Last year, while working as a waitress, Asmeret Seile, a 26-year-old Ethiopian, was watching carefully and thinking that some day she would like to have a restaurant of her own. Her reason for wanting a business was simple: "It's the freedom you get on your own," said Seile.

But when she got serious about the idea, she faced major obstacles. She had saved some money in the six years she had been in the United States, but nowhere near enough. Her collateral consisted of a 1974 Mustang, so she could not qualify for a loan. She had no familiarity with the complicated liquor laws and licensing requirements in the District

of Columbia. And the competition was fierce -- Ethiopian restaurants had already sprouted, it seemed, on every corner.

Nevertheless, last Valentine's Day, her restaurant opened for business in the heart of Adams-Morgan. It's still struggling, but it has survived nearly a year -- one of those small entrepreneurial miracles that are among the most visible signs of the presence of recently arrived immigrants in the Washington area.

Seemingly overnight, thousands of small businesses owned by foreign-born entrepreneurs have blossomed: dry cleaners and convenience stores; flower shops and groceries; purveyors of jewelry and of bagels, of beer and wine and exotica from every continent; and restaurants, one after another, in a city that once was derided for having so few.

Interviews and studies suggest that the strongest forces at work on behalf of the immigrant business people are their own communities, the source tapped by earlier generations of immigrants. From the community and the family come advice, moral support and often labor. Most importantly, these businesses are able to get money from the community, from the "surrogate" banks they have created.

No two of the businesses have come into being in quite the same way. But Seile's story illustrates the common theme: Unable to call upon the conventional methods, she relied on friends, family and even one of her prospective competitors.

"I am very much impressed with my fellow Ethiopians," said Seile, reflecting on her good fortune.'I Cried All the Time'

Seile arrived in Philadelphia in 1980 on a tourist visa, but she said her real goal was to further her education. In Ethiopia, she had completed high school and business school, receiving a degree in bookkeeping, and she planned to study accounting here.

She had a brother-in-law here, but she knew few people. She was a frightened and lonely 19-year-old, she recalled. "I cried all the time," said Seile, who has large dark eyes and a shy smile.

When her tourist visa ran out, she said that she "kept getting letters from the government telling me to leave." But she was determined to stay, viewing the United States as "the land of opportunity," and she finally was granted political asylum by the government last year.

In 1981, at her invitation, her sister, LemLem, came to join her. The two gravitated to Washington because of the large Ethiopian community here and job possibilities. "I feel like at home when I came to Washington because I meet a lot of my friends and see people from home. It's just like meeting your relatives," she said.

They moved in with relatives in Arlington, and within a week, Seile summoned her courage and went in search of a job. She had passed the nearby Sheraton Hotel while taking a walk earlier in the week and thought it was a logical place to look. "I just walked in there on a Sunday afternoon," she recalled. "The manager was very helpful. He gave me a job right on the spot" as a cocktail waitress.

She also took on a part-time job waiting on tables at Fasika's, an Ethiopian restaurant, and she enrolled in an accounting program at the University of the District of Columbia, although she soon switched to computer science.

All her tips went into savings; her paycheck to food and tuition. Seile and her 27-year-old sister moved briefly into a room on 16th Street, and then into a downtown efficiency apartment on 15th Street NW that they still share for $279 a month.

It was her experience as a waitress -- watching other Ethiopians managing their own businesses -- that convinced her that she wanted her own restaurant. She would rather have the headache of working for herself than the headache of working for others, she said.

With little in assets, she and her sister were turned down when they applied for a bank loan. She contacted two cousins in Boston who owned a taxicab business. They had become increasingly concerned about the dangers of picking up strangers, however, and had been contemplating a switch in business.

A restaurant was not their first choice, but "they were fascinated because it was a prime place for a restaurant," Seile said. The cousins sold the cab business for $85,000. Seile, her cousins and her sister calculated that with their savings and the income from the sale of the business, they had about $120,000.

An Ethiopian they knew was about to close a boutique at 1819 Columbia Rd. NW and told them the place would soon be vacant. They rented it for $4,350 a month.

For help in mastering the licensing requirements and in finding suppliers, they went up the street, to the proprietor of the Asmara restaurant, a friend of Seile's.

Seile said she saw nothing remarkable in seeking help from a competitor, particularly because he is a longtime friend. She even suggested that the very presence of competitors nearby (there are 13 Ethiopian restaurants in the general vicinity) is helpful rather than threatening: They depend on each other for survival.

Neither did the owner of the Asmara, Tesfmichael Gebre, find it threatening, for he did indeed come to Seile's aid. "There is nothing to lose to be a nice person," said Gebre. "The God, what He gives you, He will never take away, no matter who comes."

The four did much of the renovation themselves, building the bar, painting, hammering and laying tile in the bathrooms. They decorated with handmade wooden and silver Ethiopian crosses, woven straw lids used to keep food warm, serving bowls made of animal skins and a gasha, an Ethiopian shield used in hunting. From Ethiopia, Seile's mother sent traditional straw serving tables and chairs, which now sit at the front of the restaurant.

The outside was painted a hot pink, an eye-catching color but a mistake. The painter they hired was told to use dark red but miscalculated when he laid down a base coat of white.

During this start-up period, Seile said, she called upon a unique Ethiopian tradition to help her meet personal expenses: the ekub, a kind of mutual assistance savings plan to which members contribute a set amount of money each week. The pot is given to a different member on a rotating basis. Those in need can be bumped to the front of the line.

Other friends helped, buying paintings for the restaurant. One friend, an Ethiopian doorman at the Marriott Hotel on 22nd Street NW, brought meals to them as they worked and contributed curtains for the restaurant.

After much discussion, the four decided to name the restaurant Selam, an Ethiopian greeting that means peace.

When Selam opened in February, about 15 friends helped out in the kitchen; others showed up to eat, ordering far more than they could consume.

The future of Selam is uncertain. The restaurant has six waitresses, who, incidentally, have now formed their own ekub. It is jammed on weekends but slow during the week. The rents are rising in Adams-Morgan. And there are those other 12 Ethiopian restaurants nearby.

But it is off the ground, another immigrant business born in Washington. Mutual Assistance Is the Norm

According to estimates by ethnic business associations, there are at least 2,300 Hispanic-owned businesses in the area (about 500 in the District); well over 300 Indochinese-owned businesses; an estimated 2,000 small enterprises owned by Koreans; 500 owned by Chinese, and 85 to 100 owned by Ethiopians.

By most accounts, mutual assistance in one form or another is the motif for all these groups. The Ethiopian funds called ekubs have an equivalent in the Korean kehs, which Korean business people have used to help one another. The community, said a recent study of Southeast Asian refugees by the Refugee Policy group, "serves as a kind of surrogate banking institution."

The Southeast Asian community in particular has institutionalized the self-help in mutual assistance associations, which "are now important sources of educational services, employment services, translation and interpretation, mental health services and others," according to the study.

This pattern, it noted, follows a tradition "previously adopted by other immigrant groups" in American history.

"When you come to the U.S., it's a totally tough world," said Kassa Tesfaye, 34, owner of International Auto Care at 3426 18th St. NE, an auto repair shop. To survive, "you combine your culture with the present culture, and you come up with a kind of thoroughbred. And thoroughbred is the best."

What makes life work here for Ethiopian refugees, he said, is "the kindness and togetherness" that they bring with them. Thus, while the American saying is that lending money to a friend is the most effective way to end a friendship, the Ethiopians here say that the willingness to lend money is, in fact, a test of friendship.

Few of the newcomers qualify for bank loans or special subsidized loan programs. Tesfaye, as it happens, is one of the few who did. Tesfaye is a lean, handsome man with a melodic voice and a mischievous grin. He came to the United States in 1973 and was cut off from family funds in 1974 when the Marxists took power in Ethiopia. In order to finish his college education, he got numerous jobs, the first and the worst as a dishwasher at Blackie's House of Beef.

"That was a terrible time," he said. "I was pretty talented and {later} started cutting meat, cutting ribs, taking fat out of the round beef, spinal cords out of the ribs and working inside the freezer," he said.

He landed a car repair job in Maryland for $200 a week. He spent $50 a week on room and board, another $50 on pocket money, and he saved the rest. Eventually, he saved $3,000 and owned about $5,000 worth of auto repair tools. With a Jamaican partner who pitched in $2,000 and his own tools, the pair opened their own shop in 1980 at 1913 Franklin St. NE, a cramped alleyway.

At first, everything seemed to go wrong. His partner fell from a ladder and became a quadriplegic. "Due to that I started doing it by myself, and it was tough to deal with," said Tesfaye. In 1985, he moved the business out of the alley and into an abandoned gas station in a residential area in Northeast Washington.

What apparently enabled Tesfaye to get through the first shaky years of business was a bond of communication and trust that he built with his car parts dealers. "I never had a problem with him," said Warren Deavers, wholesale manager at Euromotor Cars in Bethesda. "He's honest, he's sincere, he'll tell you if he doesn't have the money and say he'll pay you next week. He's good about it . . . . He works harder than most people I know."

Over time, Tesfaye built up enough of a track record to qualify for a $250,000 loan package, which included a $98,000 loan from the D.C. Office of Business and Economic Development. The city, which is limited by law to lending 40 percent of the cost of the project, put Tesfaye together with American Security Bank for the remainder of the $250,000 that enabled Tesfaye to buy and refurbish the new premises.

Tesfaye is one of the few Ethiopian refugees to qualify for such a loan, according to District officials. "They want to see the last page of your financial statement," he said. "If you show a negative, you're in trouble. My bank record always showed a couple of dollars positive, and that meant I was taking care of all my bills." He said his business rings up about $750,000 a year in sales and more than $75,000 in profit.

Ethiopians say they would appreciate more government loan programs. But many, such as Tesfaye, say they are adamantly opposed to welfare. "There's a stigma that's attached to accepting it. It's that whole sense of pride Ethiopians have about themselves," said Wallace W. Lumpkin, director of the D.C. Office of Refugee Resettlement. He said that 25 percent of the Ethiopians refuse cash assistance outright, and another 50 percent are off welfare within a month. Of all the refugee groups, they receive the lowest amount of assistance, according to Lumpkin.

Much of the profit Tesfaye makes goes back into the company. But he has saved enough to help his sisters with more than half of the $80,000 they needed in August to open Twins' Lounge, yet another Ethiopian restaurant at 5516 Colorado Ave. NW. Professionals Face Struggles

The ranks of the Ethiopians here are filled with former lawyers, accountants and corporate business people who are struggling to reestablish their professions. For them, the road seems more difficult.

"You can have an ice cream stand, and nobody cares if the owner is Korean or Ethiopian as long as the ice cream is good," said Feyissa Ghenene, a certified public accountant who started a K Street NW accounting firm in 1985 and employs three accountants. "It's not the case with accounting . . . . Because an accountant will learn the confidential details of a company's business, you need to have their trust and confidence as much as anything else."

Even those immigrants who are seeking work at established American firms rather than starting companies have problems getting their first job, Ghenene said. "I don't care how many years of experience they have. Employers are usually hesitant to hire you when you open your mouth and they hear the accent. You may have one of the most outstanding experiences, but they say that this is America and we do things differently here . . . . But then I get a job and I find they do things exactly the same way."

One stark example of the roller coaster existence faced by such professionals and corporate business people is Tedla Desta, a small, stately man with high checkbones, intense eyes and an aquiline nose.

Desta, 68, is the proprietor of the Aenjera Bakery in Alexandria. He was an influential and wealthy businessman in Ethiopia before the 1974 Marxist coup and the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Several of his closest friends were executed, and he was separated from his family for nearly a decade, Desta said. "They eliminated everyone. Two generals killed were my best friends. Three ministers killed were my schoolmates," he said quietly as tears welled in his eyes.

He escaped from Ethiopia in 1976 by telling government officials he needed a kidney operation. After a nomadic existence in Europe and the Horn of Africa, he got his wife and six children out of Ethiopia and came to the United States with about $300,000 he had been paid for representing American and British companies in Ethiopia and from the sale of a house in Paris.

Desta said that after arriving here he decided to rebuild his business life by turning to something every Ethiopian knew and loved -- injera, the spongy flat bread used to scoop up the savory stews and other pungent Ethiopian dishes.

Standing amid steaming skillets and huge vats of pungent-smelling batter, Desta, wearing a white coat, demonstrated the slow, painstaking way injera is prepared.

At first, Desta planned to import teff seeds, the basic grain used in injera, from Ethiopia. But after importing four tons of teff seeds, he decided it was too expensive and located U.S. growers of the grain that is closest to teff -- weeping love grass, which had been used in this country strictly for cattle feed.

Desta's request took Western grain suppliers by surprise. "I could hardly understand him, but I figured everyone to his own taste," said Leroy Mack of the

Johnston Seed Co. in Enid, Okla., and one of Desta's suppliers.

Desta thought he had commitments from several Ethiopian restaurants to buy the injera, but those fell through. So the tenacious businessman headed straight to Southland Corp. -- which owns the 7-Eleven stores -- with an unconventional sales pitch that included a home-cooked Ethiopian meal.

Joe Keith, in charge of purchasing for 7-Eleven, had never tried Ethiopian food. But he was won over. Ten of their stores in the Washington area now sell the bread, mainly to Ethiopians. "Sales have been going very well," said Keith.

Desta's bakery is small compared with his operations in Ethiopia. But he hopes to expand by marketing dried chips made from his bread, by selling Ethiopian spices and drinks, and by cultivating the joia tree, a hard and aromatic wood indigenous to Ethiopia. He said joia is excellent for furniture and is a good tree to plant in arid areas because it helps prevent soil erosion and serves as a windbreak. He says he has already approached Saudi Arabian officials about selling the tree to them.

One of Desta's next big projects is to grow real teff in the United States, transplanting a small piece of Ethiopia here permanently. He said he has found a part-time farmer in Oklahoma named John C. Wisehart who has agreed to plant several acres of teff next summer.

In the meantime, though doing what he calls "women's work" in the bakery, Desta is full of hope. "I have found peace here, at least," he said. NEXT: The illegals: an uncertain future Staff researcher Dianne Saenz contributed to this report.