By Alejandro Lazo and Christopher Twarowski
(The Washington Post) — Since opening her European-style Chez Hareg bakery in the District’s Shaw neighborhood last year, Haregewine Messert, an immigrant from Ethiopia, had neglected the little lot behind her shop, allowing it to become overrun with weeds.
But this week new gravel is on the ground. Patio tables have been arranged. And a fresh coat of paint covers a wooden fence that encloses the area. The reason for the renovation?
Twenty thousand soccer fans are expected in the Washington area this week to watch teams of Ethiopians from the United States and Canada compete. The annual tournament has become one of the largest gatherings of Ethiopians outside their homeland.
This year RFK Stadium is the venue, and hotel rooms throughout the region, including 600 at Prince George’s National Harbor, have been booked. Ethiopian-owned businesses have been making last-minute upgrades and hiring extra staff. Several in the District plan extended hours or have gotten temporary liquor licenses. A block party is planned Sunday along Ninth Street NW between U and T, an area that is home to many Ethiopian businesses, one day after the games end.
Washington is a city of visitors, and tourism is a key part of the local economy. Large events like presidential inaugurations and conventions result in packed hotel rooms and bustling restaurants, but also help publicize the city. Events such as this year’s Ethiopian soccer tournament demonstrate the diversity of the local tourism industry. Many Ethiopian business owners say they hope the event will bring a boost in business and that word about their establishments will spread well after the tournament ends.
“The main thing is to show the clientele coming here who we are and what we have,” said Henok Tesfaye, who owns the Etete restaurant on Ninth and U streets NW with his brother. “This is like advertising.”
Census figures show that about 31,000 Ethiopian immigrants — or about one-fifth of all those in the United States — live in the Washington area, though the Ethiopian Embassy says the local number is much higher.
“People take it as our second capital city, and people like to come and visit,” said Solomon Abdella, a longtime organizer of the event, now in its 25th year, and founder of the Ethio Maryland club, based in Silver Spring. “It is our city outside of Addis Ababa.”
The tournament has been hosted in the Washington area five times before, but it has grown since it last came to the region in 2002, when games were played on a high school football field in Hyattsville. Since then the tournament has been held in semiprofessional and professional venues, including the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in 2005, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 2006 and the Homer B. Johnson Stadium outside Dallas last year.
Elias Fikru, the owner of Nahom Records, will set up a booth outside of RFK, where organizers are planning to recreate a large African village with vendors selling the latest Ethiopian fashions as well as traditional artifacts. Sales at Fikru’s Ninth Street NW shop have been dismal in the past year, he said, with the pirating of his Ethiopian hits becoming more prevalent and the struggling economy leading his customers to refrain from CD purchases.
“I hope this is going to be good. I am expecting a lot of people,” Fikru said. “I am expecting a lot of visitors.”
Fikru’s isn’t the only business struggling with the economy.
Yeshimebeth Belay publishes a phone book for the local Ethiopian population and said that many of the restaurants and small businesses are having trouble.
“We have a lot of new businesses in our book, and that shows us businesses are growing,” she said. “Everybody is struggling, but they are holding on, and hopefully everybody is excited” for the soccer tournament this week.
Also gearing up is the Expo Restaurant & Nightclub on Ninth Street NW, owned by Abraham Tekle. Tekle, 54, is from Eritrea, which fought two bitter wars with Ethiopia, including one for independence.
Despite that history, Amanuel Abraham, 28, Tekle’s eldest son, has been working feverishly with his 16-year-old brother Adam in past weeks to complete a downstairs renovation of the restaurant in time for the soccer fans. The brothers are refurbishing the restaurant floor and adding a bar. Gone will be the dining tables, replaced with couches and sofas, creating what Abraham hopes will be a hip atmosphere.
“I have not seen any of that political divide,” Abraham said. “It is a big event for us as well. . . . We are extremely excited as a business, and so are our clientele.”
For her part, Messert, the owner of the Chez Hareg bakery, has hired 20 extra workers to help bake the hundreds of cakes and pastries that have been ordered for the special gatherings and parties planned throughout the week. She hopes to use the money she clears from the week to put down concrete or bricks in her back yard, making her temporary patio expansion permanent.
She envisions a backyard patio where customers can spend sultry summer afternoons drinking coffee, eating baked sweets and discussing the latest events of the old country.