In less than two decades, immigrants from Latin America, Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa and the Caribbean have significantly changed the District’s ethnic composition, according to a recently released report by the Bowser administration.
D.C.’s Ethiopian community, more than 30,000 strong, has brought about a significant part of that cultural renaissance, having weathered the storm of gentrification by maintaining tight-knit communities and economic centers in and along Georgia Avenue, Shaw, Silver Spring and Alexandria.
“You’re coming to a new place through some difficult circumstances, so you’re shocked by the high-rise buildings and flashy materials,” Ethiopian-born entrepreneur and Generation Xer Markorios said as he reflected on his experiences as a newly arrived teenager in the 1980s and the events that brought him to the District.
“There was a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. At that young age, I was eligible for the National Service and would have to fight my own people,” continued Markorios, who asked to use a pseudonym.
Markorios counts among the 15 percent of District residents who emigrated from a foreign country to embark on a new life in the nation’s capital. The Bowser administration and the Urban Institute recently highlighted this group and their families in a report titled “State of Immigrants in D.C.”
That report, released in mid-December, shows that the District’s African immigrant population increased by nearly 60 percent since the turn of the century. People born in Ethiopia, including Markorios’ friends and families, represent the majority of newcomers, some of whom used the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program launched in the early 1990s.
“The Ethiopian community was sparse, but the volume kept increasing over time,” Markorios said. “By the 2000s you could see the shift — not just because of the visa but because people were getting established and folks congregate where they have community. You need someone to help you maneuver this new space.”
Markorios’ perspective adds nuance to the findings outlined in the Bowser administration’s 22-page report, titled “State of Immigrants in D.C,” which highlights various aspects of the immigrant experience including economic advancement, education, health and housing.
In a statement, city officials said the information serves as a means of bringing greater attention to the diversity of D.C.’s immigrant population and providing feedback about how they can more effectively utilize local programs to improve their quality of life.
“Whether you have been here for five generations or five minutes, we remain focused on working for all D.C. residents and that includes immigrants who now call the District home,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a statement in December.
“This report tells us where we are making strides and where more work needs to be done, helping my [a]dministration better understand the specialized needs of our various and vibrant immigrant communities and move them all forward on pathways to the middle class,” the statement continued.
The collaboration between the Bowser administration and Urban Institute closed a tumultuous year for immigrants across the nation, targets of what has been described as U.S. President Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric and policy.
In 2016, weeks after Trump won the presidential election, the Bowser administration reaffirmed D.C.’s status as a “sanctuary city,” meaning it would limit its cooperation with the federal government in enforcing immigration laws.
The current federal government shutdown hinges on Oval Office’s insistence that a $70 billion wall along the U.S.-Mexico border will deter the entry of women, men and children from Mexico, Guatemala and other Central American countries seeking asylum.
Last year, a White House insider confirmed that Trump questioned the presence of African, Haitian and Salvadoran immigrants and called their places of origin as “s—hole countries” during a discussion about a bipartisan immigration proposal that would determine how and to whom immigration officials dole out visas.
While Markorios noted that his peers have become more cognizant of what he described as United States’ bigotry toward those considered “the other,” he said Ethiopians have a long way to go in understanding the trauma of chattel slavery.
“It’s something I’ve noticed,” he said. “Most White people are disarmed when you’re not an African American. There’s no stigma of slavery, and we become a sort of sanitizer. A lot of Ethiopians aren’t aware of White supremacy. They’re just chasing the dollar and making life better for themselves.”