In 2010, Addisu Habte, and Ethiopian immigrant now living in West Philadelphia, stood in the doorway of his Wynnewood home, assuring an officer that there was no reason for the police to have been called by a concerned neighbor.
The officer would not leave until Habte presented documents that proved his ownership of the house. A room away, a photo of Habte, his wife and two children hung above a fireplace — a family of color in a predominantly white neighborhood.
It wasn’t the first discriminatory incident Habte had experienced since immigrating to the United States in 1985. But it was the moment when it finally clicked for Habte that skin color determined more in the U.S. than it did in his native Ethiopia.
“America taught me racism,” he said.
Habte has learned that his experience is not unique. Other members of the Ethiopian community have been wrestling with how race impacts their experiences in the U.S. after 25-year-old Kaleb Belay, a former business student at Temple University and an Ethiopian immigrant living in West Philadelphia, was shot several times by police in early March.
Members of the Ethiopian Community Association of Greater Philadelphia, including Habte, launched the Justice For Kaleb committee to help bring awareness to his situation and raise funds for proper legal counsel. As a result of his injuries, Belay is still undergoing medical care at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, according to sources close to him.
Habte said the situation has left the Ethiopian community questioning their previously positive relationship with the police.
“At the bottom core is respect the law,” he said. “Respect the police department. We’re very supportive of the police department on a community levels and even individuals…we don’t have anything bad to say, but there are rooms that need to be fixed. And those are the rooms where people get killed.”
West Philadelphia is a cultural hub for many Ethiopians, Habte said. Habte grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but said his “life happened in West Philadelphia, though, since I was 9 years old.”
Between 2000 and 2016, Africans were the fastest growing immigrant population in Philadelphia, according to a 2018 Pew Charitable Trusts report on immigration in the city.
The Ethiopian Community Association of Greater Philadelphia formed as an organization in 1984, and Ethiopian restaurants and businesses began to cluster in the area, said Wubshet Ayele, the community association’s vice president. The organization has been in its building on 44th and Chestnut streets since 1996, he said.
Ayele — who grew up in West Philadelphia after immigrating from Ethiopia about 15 years ago — and Habte still meet other Ethiopians at the restaurant Kaffa Crossing on 44th and Chestnut streets for traditional fare and coffee.
“In the summertime, on an everyday basis, we used to come to play volleyball, soccer, basketball on 44th Street,” Habte added. “Our church is based in West Philadelphia, the community center is based in West Philadelphia, so anything Ethiopian you need to do, you come to West Philadelphia. We Ethiopians like to stick together.”
Habte also stressed that Ethiopians arrive in the U.S. ready to work hard, no matter what obstacles — including discrimination.
“When we come to America, we’re gonna work as if racism doesn’t exist because we are never taught to think that mattered,” he said.
Ethiopians are also raised to treat each person equally despite any characteristic, like skin color, Ayele said.
Because Ethiopians are never taught that race impacts the way a person is treated, they often misunderstand instances of race-based discrimination in the U.S.
“What happens to Ethiopians is that at the beginning, when we get discriminated against, we think we did something wrong, or there’s some kind of other issue, or we leave the benefit of the doubt to the police department or whoever is discriminating against us,” said Habte.
“As we get older, and as we stay longer, is when we start realizing and learning,” he added.
Ethiopians’ lack of awareness around racism goes hand in hand with the deferment to authority that they’re taught growing up, leaving little room to question the actions of entities like the police.
But Ethiopians aren’t aware of this societal context upon arriving in the U.S. Once here, many immigrants have reported mainly positive interactions with the police. For instance, Saba Tedla relies on the police for disputes outside of her business, Booker’s Restaurant and Bar, located in the 5000 block of Baltimore Avenue. Belay used to work at Booker’s as a server and bookkeeper.
Tedla, a member of the Justice for Kaleb Committee, said she remains troubled by the incident involving Belay. Despite that, her confidence in the police department’s commitment to protect the public and business owners like herself remains steady.
“As a member of the community, I see them as a protector,” she said. “They’re there to protect. They’re there to keep order of the law.”
Captain Matthew Gillespie of the 18th Police District handles much of West Philadelphia, south of Market Street.
He reminds his patrol officers during roll call that “the 18th District is a diverse…socially, economically, racially…area.” Officers are trained on how to handle situations where cultural differences between an officer and an individual may be at play, he added.
“The officers do do a very good job of analyzing situations out on the street here in the 18th District,” he said.
They also have tools that can assist with language barriers, like a translator for more than 20 languages who can be accessed via the police radio.
The 18th District also has a consistent relationship with its immigrant community, Gillespie said. Representatives of immigrant organizations have visited the station on 55th and Pine streets to address officers during roll call, and Gillespie helped lead an immigration informative meeting about the department’s relationship with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency on April 29.
Habte said the Ethiopian Community Association of Greater Philadelphia has had positive interactions with the police in the past and accessed the 18th District to organize street closures to hold events. But Belay’s shooting has left them questioning the department.
In an email to Philadelphia Neighborhoods the Philadelphia Police Department said Gillespie and Wood would not discuss the specifics of Belay’s shooting. Gillespie did not respond to follow-up questions about the department’s relationship with the Ethiopian community after the shooting.
Habte said the Ethiopian immigrant community wants the police to be more present in their neighborhood and sit down with them to discuss the situation.
Southwest Division Inspector Derrick Wood said certain incidents have hurt the police department’s relationship with the community in the past, but the 18th District is focused on rebuilding through on-the-ground engagement.
“We want to be guardians and not warriors in the community, basically,” he said. “We want to come out there and talk to the people and see what they need and not occupy a neighborhood.”
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