Ethiopians make their mark

DUBAI - There was a time before oil boom, a time before air links, a time when for many people the first glimpse of the UAE shoreline was from the deck of a ship, just as it was for many Ethiopian merchants who traded with this region in the first half of the 20th Century, selling livestock and coffee.

By Afkar Ali Abdullah (Focus on Community)

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Published: Sat 23 Aug 2003, 12:18 PM

Last updated: Wed 27 Mar 2024, 12:58 PM

Today, by contrast, the Ethiopian community in the UAE, numbering approximately 9,000, is made up largely of domestic helpers, brought to the country by maid supply agencies. It is a sad fact that many are highly educated but all the same accept to work in menial jobs to escape the harsh economic conditions back home.

Speaking to Khaleej Times, Ashenafi Abunie, chairman of the Ethiopian Community Association, said that in the past the main reason his countrymen came to the UAE was primarily for trade purposes, with many settling down in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Today, many Ethiopians come to UAE to improve their living conditions and escape the famine in their own country.

The community adheres to its traditional way of life and maintains healthy social interactions among its members as well as with other communities who respect Ethiopian traditions. Spontaneous by nature, the Ethiopian Community Association was set up with equal spontaneity and great enthusiasm when a group of Ethiopians met and agreed to form the body in 1996.

This association is open for membership to every Ethiopian in the UAE irrespective of gender, religion, or political and ideological belief. It was set up to help community members in their day-to-day lives and is essentially a non-political and a non-profit organisation.

Today, 90 per cent of Ethiopians in UAE are females working as domestic helpers, while others are employed in restaurants and coffee shops, as shop assistants, hair stylists in ladies saloons, while some work in cargo companies, Ethiopian musical bands, while few have made it to the government sector.

Around 80 per cent of Ethiopian girls working as maids in the UAE were brought by illegal suppliers and were lured into UAE under the pretext of jobs as secretaries or in administrative positions. On arrival in Dubai, they were faced with the stark realities to work as domestic servants. However, since these girls make more money in the UAE even as domestic help, compared to the situation back home, they find little choice but to stay and work in what they might view as a demeaning job. As for the Ethiopian government, it has initiated moves to take action against the illegal suppliers to stem the influx of Ethiopian girls as maids.

The association, which has premises in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, has time and again come to the rescue of Ethiopians in distress, Mr Abunie said, adding that the country has no embassy or consulate in the UAE to take care of its people's needs. Mr Abunie has been authorised by the Ethiopian Embassy in Saudi Arabia to be their representative in UAE and Oman and provide services to community members, such as passport renewal, visas and attestations.

The association actively participates in most activities organised in Dubai and other emirates including events at the Sharjah Women's Club, summer camps and Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF). Mr Abunie said Ethiopians organise many social activities, exchange visits, hold get-togethers, besides support programmes for the community members. They are also keen in maintaining their customs and traditions, just as they would in Ethiopia.

Mr Abunie said that trade between Ethiopia and the UAE is flourishing at present, pointing out that there are three scheduled cargo flights each week between Dubai and Addis Ababa and a daily Ethiopian Airlines passenger flight operating from Dubai to Addis Ababa. Major exports to Ethiopia include readymade garments and textiles, building materials, electronics, household goods, automobile spare parts, tyres, vehicle batteries, cosmetics, used machinery and hardware.

The single major export from Ethiopia to the Gulf are slaughtered goats, which are air-freighted each week to Gulf countries, mainly to the UAE. Other exports include coffee and tea.

As an increasing number of Ethiopians are now looking towards international markets in search of quality goods and services, Dubai is fast emerging as a popular shopping and tourist destination for Ethiopians, as well as businessmen, said Mr Abunie.

Lie, an Ethiopian housewife, said that Ethiopian women in Ajman and Sharjah are very active, organising events and community programmes. "We organise various events such as religious lectures, independence day celebrations, cultural programmes during Ramadan and weekly ‘coffee get-togethers'. We also organise fund raising campaigns in support of the people in financial difficulties and social problems."

Eden Confo, owner of a ladies saloon, said that she has been in the UAE for nine years, adding that this country has become her second home. Eden came to the UAE to improve her living condition and to support her family back home. In the time she has been here, she has learned to speak Arabic and has mingled with Arab society.

Lila Alam, a housemaid, said that 80 per cent of Ethiopian women working in the UAE are victims of famine back home. Although some are educated they are more than willing to work as housemaids to support themselves and their families. Lila added that the biggest hurdle for Ethiopian women, specially the newcomers, is finding a job keeping in view the language barriers.

"Finding a job in the UAE is not as easy as it seems. There are a lot of job advertisements in the newspapers, but how does an Ethiopian women who does not know Arabic or English get a decent job?," she asked.

Maya Tshty, also a housemaid, said she holds a degree in commerce and only came to the UAE through a maid supply agency which led her to believe that she would find a job as an accountant in a big company.

Unfortunately, she found that it was an unreachable goal. Now she works as maid and has accepted it because she is being provided with accommodation and food.

"I have accepted this job, at least I earn the minimum amount that I need to help me improve my living standards."

Sacida Ayoub, owner of a coffee shop in Dubai, who is also a part time businessman, said that for her Dubai is a paradise: "I lived half of my life here, my children have grown up here and we consider this place our second home."

Roman Alamo, owner of Ethiopian restaurants in Dubai, said that many Ethiopians prefer to run their own business in the country and consider the UAE as a gateway to other prosperous regions of the world.

There is a large number of Ethiopian men who are running their own businesses, including import and export of goods between Dubai and Addis Ababa, besides running night clubs, restaurants and other establishments in the country, he said.


The history of Ethiopia, known to many as Abyssinia, is rich, ancient, and still in part unknown. Anthropologists believe that East Africa's Great Rift Valley is the site of the origin of humankind.

The first recorded account of the region dates back to almost 5,000 years during the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, when the ancient Egyptians sent expeditions down the Red Sea in quest of gold, ivory, incense, and slaves.

The country's rich history is woven with legends of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the Ark of the Covenant that is said to rest in Axum, the great Axumite kingdom, the birth of Christianity, the rise of Islam and the story of King Lalibela who is believed to have constructed eleven rock-hewn churches still standing today and considered the eighth wonder of the world.

Ethiopia is the only African nation that was not colonised by European colonial forces. It was briefly occupied by the Italians between 1936 and 1941.


Ethiopia has a diverse mix of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. It is a country with more than 80 different ethnic groups each with its own language, culture and traditions. One of the most significant areas of Ethiopian culture is its literature, which is represented predominantly by translations from ancient Greek and Hebrew religious texts into the ancient language Ge'ez, modern Amharic and Tigrigna languages.

Ge'ez is one of the most ancient languages in the world and is still used today by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Church has its own unique customs and traditions, which have been influenced by Judaism. The Tigrayans' history and culture is derived from the Aksumite Kingdom, whereas the history and culture of the Amhara people is derived from the post Aksumite imperial reign of Menelik II and Haile Selassie.


The Ethiopian traditional costume is made of woven cotton. Ethiopian men and women wear this traditional costume called Gabbi or Netella. Women often wear dresses (Kemis) and Netella with borders of coloured embroidered woven crosses, but other designs are also used. Other ethnic groups and tribes in the South and West of the country wear different costumes that reflect their own traditions. Some tribes partially cover their body with leather but others do not wear any clothes at all - merely decorating their faces and bodies with distinctive images.


It is typical in multiethnic countries that a single tongue comes to dominate as the nation's written language.

In Ethiopia, this language is Amharic, a Semitic tongue.

The Afro-Asiatic (Hamo Semitic) language group which includes the Semitic and Cushitic languages of Ethiopia developed during the eighth millennium BC (BCE).

Amharic has long been the dominant language, but Ethiopia itself was always a conglomeration of peoples. Today, Ethiopia's principal ethnic groups are Oromo (about 40 per cent), Amhara and Tigrea (32 per cent), and Sidamo (nine pe rcent). Tigrinya and Orominga are widely spoken.


The Ethiopian national dish is called wot. It is a hot spicy stew accompanied by Injera, a traditional large spongy pancake made of teff flour and water. Teff is unique to the country and is grown on the Ethiopian highlands.

There are many varieties of wot, i.e. chicken, beef, lamb, vegetables, lentils and ground split peas stewed with hot spice called Berbere. Berbere is made of dried red hot pepper, herbs, spices, dried onions, dried garlic and salt ingredients.

Wot is served by placing it on top of the Injera which is served in a Mesob (a large basket tray). The food is eaten with fingers by tearing off a piece of Injera and dipping it in the wot. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians do not eat meat and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays as these are the traditional Christian fasting days.

Fasting also takes place during Advent and Lent. Vegetarian meals such as lentils, ground split peas and varieties of vegetable stew accompanied by Injera are eaten on these days.

Meat and dairy products are only eaten on feasting days such as Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and at all other times excluding fasting days. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims do not eat pork as it is forbidden by their religious beliefs. The favourite drink of many Ethiopians is Bunna (better known as coffee). Bunna is drunk in Ethiopia in a unique and traditional way known as a ‘coffee ceremony'.

First the coffee is roasted, then ground and placed in a Jebena (coffee pot) with boiling water. When ready, it is served to people in little cups up to three times per ceremony.

Other locally produced beverages are Tella and Tej, which are served and drunk on major religious festivals, Saints Days and weddings.

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