East Africans in Oakland: Here to stay
> Ryan Phillips | July
10, 2012 - 1:31 pm
Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in North Oakland
Many of the 20,000 people from Ethiopia and Eritrea living in the Bay Area
call Oakland home. Oakland North is taking a look at the culture and history
of the Ethiopian or Eritrean communities in Oakland with "East Africans in
Oakland" a series of profiles on everyday people living in the city.
The visit was supposed to be brief. Maereg Haile, then 13 years old, and her
mother, Rahel Woldehanna, were only going to visit the United States for a
couple weeks, enjoy sunny San Diego and scout out the area a little bit in
preparation for a possible move. Instead, the visit became a permanent stay
for Haile. Her mom found a job, and 13 years later, and she hasn't been back
"We just wanted to test it out," Haile said. "But we ended up staying."
Haile, 26, is a program coordinator for Pacific Foundation Services in San
Francisco, a company that connects foundations with non-profits seeking
funding, and she now lives near Lake Merritt. Haile is short, bright-eyed
and confident, and goes by "Mimo," a nickname given to her by her father
which is also the name of a pastry shop in Ethiopia her mom used to frequent
when she was pregnant.
Haile loves living in Oakland, she says, because "it's so calm and soulful,
and everyone is so chill." She likes that though it's a city, Oakland can
feel like a small town depending on the neighborhood. "There are places you
go to and see the same familiar faces," she said.
And though she hasn't been back to Ethiopia since she was a girl, she's
found a home among Oakland's Ethiopian population. "Everyone knows somebody,
some way, somehow, so we're all connected," she said. "We definitely help
each other out. I've noticed our culture is really sincere-my friends who
are Ethiopian and Eritrean, I've noticed, are so helpful of one another.
It's so cool."
Haile was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, in 1986, into a large
family. She was the second child born to Woldehanna, and her father, Dereje
Haile, had seven kids of his own from a previous marriage. Haile said she
spent a lot of time with her mother when she was a kid, and loved her
school, a large all-girls Nazareth Christian school that went from
elementary school through high school.
Haile said she loved American popular culture as a kid. She remembers being
enamored with the movie "Titanic" and thinking that everything was perfect
in the United States. "I must have watched that movie 30 times," Haile said
of the James Cameron epic. "That and 'Coming to America.'"
So when her mother told her that they would be taking a trip to this
fantastic place, where "money literally grows on trees" she said she
thought, she was eager to go. For her 13th birthday, one month before she
was set to leave, her father gave her a visa as a present. "I thought it was
the coolest thing ever," Haile said. "I remember thinking when my dad gave
me the visa, 'My dream has come true. This is amazing.'"
Haile said saying goodbye to her family, especially her father, was the
hardest part of leaving Ethiopia. But she didn't realize just how difficult
it would be at the time-Dereje became ill and died after the family had
arrived in San Diego and Haile never saw her father again. "Leaving my dad
was really hard," Haile said. "I still haven't gotten over it."
Her father's passing also threw off the family's plan. Dereje and his
children were supposed to move with Haile and Woldehanna to the States, but
that was now in doubt. "That shook up a lot of things, what we had planned,"
she said of her father's passing.
Haile's mother had picked San Diego as the place to visit because it's where
a family friend lived, and they wanted to find a place with a warm climate.
But they only stayed in San Diego for about six months before Woldehanna
found a job as a nurse's assistant in San Jose. Though the family was moving
again, Haile said she was excited. "I was just thinking, 'Oh, a new city
again!' she said.
Haile said while her mother was getting settled in San Jose, Haile lived
with her mom's friend and her family in Oakland for a few months. Haile
became especially close with one of the daughters, Miti, who was three years
older and had been living in the US for more than five years. "I could
confide in her whenever I was going through something," Haile said.
"Whatever it is, it was cool to have someone who went through those early
stages of adapting, and can help you out with whatever they know."
Haile moved back with her mom about a year later, to an apartment building
in Hayward where a lot of other Ethiopians lived. Haile said the residents
in the building were tight-knit-women would help each other cook and she
would often babysit for other families. "It was a family," Haile said. "It
was like big ol' house, but just individual apartments."
The house would get a lot larger soon enough. Now that her mother was more
financially secure and settled, she could afford to bring the whole family
over. The two-bedroom apartment was soon filled with Haile's seven brothers
and sisters from her father's side of the family. Haile shared a room with
the girls, with the boys sleeping in the other bedroom and her mom on the
couch. "It was a bit of an adjustment for me because I was spoiled for a
while," Haile said, starting to laugh. "But I eventually let it go."
After graduating from Tennyson High in Hayward, Haile chose to attend UC
Davis because it's close enough to the Bay Area where that could get away
and also come visit on the weekends. "I learned that from Miti," she said.
At Davis, Haile became involved with the African Diaspora Cultivating
Education, a student run program that focused on retaining African and
African American students at Davis, and doing outreach to high school
students as well. "I ended up loving every minute of it," she said.
She said she studied pediatrics because she likes kids, but she said there
was some pressure because "if you're Ethiopian, there's a stereotype that
you have to become a doctor, lawyer, nurse-something that makes sense and
makes you money." But ultimately, she said, it wasn't for her. She said she
became interested in the non-profit sector while in college, and realized
she could find a job doing something she really wanted to do, not had to do.
"I found out you can kind of venture out and have an open mind and see the
beauties of the world in many ways," she said.
Haile moved to Oakland last year, after living in San Francisco with her
mother after graduating from college. Her mother also recently made a move,
this time back to Ethiopia. "She's really happier," Haile said. "I'm happy
for her. It's definitely something that's understandable. For a lot of our
parents and older people in the Ethiopian community, it can be really hard
to live out here and adjust as fast as I did."
Haile has plans to return to Ethiopia as well, and see what she's been
missing for half her life. She has a trip planned for February, and is eager
to get to know her father's side of the family and see what the country she
was born in is like today.
"I'm sure I'll feel like a foreigner at first," she said.
Received on Tue Jul 10 2012 - 11:56:56 EDT