand them. You just have to be patient.”
Many who have come back said it takes about two years for returnees to find their feet in a country that can appear familiar and alien at the same time.
Yet it is precisely their ability to straddle two worlds that makes them so potentially valuable to international investors eyeing Ethiopia’s relatively untapped market of 94 million people.
Above all, perhaps, the returnees relish the sense of coming home, of living in a place where no one asks where they are from, and where they feel they belong.
“You are in a country where your existence means something,” said Suleiman Shifaw, 36, a graphic designer who grew up in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighbourhood in the 1990s and attended Cardozo high school. “You are being given an opportunity to mean something for your people, and it makes me feel good.”