Ethiopian Diaspora in the United States

The Ethiopian diaspora in the USA is the largest one globally. The United States hosts the greatest population of Ethiopians outside Ethiopia. The number of such immigrants in the United States rose sharply in the last two decades of the 20th and the part of the 21st century. The estimation is that Ethiopians in the USA are more than 251,000.

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The primary reason that led to this high number is the political instability and the famine in Ethiopia at the end of the 20th century and the search for a better life and education among others. The population is spread in different states with Washington DC having the highest number of Ethiopians in the USA. Little Ethiopia in Washington is a neighborhood with Ethiopians prevailing in the area. This research investigates the presence, characteristics, and dominance of the Ethiopian diaspora living in America. The study is conducted using the present scholarly and authentic literature as the primary sources.


The United States hosts the second largest number of Ethiopians in the world coming after Ethiopia. This statement implies that the Ethiopian diaspora in America is comparatively significant. Ethiopians are second after Nigerians in terms of ranking the presence of African immigrants in the USA. By 2013, the number of Ethiopian immigrants in the United States was around 251,000 (MPI, 2014). These demographics were projected to go higher over the years. There are diverse reasons that contributed to the high rate of such immigration. Some of the Ethiopians arrived as refugees while others came in search of the popular American dream that offers a better life. The political instability and the prolonged famine in the last decade of the 20th century in Ethiopia also largely promoted this movement. Washington DC has become the home of most Ethiopians in the United States; hence, the name Little Ethiopia occurred. The social characteristics of the Ethiopian diaspora’s members in the United States are closely related to that of other immigrants and the general American population. The level of education, employment, and household income have been growing over the years. The Ethiopian community in the USA is, therefore, extensive with unique dominance, reasons for immigration, and social characteristics.

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Detailed Demographics of the Ethiopian Diaspora in the USA

There is an approximate number of 251,000 Ethiopian immigrants living in the United States together with their first and second-generation children (MPI, 2014). It resulted from a four-year survey between 2009 and 2013. The counted persons were either born in Ethiopia or had at least one parent coming from this country. Out of this number, according to the survey, 178,000 resided in the United States, (MPI, 2014). Half of the Ethiopians in this state are American citizens. The majority of them have obtained citizenship due to family reunifications, refugee policies, and other visa programs. 52% of the people that became citizens of the USA did so through the various family reunification channels, 28 percent used the available diversity visa programs, 19 percent were admitted to refugee programs, and only 1% entered the country due to employment and other single visa classifications (MPI, 2014). Before 1980, there were only approximately 10,000 Ethiopians in America (Getahun, 2011). This number increased sporadically after 2000. This late arrival causes Ethiopians to have the youngest first and second-generation children compared to other immigrant groups in the United States.

The average age of Ethiopian immigrants in the USA is 37 years (MPI, 2014). 86% of this population are the working class and engaged in the different sectors of the labor force. At the same time, only 11 percent are below 18 years (MPI, 2014). Ethiopians also contribute 0.5% to the total foreign-born population in America. Around 73,000 Ethiopians were discovered to have one or both parents born in the country of origin (MPI, 2014). The population of such people in the USA is fairly distributed in different states with the highest concentration in Washington DC. California, Maryland, Minnesota, Virginia, and Texas also have many Ethiopians residing there. Other representatives of this community reside in Seattle, Atlanta, and Minneapolis metropolitan areas. These demographics reveal such a considerable number of Ethiopians in the United States, explaining why it is the second largest African immigrant group in the country. According to the Ethiopian embassy in the USA, America hosts the biggest population of Ethiopians outside Ethiopia. This diaspora is, therefore, large and significant.

Factors that Led to the Ethiopian Diaspora in the USA

The high number of Ethiopians in the USA has been triggered by different factors as described below:

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  • Refugees

The number of Ethiopian refugees increased in the United States after 1980. Before this period, there were approximately only 8000 Ethiopians in the state (Getahun, 2011). The high increase of these people resulted from the passing of the Refugee Act in 1980 (Fawcett, 2012). It was unanimously enforced by the Senate in the last quarter of 1979; President Jim Carter signed the act into law in 1980 (Fawcett, 2012). It motivated the immigration movement. The act boosted the ceiling of American refugee admission from 17,400 to 50,000 (Getahun, 2011). The act further offered the possibility for negotiations and discussions concerning the increase in this number in case of emergencies. This step resulted from the Vietnam War leaving many individuals in search of a secure home.

Further, the 1980 Refugee Act revised the definition of a refugee, meaning a person with a well-founded fear of persecution (Fawcett, 2012). Ethiopians took advantage of this act to enter the United States, citing reasons such as political instability and natural disasters among others. Within 20 years after the passing of this regulation, the number of Ethiopians who came to the USA exponentially increased from approximately 10,000 people to 200,000 (Getahun, 2011). It is, therefore, factual to note that the passage of this Refugee Act was the primary reason for an increase in the presence of refugees in the United States.

  • Search for a Better Life

In the 20th century, there was a significantly high level of poverty and unemployment in Ethiopia (Dercon, & Krishnan, 2007). The economy was underdeveloped, and people lacked the opportunity to receive jobs and build good lives. The majority of Ethiopians were burdened with the cost of living, which was five times higher than the employment rate. In 1980, for instance, Ethiopian’s economy was relatively down with the Ethiopian birr barely equating to a tenth of a dollar (Dercon, & Krishnan, 2007). The business did not function appropriately due to the high political instability. These harsh conditions made America a center of attraction for those who wanted to obtain income and fend for their families. In the search for a better life, Ethiopians, thus, moved to the United States.

In 2000, there were reports that those who had gone to the USA in earlier years were able to secure jobs that could fend for their families back at home (Metaferia, 2009). Such reports fueled the desire for the popular American dream among Ethiopians who longed for financial freedom and security. The USA also had a stronger economy by then and had a conducive environment for business. The latter explains the existence of many Ethiopian businesses in Little Ethiopia in Washington DC. The search for a better life is, therefore, one of the motivating factors that led to the influx of Ethiopians into the United States.

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  • Political Instability in Ethiopia

The last three decades of the 20th century were characterized by the harsh political instability in Ethiopia. The period experienced a civil war that began in 1974 and lasted for approximately 30 years (Dercon, & Krishnan, 2007). This fighting started with a staged coup by Marxist-Leninist Derg against reigning emperor Haile Selassie. This war led to the death of approximately 1.4 million people (Dercon, & Krishnan, 2007). This political instability caused a large number of Ethiopians to flee from the country. Ethiopians have spread worldwide in different states, a phenomenon that majorly resulted from this civil war. The end of this political turmoil began in 1991 after the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, a group of rebels, managed to overthrow the government (Dercon, & Krishnan, 2007). The 20-year period between 1980 and 2000 saw a sharp rise in the number of Ethiopians entering the United States (Barkan 2013). 38% of this increase is associated with the political instability in Ethiopia during this period (Getahun, 2011). This condition left people with no option but to seek safer places of residence, and the United States happened to be one of them.

  • Prolonged Famine

Between 1983 and 1985, Ethiopia was hit with one of the worst famines in its history (Metaferia, 2009). It is recorded as the worst in the whole 20th century. This famine also occurred during the same period as the Ethiopian civil war, making its effects more severe. In northern Ethiopia alone, there were 400,000 recorded deaths (Dercon & Krishnan, 2007). Later, the conditions became worse leading to more death among Ethiopians. The famine resulted from changing climatic conditions. Besides, a drought occurred a few months later. The impacts of this famine were far-reaching. Even people who had money could not purchase enough food because there was a lack of it. The help was difficult to provide because there was an ongoing war that threatened the security of people from the international community who wanted to support those suffering. This famine caused desperation. The parent's need to feed their children inspired them to begin looking for safer places to live. This condition was also consistent with the high poverty rate that dominated the country at the time. People watched their loved ones die. The government could not do anything by then because it was under a coup, and no formidable action could be taken to alleviate this drought. This phenomenon contributed to the high inflow of Ethiopians into the United States between 1983 and 1990.

  • Search for Better Education

The United States has one of the best education systems in the world. It makes the graduates relevant globally. The schools are unique and offer specialized training in different career skills. Most Ethiopians, therefore, send their children to study in these learning centers to gain proper skills. Studying in recognized institutions in the United States also allows the graduates to receive places at a higher competitive level compared to those that have studied in Ethiopia (Barkan, 2013). Some of the students are trained in the USA, after which they plan to settle and create families within the country, thus increasing the population of Ethiopians within the American diaspora. Further, some students come from Ethiopia to study science, mathematics, and engineering courses. These programs have a scarce number of learners who are American natives. As a result, the job market seeks graduates from such technical courses. This demand allows most Ethiopians who come to study courses in the USA to find their niche in the labor market, enabling them to establish their careers and, hence, live in this country.

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Ethiopian Diaspora in Washington DC, Little Ethiopia

The Ethiopian embassy in the USA stated that Washington DC hosts the highest number of Ethiopians outside their native country (Getahun 2011). It explains the reason for its branding as Little Ethiopia. People residing there have not only made this city their dwelling place but have also formed a strong and operational commercial hub. The high number of Ethiopians in Washington has drawn speculations on the cause. Different reasons have promoted the presence of Ethiopians in this area and Los Angeles specifically.

The first reason is the fact that Washington is known as the capital of the United States. Ethiopians attach significant value to the capital cities in different countries. It occurs because, in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa as the capital city is the center of governance, commerce, employment, and higher education among other core functions (Demissie, 2016). It makes Addis Ababa at the center of many individuals’ livelihood. Further after completion of high school, most people flock to Addis Ababa in search of higher education and employment. The capital city is, therefore, a symbol of livelihood and prosperity for Ethiopians, explaining one of the reasons why the latter have formed a little country of their own within Washington.

Another reason is that people from the same state tend to flock together in one place. One of the most consistent characteristics of all immigrant groups in the United States is that they tend to settle in common environments (MPI, 2014). This phenomenon is prevailing in almost all immigrant communities. Different states have high populations of such unique groups. The underlying reason for this fact is that most people want to stay with those they knew when coming to a foreign nation. Further, when individuals plan to settle in a foreign land, they need to be around those they can easily communicate and connect with to help them establish their lives in a new place. It is also easier to obtain employment in a friendly area than in a completely new environment. 67% of immigrants from African countries, regardless of the reason for their immigration, often move to the United States with the help of their relatives (Barkan, 2013). Most of them are invited by their aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, and sisters who want to share the better life they have encountered with their families.

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Moreover, the settled relatives in the USA often know the rules of a new environment concerning surviving, reaching a good life, and education even with Ethiopian citizenship. With their experience, they also advise on the best way in which their invited family members can become American citizens. This form of immigration is quite common among Ethiopians, a pattern that has resulted in their high concentration in Washington.

The other contributing factor to this high Ethiopian population in Washington is the presence of direct flights from Addis Ababa to the USA (Fawcett, 2012). Ethiopian airlines began offering direct flights twice a week in 1998 (Getahun, 2011). In 2010, they enhanced the frequency, introducing daily fights (Getahun, 2010). It prompts most Ethiopians to land in Washington. Once they arrive in this city, they easily connect with their fellow countrymen, establish a pattern of life, and settle in Washington. The USA is a relatively large country; it is, in most cases, hard for anyone to tell where exactly he or she is going unpin the decision to move to this state.

Most people, therefore, decide to begin life in the places where they first land. 87% of Mexican immigrants have settled in cities just along the border of Mexico and America (Barkan, 2013). It reflects the fact that when individuals come to a foreign land, they, most likely, settle in the first city they arrive in. In addition to Washington being the first lading ground of Ethiopians, Ethiopia, this city is believed to be a second home to them. Anytime an Ethiopian is thinking of settling in the USA, they feel more familiar and comfortable settling in Washington because it is a known residence place for people of such a background away from their native home. This legacy makes Washington the center of attraction and preference for any Ethiopian who plans to settle in the USA.

Further, Little Ethiopia offers continuity of the old lifestyle for most immigrants. This neighborhood in LA has everything it takes to preserve the Ethiopian culture. Moreover, Ethiopian immigrants that choose to settle in this place experience comparatively insignificant culture shock when they come to the United States. First, as they learn to speak fluent English, they can communicate in Oromo and Amharic and still find their way around. Language shock is, therefore, minimized. Besides, in terms of food, several restaurants in Little Ethiopia serve Ethiopian cuisines. Some of them are Addis, Rosalind, Merkato, Messob, and Rahel’s Vegan among others. In these restaurants, one can order the different Ethiopian delicacies of own preferences. The settling of Ethiopians in Washington is, thus, considerable because of the reduced food shock. They also arrange various cultural and national events within Little Ethiopia. The Little Ethiopia Cultural & Resources Center is a rich cultural heritage institution for Ethiopians.

The other fundamental cultural aspect is the presence of churches that support Ethiopian religious attributes. Ethiopia was one of the earliest nations the adoption of Christianity (Demissie, 2016). Most Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians while a few are Muslims. Little Ethiopia hosts one of the largest orthodox churches in Washington. Most people of such an origin easily join settling in this area because of their ability to live and follow their faith in the right religious setups. Moreover, the churches act as places where people gather to communicate. Oromo songs are sung in these churches, making more Ethiopian immigrants comfortable with the religious culture.

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Ethiopian immigrants have also formed various bodies that present their grievances and protect their rights in Little Ethiopia. The business owners have come together to form team bodies that mediate between them and both the local and federal governments. 79% of the taxis in Little Ethiopia are driven by immigrants (Demissie, 2016). The reason is that most taxi drivers do not engage in talking during their work. They only say hello and smile. Many immigrants who are looking for employment and still have a language barrier, therefore, prefer to take this job. The restaurants are also filled with Ethiopian immigrant employees. Little Ethiopia, thus, offers the perfect environment for any Ethiopian immigrant to start and develop their lives in the United States.

Social Characteristics of Ethiopian Diaspora in the USA

To understand the dynamics of a community living in a foreign nation, it is important to comprehend the social characteristics of this community, especially in comparison to the citizens of the hosting nation. To reveal how Ethiopian immigrants live in the United States, it is critical to examine the social indicators of quality of life such as education household Income, and employment.

  1. Education 
    The attainment of education, according to a 2014 survey conducted by the Migration Policy Institute, equals this factor in the United States in all communities (MPI, 2014) This research revealed that 20% of adults aged 25 years and above had their highest educational achievement as the bachelor’s degree (MPI, 2014). These statistics were reported to be equal to other populations in the USA. A further 12% of the Ethiopian diaspora in the country aged over 25 years had a Ph.D., a Master’s degree, or a high qualification course fulfillment (MPI, 2014). This population was again the same as that of the general US populace. The education level of Ethiopians in the state is, therefore, not different from that of the general American inhabitants.
  2. Household Income
    The MPI reports that Ethiopians and Mexicans are two of the least median household income levels among all immigrants in the United States. For the Ethiopian diaspora, it equals $36,000 (MPI, 2014). This median is significantly low compared to the average general household income in the USA, which is $50,000 (MPI, 2014). Within the Ethiopian diaspora, however, there is an income disparity with 11% of this population earning more than $90,000 and a further 3% earning $140,000 and above (MPI, 2014). The household income among Ethiopians in the United States is, therefore, lower compared to the average number.
  3. Employment
    The employment rate among the Ethiopian diaspora in the USA is equal to that of the general employment rate among other US populations. Ethiopians were more likely to join the labor force at the age of 16 than the general American population (MPI, 2014). Further, members of this community were less likely to be professionals or serve in managerial positions, according to the report by MPI. There is a huge remittance volume from the representative of the Ethiopian diaspora.


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The US remains the most popular destination for most Ethiopian immigrants. With a population of over 250,000, the Ethiopian diaspora in the USA is expected to keep growing as the world becomes a global front. The United States hosts the highest number of Ethiopians outside Ethiopia. Up until 1980, there was an approximate population of only 10,000 Ethiopians in the USA. Such people, therefore, form part of the latest immigrant community that has entered the USA. This phenomenon resulted from several reasons such as the famine and the political instability in Ethiopia, the search for a better life and better education, and the introduction of the 1980 Refugee Act. The Ethiopian diaspora is distributed in different regions of the United States. The highest population of this community is, however, in Washington Los Angeles in Little Ethiopia. The latter is a hub for commerce and interaction with the Ethiopian culture, making it the most suitable place for incoming Ethiopian immigrants. Further, the social characteristics of the Ethiopian diaspora in the USA are almost similar to that of the general population except for the household income, which is significantly lower among newcomers.

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