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Vaughn Davis Bornet: Review of Joseph W. Scott and Solomon A. Getahun's "Little Ethiopia of the Pacific Northwest" (Transaction, 2013)

Vaughn Davis Bornet holds degrees from Emory University, the University of Georgia, and Stanford University and split his career between nonprofit and academic employment. He performed scholarly functions at an encyclopedia, a medical association, and a thinktank. He continues to engage in historical scholarship in Ashland, Oregon, since retiring in 1980 from what is now Southern Oregon University.

Often a book will be idly described as “timely” on one thin ground or another. This book on Ethiopians who migrated from their home country in Northern Africa (via Sudan?) and settled in Seattle fits the needs of all who are focusing on immigration policy at this moment and wish they knew a whole lot more about those who came here voluntarily and involuntarily.

Little Ethiopia is a detailed analysis of how the elite of Ethiopia reacted to Communist control of their North African country after the 1974 Revolution; how they fled (chiefly) to Sudan; how they got selected there as immigrants to the United States; how they settled in Seattle and hated, endured, or succeeded in Life there; and how after soul searching, some returned to the homeland where maybe the old ways would again prevail.

The newcomers from Addis Ababa and vicinity are by no means “typical” in the sense of the 11 million immigrants who worry policymakers (and a lot of our public) at this moment. The Ethiopians who came to “the Pacific Northwest” were “sojourners” who expected to return home before too long. Borderline “middle class” and/or “elite” at home, they were full of illusions about the life that suddenly faced them during what seemed likely to be a temporary stay in our land of freedom and opportunity.

Soviet meddling with their home country had blocked money transfers, produced threats of bodily harm and more, produced jail and exile, and changed lifestyles born through the distant centuries. Stranded, these new and definitely involuntary long term visitors to the U.S. (some 175,000 in all) began a long process that illusions indicated would bring some form of relief and even happiness.

The bedrock of this innovative sociological study is extensive and very carefully framed interviews with 70 individuals on topics that center on “the trials and tribulations of transplanted Ethiopians who came from an ancient, agricultural, low-tech poor society....” They hoped to “adapt, survive, and thrive” in their new environment, one that might well turn out to be a “young, industrial, postmodern, high-tech, rich society....” The ages of the sample were 20 to 53.

The authors had to prepare for their scholarly self-assignment. The senior author, Joseph W. Scott, a long time sociologist at Notre Dame (and elsewhere), retired from University of Washington, is a specialist in ethnic studies. His much younger colleague, Solomon A. Getahun, finished his doctorate in 2005 and definitely used his status as an “Ethiopian immigrant” to good advantage. Both used open-ended questions and follow-up questions that (to this reader) might be analogous to those that a huge corporation might hope would be used when hiring vital new personnel. Dr. Getahun’s work in Amharic had to get into English for Dr. Scott’s contribution to be fully effective.

Together, “they uncovered the social, cultural, political, and economic forces that facilitated and/or hindered the respondents’ adjustments after resettlement in the United States.” Those with whom they worked were “among the first black Africans to voluntarily come to the United States since the end of the slavery era in 1865.” I quote this, but readers would do well not to think they are learning anything central about our “black” population. Ethiopians, it turns out, are different.

While it would be hard to summarize all topics entered by the authors, a partial list by chapters in order will help: cultural adjustment, schooling, job orientation, entrepreneurship, use and abuse of welfare, domestic life including sexual disruption, religious orientation, and emotions, coexisting with others, death customs, and finally, staying in or leaving America. I hope I haven’t done violence to sociological grassroots with my interpretation.

Here are some things the authors uncovered about these “refugees.” The happier life possible when on our welfare orients most to keeping government money and services around; they are “hooked.” (p. 75). There is considerable disunity, for very quickly the group ceased to be monolithic. “Come together” for the good of all is the desirable watchword. (p. 83), but youth are a different matter! Innovation in sexual conduct is a strain on refugees, who may be totally out of the orbit of conduct mostly tolerated in our media and gathering places

The authors dwell on the theme that “the longer they live in the States, the more American values, beliefs, and behaviors they internalize and the fewer Ethiopian values, beliefs, and behaviors they retain. Am I more Ethiopian than American?” Resident aliens, they struggle to make up their minds. America, they usually decide, is not heaven.

The authors’ ruminations on racism among the refugees will fascinate white readers. Blacks in general and these Ethiopians may seem to whites to share a general racial background—dark skin, Africans--but this book makes it very clear that American blacks with their history of slavery, reconstruction, and the long struggle for civil rights are absent from these specialized pages.

Husband-wife relations have been a real burden for these arrivals. The Americanizing working women of this group are a trial for many a husband. Materialism is alien, as money bearing the aspect of God moves in on traditional Christian Church dominated lives deeply rooted in “one of the longest recorded histories and cultures.” Ethiopians ruminate that they are a central part of civilization itself.

This is a scholarly, agreeable, organized, sensible, and always revealing book of 127 packed pages that provide an intelligible portrait of a small group of immigrants to our shores. Just published in summer, 2013, its discounted price on Amazon is an invitation to learn from it cover to cover. Incidentally, if I were a native of Seattle I know that reading this highly organized collection of insights into the intimate lives of my African neighbors would surely deliver many new and surprising insights into aspects of my chosen home town.