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Driven Away by Upheaval, Drawn Back by Success

It was political oppression that caused many Ethiopians to flee in the early 1980s, when the now-exiled communist dictator, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, confiscated the property of the upper classes and put opposition party members in jail.

Tadiwos Belete, an energetic man of 40, left Ethiopia when Mengistu took over. His family fled to neighboring Sudan, where he washed dishes and scraped by as a refugee. After securing a U.S. visa, he settled in Boston and worked as a waiter while going to school. He saved enough to open a small Ethiopian restaurant, which did well. Then he opened a hair salon, and it became so popular that he opened a second.


From left, Danny Davis, the owner of Pearl Restaurant and Lounge in D.C., Kinfe Abraham, a magazine president, and T. Dosho Shifferaw, an inventor. (Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)

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With money in the bank and a stable political situation in Ethiopia, Belete returned recently to Addis Ababa, where he built the gleaming Boston Day Spa. The $2 million club houses a full-service spa and salon with steam rooms, vibrating massage chairs and a hair-braiding room. Upstairs is a posh bar with puffy velvet couches. Belete also plans to build another spa in Debre Zeit, a town 33 miles southeast.

"It's not charity work," Belete said, a wearing white linen shirt, beige pants and a wide smile as he showed a visitor the Ethiopian mosaic artwork in the spa's lobby. "There is a lot of opportunity here, and a lot of people who are happy to have these services."

The Boston Day Spa is located on Bole Road, a lively strip so filled with Ethiopian-American businesses that it's called "wha's up avenue," a reference to the slangy English a lot of returning emigres speak.

Yet for all the buzz, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average life expectancy of 42 years, a per capita annual income of $100, and 172 of every 1,000 children dead before age 5, according to the World Bank's World Development Report for 2004.

But officials hope that after the first investors come, doctors, lawyers, educators and other professionals will follow. The government is especially eager to attract those in the medical profession. At present, there are more Ethiopian doctors living in the United States than in Ethiopia.

"Most of the friends I graduated with are now in the U.S.," said Dr. Abdu Ibrahim, who was rushing off to deliver a baby in a private Addis Ababa clinic. "I want to tell the medical profession to come back. But I also understand why they left. It can be frustrating."

T. Dosho Shifferaw, 51, is the inventor of the exercise machine Bowflex. He moved to California's Bay Area in the 1970s and became a millionaire. Recently he has been visiting his homeland often, setting up water pumps in poor rural areas and hosting an inventors' conference last month to encourage young scientists to come back. Now, he said, he, too, was feeling the pull to return.

"The whole country is changing. I want to be part of a place where things are really happening," said Shifferaw, 51, during a recent evening at the Office Bar. "Maybe some of us are like Polish-Americans and Greek-Americans and feel we will never really move back," he said. "Then again, you don't forget your heritage. Sometimes if you have a chance to go home again, you take it."


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