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Culture Tue Nov 04 2014

7,550 Miles from Home, Chicago's Ethiopians Build a Cultural Museum

By Danielle Elliott

Photo by Danielle Elliott.

Some 7,550 miles separate Chicago from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.

For the 10,000 Ethiopians living in Chicago, that distance seems a lot smaller due to the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago (ECAC), a nonprofit refugee resettlement agency, in Rogers Park.

The familiar smells of incense and coffee linger through the hallways of the center, but the real sense of Ethiopia is felt in a small room, 600 square feet, on the second floor. This is the place where the ECAC is trying to build a museum showcasing Ethiopia's diversity and history, a symbol of their strong community.

"We want the museum to transfer information to children and share our rich history with the mainstream American community," said Dr. Erku Yimer, the executive director and one of the founders of ECAC.

Yimer came to Illinois in 1975 for his graduate studies but wasn't able to return home due to the civil war that broke out there in 1974. A provisional administrative council of military officers took control of the Ethiopian government and started the "Red Terror" genocide to eliminate its enemies. The war lasted over 16 years and left over a million dead. At the same time, a large-scale famine raged through the country. The result was a desperate refugee situation.

"The museum will empower us to some degree," Yimer said. "Americans know us as a poor, famine-affected country, but we have a glorious history that we want to show."

Many Ethiopians came to America to escape the political turmoil during the 1970s and 1980s and continued to emigrate in increasing numbers. According to the Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank that analyzes immigration data, in 1980, nearly 26,000 East Africans lived in the U.S. By 2009, there were more than 423,000.

Many Ethiopian newcomers settled in Washington D.C., Maryland and California. Although Chicago isn't on the list of top settlement cities, the city has a thriving Ethiopian population. Research from Rob Paral & Associates, a Chicago-based consulting firm that analyzes census data, shows that more than 60 percent of Ethiopians in Chicago live in the North Side resettlement communities of Uptown, Edgewater and Rogers Park.

"As a new community, we go back to Ethiopia if we can," Yimer said. "People send family to speak the language (Amharic) and cement their relationship with Ethiopia."

M'aza Dowling-Brown, the youth program director at ECAC, is also helping to establish the museum. She has been a part of the Chicago-Ethiopian community since she first started working for ECAC in 2008. An immigrant herself, she was adopted along with her five siblings from Ethiopia in 1998 by a family from Amherst, Mass., where the Ethiopian community was very small. She attended college in Washington D.C. and Ohio but feels most at home in the community where she works and lives now.

"Even though it doesn't have a lot of numbers compared to other cities and people have different ethnic groups or political views, this is the only Ethiopian community that has stayed this strong for 30 years without dividing," Dowling-Brown said.

GB-ethiopia-map.jpgThis united community makes it an ideal place to house the first American museum dedicated to Ethiopian culture. The proposal and creation of the museum stems from the donation of one man: Tesfaye Lemma. He was an Ethiopian musician and intellectual who came to the U.S. in the 1980s as a refugee. During the 1990s, Lemma brought an estimated 1,000 Ethiopian cultural artifacts to the U.S. with the dream of creating a museum. Unfortunately Lemma fell ill, and the artifacts remained covered and stored at the Ethiopian Embassy. In 2009, the ECAC acquired all of the artifacts and has been working to catalogue, organize and preserve them ever since.

"A lot of the collection is of daily items from different ethnic groups," Dowling-Brown said. "It will help us communicate with younger generations of Ethiopians in the U.S. to show them who we are."

Irene Falconer started volunteering at the ECAC in June to help with the museum. With more than 20 years of experience working in an art gallery, she is offering her skills by taking inventory of the items. Months into the project, she is only half way through.

Piles of newspapers, magazines and children's books remained untouched. Beneath five tables that line the walls are boxes of unopened artifacts, but what is on display so far is impressive. There are 20 vibrant watercolor drawings depicting some of the many ethnic groups of Ethiopia. They hang alongside large charcoal portraits of Ethiopian women. On the floor and surrounding walls are Jewish clay sculptures, dolls, Orthodox Christian crucifixes, pottery, straw-woven baskets, bowls, spears, fly swatters made from horse hair, musical instruments, butter containers, small coffee cups and detailed metal pots, and dozens of historical photographs.

"Some museums are quiet, but this place has a liveliness," Falconer said. "There are people of all ages and countries. The halls are full of kids' voices, musical performances and singing. It is a beehive of activity, and the museum will do great here.

On any given day, the waiting room at ECAC is full of people wearing different ethnic dresses and seeking the resettlement services that the organization has to offer, including classes in English as a Second Language, a computer lab and job training. For the Ethiopians in the area, the ECAC building is transformed into the perfect venue for any occasion: religious services, graduation parties and community gatherings. It is the home of many afterschool programs, the Ethiopian New Year party and other community needs.

The ECAC hopes to finish the cultural museum within the next two years. They are currently busy writing grant proposals, running a fundraising campaign and working on plans to build a museum space within the center.

"When young kids come to America they try to fit in and they forget what they have," Dowling-Brown said. "We are here to keep the culture and language alive."

The Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago is located at 1730 W. Greenleaf Ave. For more information, contact Dr. Yimer at 773-508-0303, x111, or M'aza Dowling-Brown, youth and family program coordinator, at (773) 508-0303 x118 or visit the website.

Danielle Elliott is an undergraduate journalism student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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Aschalew Gashaw / November 9, 2014 5:03 AM

It is a nice plan, and I think the cultural museum has many advantages.
Good be with you to finalize your plan.

I am From Ethiopia.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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