Ethiopia lives in L.A. hearts

By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times,

January 3, 2011 –

L.A.’s Ethiopians hold a fundraiser to aid the ill Seifu Makonnen, a former Olympic boxer. Such events are common in a community that believes ‘when our brother needs us, we are here to help.’

Fassil Abebe drives in rush-hour traffic to a bustling stretch of Fairfax Avenue, where the smells of cumin and roasting coffee carry down the street. With handshakes and cries of “Salaam!” he greets a dozen men and women who have gathered in the back room of a friend’s restaurant to organize a fundraiser for Seifu Makonnen, a fellow Ethiopian immigrant who is ill.

Nearly every month in Los Angeles, Ethiopians host a benefit like this one. Last year, at events for two compatriots with cancer, Abebe’s group raised more than $55,000.

It’s not as if they have time or money to spare. Many Ethiopians here work as taxicab drivers or parking attendants, and most send large remittances to relatives back home. But they give because they know that if ever they need help, they will get it. They give because this is a community that takes care of its own.

You can see it at the home of a family that has just lost a loved one, where friends arrive for days of mourning, each with food, drinks or an envelope of money. You can see it at the hospital, where it’s not uncommon for an Ethiopian patient to receive 300 visitors a day.

It’s a way of life they learned at home, and it helps keeps them connected here.

“In Ethiopia when someone is sick, the whole town brings food,” Abebe said. “When someone is having a wedding for his daughter, he doesn’t do it alone. We believe we are our brother’s keeper, so when our brother needs us, we are here to help.”

Seeking asylum

Makonnen was once one of the most feared boxers in East Africa. A heavyweight with a fierce punch, he was called Tibo, Amharic for “knockout.”

He has a clutch of gold medals from various victories across the world and a tattoo on his right shoulder of five interlocked rings — a reminder of when he represented Ethiopia at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich.

But he hit his peak just as a hard-line military junta swept into power in his country, after the 1974 ousting of Emperor Haile Selassie I.

The communist regime put him in jail for several months. Later he was sent to train in Cuba. On a layover in Montreal on the way back to Ethiopia, he slipped a letter to airport police seeking political asylum.

He moved to Los Angeles with refugee status in 1978 and gave up boxing for another fight.

When Makonnen arrived in L.A., there were no Ethiopian restaurants or churches.

“Back then, everybody was on his own,” he said.

Makonnen helped found St. Mary’s Ethiopian Apostolic Church on Compton Avenue, the nation’s first Ethiopian church. While living in Washington, D.C., briefly, he opened a health center where Ethiopian athletes could train and started a weekly radio program about Ethiopian sports.

He helped build the community that now is helping him.

Together to help

The fundraiser-planning dinners have the feel of school board meetings. Decisions are made by consensus. Each person takes notes. One woman jots down the minutes, which are later typed up and sent out on the group’s listserv.

After three months of twice-monthly get-togethers, the event hall has been rented and the musicians’ travel arranged. But there is still much to be done. The invitations must be printed and the dinner menu chosen. Someone needs to make the rounds of all the Ethiopian-owned businesses to sell ad space in the February gala’s program.

The volunteers have embraced the American “do-it-yourself” ethic, with an Ethiopian flavor. Those who are hungry order food, and all eat from the same plate. They never raise their voices during two hours of sorting out event details. The meetings get heated only at the end, when the bill comes and they argue over who gets to pay it.

Beloved figure

Abebe first met Makonnen when he moved to L.A. in 1983. The former boxer was driving a taxi then, and he taught the newcomer from Addis Ababa how to find his way across a vast, unfamiliar metropolis.

Makonnen was diagnosed with diabetes in the 1980s.

The man who once skipped deftly in the boxing ring now steps slowly. He spends three days a week at a clinic undergoing dialysis. The treatments leave him exhausted and unable to work.

When Abebe heard about the fundraiser for his old mentor, he happily agreed to help. He drives to the Little Ethiopia meeting from Inglewood, where he lives with his wife and two children. Others come from the San Fernando Valley and Orange County.

“A lot of people love him and know him,” Abebe said of Makonnen, who has two grown children. “He needs another chance to live.”

When Makonnen heard about the gala, he was happy but not surprised.

“In Ethiopia, there is no ‘individual,’ ” he said. “You help people, and they’ll do good for you.”

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

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