Eritrea and Eritreans in Seattle
Eritrea is a small African country on the coast of the Red Sea in eastern African. In an area known as the “Horn of Africa,” Eritrea borders Ethiopia, Sudan, and Djibouti. In 2010, Eritrea had a population of about 5.6 million. In Eritrea, Islam and Coptic Christianity are the dominant religions. Eritrea’s 670 miles of coastline makes the country a strategically important point along the Red Sea and different invaders have sought to control the area for centuries. The Ottoman Empire controlled the area now known as Eritrea from 1557 until 1865, when the Egyptians took possession of the region. Not long after, Italy colonized the country in 1889 and held onto the colony until World War II. 1941, the British expelled Italian forces from “Italian East Africa,” a colony created in the 1930s made up of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Italian Somali land. In 1952, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia by a UN Mandate and allowed an autonomous parliament. However, in 1962, Ethiopian Emperor HaileSelassie annexed the territory and dissolved Eritrea’s Parliament.
This marked the start of a 30-year civil war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Two Eritrean groups led the effort in the war, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which split off from the ELF in 1970. By the late 1970s, the EPLF had mostly taken over the war effort, and many ELF members moved to Sudan as refugees. However, hundreds of thousands of Eritrean civilians also fled Eritrea as a result of conditions during the war and a severe drought. Eritrean refugees usually first came to African countries like Sudan and, in some cases, were able to move to Europe or the United States.
On May 24, 1991, Eritrea announced its independence from Ethiopia, after having driven the remaining Ethiopian army from the region. On May 24, 1993, Eritrea became internationally recognized as the newest country in Africa. From 1998 to 2000, Eritrea was again at war with Ethiopia over a border dispute, meaning Eritreans were again displaced from their home country.
Arriving in Seattle
The first Eritreans to come to Seattle came in the 1960s and 1970s as students on scholarships or, in a minority of cases, jumped ship when their employers’ boats docked in Seattle shipyards. It was not until the late 1970s that the first Eritrean refugees arrived after a change in U.S. policy towards African refugees during the Carter Administration. With the help of a lawyer hired to represent Eritrean refugees in Sudan and later the 1980 Refugee Act, the first Eritrean refugees arrived in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Individuals and churches in the Seattle area sponsored Eritreans and the community grew quickly. New immigrants faced the challenges of a new culture, language, and different educational systems in Seattle. Most Eritrean refugees came to Seattle between 1989 and 1993.
There are currently somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 Eritreans living in the Seattle area, most of whom came to the United States as refugees. Though relative to other immigrant groups in Seattle, this number is small, the Seattle’s Eritrean community makes up more than one quarter of the Eritrean population in the United States and is among the largest Eritrean communities in the country.
Seattle’s Eritrean Community
The first Eritrean organizations in Seattle were political groups focused on what was happening back in Eritrea. The first, organization was founded by students in the 1970s . This name of the organization was Eritreans for Liberation in Northern America. By early 1980s. Eritrean community members debated what the new purpose of their organizations should be – some were in favor of creating a lobby group on behalf of Eritrea and others pushed for a community organization that would help and support Eritreans in Seattle. The Eritrean Community Association in Seattle and Vicinity was created in 1983, transformed into organizations that celebrated Eritrean culture and language and sought to help new immigrants to the Seattle area.