D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) will spend the next month in Ethiopia to learn more about the culture and language of a large segment of immigrants who live in his ward.
The trip, Graham's first to Africa, has been patterned after his 2001 visit to El Salvador, where he studied Spanish in an effort to communicate better with his Salvadoran constituents. In Ethiopia, he plans to meet with Ethiopian officials and to learn a bit of Amharic, the country's predominant language.
Before his departure last Saturday, Graham said the trip to Ethiopia will help him understand the difficulty of learning another language and the need for government agencies to be able to communicate with people in their native languages, especially in emergency situations.
"It's particularly hard to converse in another language under pressure," he said. He said he hoped to gain new insight during his stay in Africa in order to connect better with Ethiopian residents. "It's an opportunity I have to better serve the constituents I have in D.C.," Graham said.
The Washington area has one of the largest concentrations of Ethiopians outside Africa, and Ethiopians own and operate about 40 restaurants in Ward 1, Graham said. An estimated 100,000 Ethiopians live in the Washington area.
A student of Spanish for the past few years, Graham spent a month in El Salvador in 2001, an experience that he said made him more aware of the issues that face Salvadorans living in his ward. "It was an eye-opening experience," he said.
Graham's airline fare for the trip to Ethiopia was paid by Ethiopian Airlines, and Sheraton Hotels and Resorts is providing free accommodations for his stay in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city, said Abdul Kamus, a community activist who organized the trip. District law permits Graham to accept the trip as a gift.
Last week more than two dozen Ethiopians, including Ethiopia's vice ambassador, Brook Haliu, came out to a Shaw restaurant to wish Graham good luck on his trip. In front of the Sodere Ethiopian restaurant, they surrounded Graham, a first-generation U.S. citizen from Scotland, as he thanked the community for the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia. He called his trip an "incredible privilege."
Many in the Ethiopian community refer to Graham as their mayor.
"Whenever we have problems, we pick up the phone and call him, and he responds within an hour," Kamus said.
He praised Graham for writing a new law that requires District agencies to have bilingual employees and to translate vital documents, including applications and complaint forms, into Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese or Amharic.
Graham said he has the most diverse constituency in the city, noting that 40 percent of the schoolchildren in the ward speak English only at school.
The trip to Ethiopia is also a humanitarian mission for Graham, a former executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic. Concerned about the growing rate of AIDS cases in Africa, he said he would take several thousand condoms and HIV education material with him to give to a hospital or community center to help prevent the spread of the deadly disease.
Graham's Ethiopian constituents gave him a shirt inscribed with basic Amharic words and phrases, including "hello." They also gave him CDs to help him learn conversational Amharic and a copy of the Ethiopian Yellow Pages, which lists Ethiopian immigrants in the Washington area. During a laughter-filled reception in his honor, Graham received lessons about how to eat in Ethiopia.
DCBroadcast Radio gave Graham a special radio that will allow him to listen to an Ethiopian show when he returns.
Ted Loza, Graham's multicultural and community relations director, accompanied him on the trip. Loza's trip will be paid for by local Ethiopian business owners.
"We intend to get immersed into the culture," said Loza, a native of Ecuador. "Ultimately, we want to come back and be more passionate about serving the people we represent."