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First Person Singular: L Street Market owner Afework Dawit

Sunday, October 10, 2010; W05

I wanted to get out of Ethiopia to flee the military regime there. It was chaos. I took a scholarship from Russia; the intention was not to stay in Russia but to get out somehow to any Western country. I was a student in Russia for eight years, studying economic planning. From there, I got an invitation from my friend in New York.

It was a hard time for me in the beginning. I applied for political asylum, but my request was denied after 10 years. I tried to tell the judge that I really don't want to be part of the Ethiopian government; this is my belief. But he said that I'm an economically highly privileged person in Ethiopia. I got my green card through my wife, who is an American citizen. I knew her back home, and we met again here.

I tried to look for work in economics, but what happened was every time I applied for jobs, they said I'm overqualified, they say I have to have an American education credential. I have to live my day-to-day life, so I started driving a taxicab in Washington, and after that I got into this business. We've had the store for three years now.

When you get into the business, there are so many, many things that you have to work on: the paperwork, going and buying the merchandise, dealing with customers, dealing with the maintenance. All that is me and my wife. This is a never-ending job; we're working 13, 14 hours a day. I didn't have a vacation for the last three years, not a single one. Not a single day off.

My son is 11 years old. We try to teach him the value of work. He always asks me to buy something, and I tell him, "I don't have that kind of money." He says, "Why? You work at the store." So one day I took him and told him, "Johannes," -- his name is Johannes -- "you know, I'm buying this computer stuff for you because I'm working hard; if I didn't work hard, I cannot make any money, and you could not get this. From now on, you come to the store and help me, and you make money." Otherwise, he's thinking that things are easy for me.

This is my country now. I learned the value of work here: You don't need to be an economist to live; you can be an unskilled laborer and make a living. But I'm also regretting something, because I could've done much better when I came to the United States. But I'm happy. I make a living.

Interview by Amanda Abrams

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