Almaz Yigizaw - Transcript

Transcription of Almaz Yigizaw
Interviewee:Almaz Yigizaw
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Date: February 19, 2013.
Place: Chicago, Illinois.
Transcriber: Martin Stewart
Total time: 27:15 minutes

Copyright © 2013 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is February 19, 2013. I’m Dorothy Nygren of the Edgewater Historical Society and I’m privileged interview Almaz Yigizaw, who is the owner of the Ethiopian Diamond restaurant and has done so much for the community of Edgewater and is one of Edgewater’s 2013 Living Treasures. Congratulations, Almaz.

AY: Thank you.

DN: We are interviewing her at her restaurant, the Ethiopian Diamond. I like to start, Almaz, by asking you how you came to Edgewater? What your background is?

AY: Well, I came to Edgewater in 1982 from Ethiopia, as an immigrant. In 1982 I was sponsored by Congress of immigrants aid. Ever since, I’ve lived in Edgewater. I was 16 years old and went to Senn High School and graduated and went to Rockford for two years. And my two brothers and a cousin came to the United States and had the same problem that I had as a refugee. And to help them stay here, I came back to Edgewater again. I was working in hospital and going to school part-time. And they were able to help themselves.

DN: Now Edgewater is a very diverse community. And when you first came, were there many Ethiopians living here?

AY: Not really. We knew a few Ethiopians that travelers and immigrants aid, employed two of them and they were helping us. We didn’t speak any English and they were helping us speaking our language and taking us places and where we shop. They show us everything around the neighborhood. There wasn’t very many Ethiopians at the time.

DN: But now there are certainly very many. And how did that come about?

AY: Slowly people started coming as a refugee up to ‘90. And then after the ’90s, we have a visa from Ethiopia and they start coming to Chicago. First, we are already here and people sponsor us, their families and having a few of your own. And people come here to stay. When we came, it was a very different culture. It was very cold, having come from a very hot climate country, people didn’t stay very much here. They go elsewhere, California, Dallas and Atlanta. Most of our friends left. But we stay here. I love Edgewater and I love Chicago because it’s so. I’ve been around two other places, but I live here. I’ve never changed my mind about Edgewater.

DN: What do you think is special about Edgewater?

AY: It’s just a welcoming and diverse community. And if you have a dream, if you wanted to do something… I grew up here almost. I went to Senn and then going to Loyola. I work at Northwestern. It’s all welcoming to me. And I’m really here to stay and I love it.

DN: When you say it’s welcoming. Could you talk a little more about that? What things are welcoming? Is it the people, organizations? What is welcoming?

AY: Yeah, the people are friendly, welcoming and supportive. And organizations also. I can go the Ethiopian and travelers and immigrants and ask and slowly work out something. And they are very good and also connected to other organizations like the Chinese group, the Vietnamese, Cambodian. In fact, a Cambodian boy went to high school with me, he’s Cambodian Association president now. So, it’s really, it’s even for four years, even with broken English, people are very understanding, they try to listen to you. And it is real community. You can see Africans, Asians – it’s a corner of the world here in Edgewater. And that is comforting.

DN: Let’s talk a little bit about your work with the Ethiopian Community Association. Can you tell us how you got involved in that and the kind of things you do?

AY: Yeah, I love Edgewater in many many ways and we have a friend before us who was in a car crash and we did not know how to bail him. We had no ideas. So this small community, we got together and raised money together with travelers aid assistance, we were able to bail. And then afterwards, everyone’s mind was fight, so we sat down to talk about, so we formed this Ethiopian Association of Chicago. And once it was formed we united too. We then sat down and formed officers office person and we also form worker managers and I was very active in the community. I love it. And I served in fundraising and social community. Anywhere they needed me. I’m still active but now due to the loads of work, I don’t go to their meetings. But I’m out there. I’m always behind them. And we were also, we were raising for millions, but we put together, and I don’t need to explain the amount of money, I just want us to have our own center.

So many of the Ethiopian communities are children. Many children now. They need to learn their own culture and learn with this. So, we build a center, large enough you know, in Rogers Park and now we have all kind of facilities. They have adjustment programs, they have a new addition life programs, they have English as a second language, they have after school children program and you name it we have it. Everything, and it’s quite an amount of Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians. I am very, very happy to see that. It was our own effort that it happened. And if I have more time, I would help results. In my heart I believe that Dr. Erku Yimer is a very humble and community people. For the amount of work he put you could make six figure results. No question. He loves his people he loves the service of community. He is still a director. And he likes it.

DN: You talked about English as a second language and other programs keyed towards immigrants to help them get on their feet that established the foundation. Are these programs only for Ethiopians people?

AY: No, for everybody who would like to join. We have other immigrants, Iraqis, Afghans, Tibetans – a lot of other immigrants. The Ethiopian community also sponsors other non-Ethiopians like presenting. So they are helping everybody who needs it. I’m very happy with that.

DN: That’s one of the things we were talking about, about the diversity of Edgewater. It really reflects many different groups. But they seem to come together to help everybody to matter what their background might be. You think that’s the same in every community or do you think this is something special to Edgewater?

AY: I think that I can’t relate to any other community, but I have a feeling that the Edgewater is special. And I’ve been to Edgewater Chamber of Commerce. I was there when they have a festival and any events, I see the Alderman and he is with everybody. And I know that the Committeeman, Mike Volini, he walks in he says “Hi” and knows everybody. This is like visiting people and I feel this spark about it. It’s about Edgewater. These people, they are born in the neighborhood. They grew up here. We really want to welcome others to Edgewater. And I feel other cultures are extremely important for other communities to grow because you learn a new culture and the diversity. If I don’t know other people’s and I’m learning from them over. It’s very important my inner growth. So people are very nice in Edgewater, I think. It’s different. It’s only in Edgewater.

DN: Let’s go back a little bit about your feelings about helping other people – Ethiopians, non-Ethiopians. Why do you feel it’s important to do that when you could just make money at the restaurant and not worry about anybody else? What is there in you that makes you feel that you want to do this?

AY: Oh, you know, when I came here I had nothing. I only have one pair of quotes and I’m here with the help of others. Like Americans. They give me the opportunity to be here. To grow. And if I can give back anything I can I will be more than happy to do it every minute. And also I tell people, you know, this is the only country, I feel, unlimited opportunity. If you want to go to school, you can go to school. If you want free job, you can work. At this long as you work hard, you can make it. This is the only place that you accomplish your dream. We have our country. We have a… everywhere in the world that I don’t see this amount of freedom. So, giving back, sharing makes me very happy inside.

DN: I think that’s an excellent answer, Almaz. And I know that, for myself, when I do volunteer work. I get more out of it, I think, and other people perceive that. And that makes my heart feel good. I’d like to talk a little bit about Ethiopia and just the kinds of things as a young girl, the values and traditions that you have brought with you to the United States and the Edgewater that you think you would like to share with people more.

AY: Yeah, as a young girl in Ethiopia I think that, as a woman in fact, you don’t go out and play with the boys. You stay and learn how to cook and become a good wife. You can go to school – you are allowed. But still you are in your rules different than boys. But here, you have good values that we learn to respect the parents. Not only your parents. But the elderly. Anyone older than you is respected. That is a modern remainder of your family. That is a good value and not to learn and respect and learn to is the older people. Someone, carrying a heavy thing walking, you should not keep on walking you should take over for them. And if you are sitting down in a bus well you have to get up for the older ones. There I think is a good value. And also, being a young girl most of the punishments that they, our parents did, we took it positive. If they punish us. It’s really are positive. We don’t think negative. And I always think this is for me for my future. I’m not saying this is abuse and I wish here in the United States, when the parents spank you, that is really, they want their children to do good in the future. They don’t want them go bad places. I wish they cannot make that abuse or something.

DN: It’s for their benefit.

AY: That is the kind of experience I wish to share. It’s okay if my mom, my grandmom, for my father spank us because they want me to be a better person. That kind of value and these are like more a culture when they tell you to do certain things you follow that rule for your own benefit in the future. But if you don’t follow it you wind up in the street.

DN: I’d like to ask you a little bit about the restaurant business and Ethiopian food and the fact that in Edgewater. We have many different kinds of restaurants. And how you feel about that.

AY: Having Ethiopian food in Edgewater is a good addition. Especially the vegetarian. With vegetarian you use different spices. It’s more flavor. And it’s new to people who have never experienced. But once they have it, it becomes really popular. We have several restaurants in Edgewater and they all succeed, because they got a unique type of spices.

DN: I think the way food is served family style and many are is very unusual. It’s very welcoming and sharing and more like you would eat in a family, then in any restaurants.

AY: Mealtime is expected, that’s when family gets together to share a meal. If you have seven, eight children, one basket like this is not enough. This is five maximum. All five people talk, eat, and have a good time. And they share, and also feed each other. That shows love and the bonding too with the person. If they have children, they can wait till the children eat. And they get the leftovers and is [unintelligible] put more food. And that is the tradition. This is unique to Edgewater or the United States. Over the last 30 years, having more Ethiopians migrated they produced the food because it is so unique. Even the kids, the little kids like the food. Now we have workers, brought their parents here, then, the parents want to come here. And we have many many kids who were born since we opened and they are customers now. And they bring other people and I always thank them when they are six months old and I always asked him how old are they and they are six months. So you can start them with a chick pea blend and a carrot blend. The little girl or the boy. They love it. They can use their little hand. That makes it more unique. You first use your hand better than forks. The hand was created first. The kids first learn to play with the hand. So they start eating the food with the hand.

DN: I’d like to also mention in this interview that you have been very gracious in reaching out to other people who need help. I was thinking of St. Andrews and you had a wonderful benefit. So I’d like you to just talk a little bit about that and why you wanted to do that.

AY: You know, as a business owner, I know how hard you work to keep that place up. And this is a hard time for everybody in the United States. The economy is down. People don’t have as many… as much business as they used to. And I wish I have money I can just give it to him to pay his debts. But I don’t want to end up with the same problem. But I thought gathering other people will help to catch up with his debts.

DN: And I noticed at that dinner that there were people from many different neighborhoods and many different organizations who came to that dinner to support him. And it was almost like an extended family dinner.

AY: It is. He was very happy and we got more than we expected. And we really appreciate the neighborhood that responded. He wanted to stay in business. We wanted him to stay in business and now he is okay. I know, I talk to him. And he’s really fine. If we didn’t save him so hard to close and come back again all the customers. It’s very hard to attract them. I am happy to do anything like that. And that’s my nature. If I can do more. I always do.

DN: Let’s talk a little bit, you said something about the North side of Edgewater and developing that little bit more. Would you like to speak about that a little bit?

AY: Long ago, around Devon and Broadway, areas was more empty. You don’t see foot traffic. Nowadays, you see a lot of foot traffic. The roadway is extended out to Granville. You see a lot of people walking. We want more activity in this area, to make it more likely. You will draw more people into the neighborhood. We have a good residency now. People are here to stay. Edgewater is a lovely community. So, we can have more festivities at the North. So it would be more warmer and it’s good for business too. We are in the middle. We are okay. But that side, we need really more activity.

DN: You need to pull the activity down that way more. I’d like to ask you, looking back at all of the accomplishments you made so far, personally, what one makes you feel the happiest?

AY: You know what makes me happiest when people eat and say, “it’s so good. I’ll be back.” That makes me happy. I don’t care about the money. I care about people’s experience, new culture, new food. And people leave happy and they bring more customers. And I have a passion for cooking and I think I have a button for people eating and being happy. It’s the most exciting thing for me.

DN: That’s a wonderful answer. The last question I’d like to ask you is, what advice would you give to young people?

AY: A lot. Stay focused and if you have a dream, work hard towards your dream. No dreams come true without working hard. So, every effort you make, make it worthy. And I say this to young people dream, work hard, focus and you will succeed.

DN: Now I’ve asked all the questions. This is your interview and this is your story. So, are there any other things you like to talk about or share with us or explain about Ethiopian culture. Anything you might like.

AY: I think you’ve asked me everything. I think I want more people in Edgewater to have more knowledge, especially of the neighborhood of foreign people who stayed in the neighborhood, many, many years, and how they come inside your country. It’s not for business. I want them to experience, have the knowledge, to experience other cultures and how great they would feel. Most of them become after many years, oh my God I miss all this here. No, don’t miss out. Come. Find. Even myself I have to go in for other cultures. I convince myself to read a book and only interested in certain things. And I feel I only trust certain things. But I convince myself. This is the city of Chicago. Go off and try different features. And you will experience and not just one.

DN: And being in Edgewater, you don’t have to go too far to experience all the different cuisines. Almost all of them are here.

AY: It’s all around. We have Indians, you have Ethiopians. It’s all around the world that’s here.

DN: So I think at this point we are going to conclude the interview. Thank you so much.