Beginning in December, we’re featuring selections from Chicago writer Alan Lake’s soon-to-be-published series of personal profiles with esteemed Chicago area home cooks. Home Cookin’ gives a glimpse into your neighbor’s lives (and kitchens) by telling the stories behind their food.
Dark, piercing eyes hint at the story to come. Inquisitive, wise and gentle, they’re pained as well. They remind me so of something my grandmother would say in quite broken English:
“If you knew their troubles, you’d keep yours.”
“A maid, a mother and a refugee”: The story of a Chicagoan from Ethiopia, told in words and food
Having grown up amongst immigrants, their stories resonate to me. Today more than ever, we seem short on empathy. Many are quick to judge and are selective in hearing, as it takes effort to understand. How better to do that than to hear someone’s story? A fellow Chicagoan and neighbor of yours perhaps?
I’ve been teaching Zaheen’s 10-year old twin girls how to play drums for a few years. As students go, they’re special… crazy good, and sweet as hell. We met at Asian Youth Services, an after-school mentoring program in Albany Park I volunteer at. We’d see each other when Zaheen* (name changed by request) would drop off and pick up her kids. She’d walk gingerly through the chaotic, book-lined, child-filled storefront and say, “Thank you for teaching my girls.” Every time. Always a “thank you.” Her girls are the same.
Talking once a week over a couple of years, many conversations occur. One day she says “It means so much to me that you teach my girls. Growing up in Ethiopia, I wanted to play drums. But I was a girl and couldn’t. It was haram—forbidden. Drums were for boys.”
Shocked, I insisted she sit down and play. She refused. Her expression said otherwise, so I said “If you don’t sit and play, I won’t teach your kids.” It was just bluster but eyes widening, Zaheen sits down at the drum kit, arranges her hijab to her liking, picks up the sticks and takes them for a spin.
Confident and comfortable in her own skin, the more I learn about her, the more remarkable she becomes.
Zaheen (shown here with her facial features obscured, by request) came to the United States as a political refugee from Ethiopia in 2001. Her father, a shopkeeper, was imprisoned on suspicion of funding an opposition movement, and later disappeared while in custody; her mother’s demands to know his fate landed her in jail as well.
Her story begins in the Horn of Africa, the place modern humans originated four million years ago. It’s the birthplace of coffee as well. 80 languages are spoken here. She’s Sunni Muslim and her people are Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the region, having inhabited Northeast Africa for 1,000 years. During the slave trade many of the captives taken to the new world were of Oromo origin—up to 15,000 a year at its height.
Born into a merchant family near Dire Dawa in southern Ethiopia, her father studied and taught the Quran prior to becoming a shopkeeper, earning the honorific “Sheikh” added to his name. Zaheen and six siblings grew up in the family store, waiting on customers of every tribe and culture. While other kids were playing they were stocking shelves, cleaning floors and doing whatever needed doing.
She loves languages and speaks six fluently; a few others, less so. She says “When you’re in business, you try to learn the languages of your customers.” The store imported all sorts of items and was more or less a general store. She describes her father as open-minded and smart. Generous by nature, he extended credit easily and helped people however he could.
Her mother would admonish him saying “Why do you give it to them?” His response always being “Because they need it.” Well-liked and respected, they led an upper-middle-class life.
Mama kept them grounded, insisting that they must help the help, both in the store and at home, and demonstrated this by cooking for their housemaid. “They are the same like you, and you will help them.” A daily list of chores posted on the door would have assignments for all.
It’s believed Zaheen’s father died when she was in the 11th grade. In fact, he was “disappeared” by the government.
“It means so much to me that you teach my girls. Growing up in Ethiopia, I wanted to play drums. But I was a girl and couldn’t. It was haram—forbidden. Drums were for boys.”
Inter-clan relationships are complicated and often violent. The short version is that the two largest ethnic groups in the region, the Amhara and the Oromo, had pretty much coexisted in the past. That is until the early nineteenth century when the Oromo were marginalized under Amhara colonization.
A tumultuous 20th century followed. From 1936 to 1941, Ethiopia was occupied by Italian troops under Mussolini. In 1974, civil conflicts and communist purges broke out, orchestrated by a brutal pro-Soviet military junta known as the “Derg.” Haile Selassie was overthrown, ending the 1,000-year Ethiopian monarchy. Mass arrests and executions were commonplace and armed opposition arose, leading to civil war. Famine paralyzed the region in 1983 leaving a million dead.
Then in 1991 the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front became the ruling political coalition, remaining in power to this day.
In 1993, government forces suspicious of Zaheen’s father’s generosity accused him of funding the opposition. They came to the store and questioned the family—“Does he have any guns?” “Who does he give money to?”—harassing them until they’d pay to make it stop.
Then they took him away.
Government forces swept up many of the business people. “For seven months we heard nothing. Didn’t know where he was or even if he was alive—he just disappeared. We were so depressed and frustrated… we couldn’t concentrate on the store and business suffered. We’d go to the police asking about him but never got an answer besides ‘We don’t know where he is.’”
A tear runs down her cheek as she tells me, “If someone dies, at least you know… you can go on. But we knew nothing.”
“Months later we heard some people had died in custody, so we went back to the police and begged them to tell us something. Finally they told us he’d been transferred to a notorious jail that’s primarily underground, like a dungeon, so we go. No light, many people. When we see him, he’s completely different. Sick, skinny, wild-eyed, his hair had turned white. In seven months! We didn’t recognize him save for the gap in his teeth. He’d lost more than 30 kilos.”
“He had pneumonia, but no doctors.”
Their visit over, they were told they could come back in a couple of weeks. They brought him food, clothing and medication and had another short visit.
When they went back the following week he was gone.
“They kill him, or he died. They say they bury him but we don’t know. We never saw the body.” He was 43.
“For seven months we heard nothing. Didn’t know where he was or even if he was alive—he just disappeared. We’d go to the police asking about him but never got an answer besides ‘We don’t know where he is.’”
It’s 1994. Zaheen is a senior in high school destined to be a doctor. She’s an honor student that loves biology and physics, but instead of studying she’s managing the much-compromised store with her mother. Her brother had moved and her sister got sick.
With the news of her father’s death people came in search of payments—some real, some not. Muslim tradition holds that the family is responsible for the debts of the deceased. The Quran even states, “The soul of the believer is held back by his debt until it is paid off on his behalf.” To delay or refuse would be a sin and disgrace, so all payments are made. What little was left—their house and the store—was seized by the government.
Locked out of their home and with no means, Zaheen’s mother takes the family to Djibouti where they had friends and business associates. Once settled, Mama goes back to Dire Dawa to confront the police.
“Did you kill him?”
“Did you see us kill him? What are you talking about? Tell us how we killed him!”
Then they threw her in jail.
Having known this was a possibility, she’d gotten the family out of the country first. What she didn’t know was that she would become a cause célèbre. Three days after her arrest, people were striking and protesting for the rights of the disappeared—demonstrating just outside the police station. She’s quickly trial-ed, and then, exiled.
In Djibouti, Mama is depressed and mainly stays home—home being a small studio apartment they’ve rented for the four of them. One common room, one bathroom; nothing like the big house they’d had. Zaheen and her sister find jobs as housemaids, cooking and cleaning. Her brother finds work in a store.
The following school year, Zaheen’s old teachers encouraged her to come back and and finish high school. She goes back and ends up living in a suburb of Dire Dawa—a two-hour walk each way to school. Her goal is to get a scholarship and become a doctor in America. Her teachers and family friends come to her aid, helping in any ways needed. After graduating, she goes back to Djibouti.
Humbled by the help her daughter received, Zaheen’s mother was sorry she’d ever confronted her husband over his generosity.
“Poor people are the most generous. If you give to people, your pockets will never be empty.”
Zaheen’s family lived in Dire Dawa (starred) before her parents’ arrest. She and her siblings fled north to exile in Djibouti, where the former honor student with dreams of becoming a doctor worked as a housemaid—and shared her love of traditional Ethiopian cuisine with her employers.
In short order Zaheen marries and has three children. Because of the political nature of her father’s death, she’s a prime candidate for refugee status. She applies to immigrate to America and miraculously is approved. She says she felt numb and that even the immigration officer cried when he heard her story—giving her his business card after the interview and telling her to contact him when she got to the States.
Zaheen and family were sponsored by the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights, a family of organizations whose mission is “to restore dignity to the most vulnerable populations.” They got an apartment and some healthcare, but hardly any furniture so they alley-scavenged the rest. They spoke no English and all three children were under age three.
Over the next few years Zaheen’s husband found semi-steady work while she raised the kids, slowly learning English by watching public television and making the children teach her whatever they learned in daycare or school each day.
Then she had twins (they run in her family, her sister has some too). When they were old enough to go to school, Zaheen wanted to get a job and go back to school too. Smart and ambitious, she’d worked her whole life before becoming a mother. Her husband, traditional Ethiopian man that he was, said “no”—insisting that he would work and she would stay at home with the kids, like in Ethiopia.
That didn’t play well with Zaheen, who wanted to take advantage of America, you know, that land of opportunity stuff. “Anything I don’t understand I don’t want to pass it by.” Exasperated, she divorces him.
There’s been suitors since, but all are refused. Being a divorced single mom with five kids is her life. “My children are my job. I don’t want them to be frustrated like I was. First, they need their education… for me, it doesn’t matter.”
She thanks Allah for Asian Youth Services, a place that she knows helps her children thrive. The organization has gotten them scholarships to private schools, paid for uniforms, bus passes, school supplies and more, besides furnishing a hot meal (for some, the best meal of their day). It also provides music, art and ballet lessons, computer classes, field trips—an exposure to American culture that Zaheen considers priceless.
“I’ve cried in appreciation many times.”
“Kids can’t do homework if they are hungry. I thought getting them scholarships to private schools would be important—but they come here for food.”
Read more about Shari Fenton, who provides support to families like Zaheen’s through her organization Asian Youth Services: The Albany Park Storefront Where Kids Find Inspiration—and a Warm Meal
Zaheen’s had a couple of jobs. One at a bookstore that she loved because she learned to read English better, and another at Inspiration Cafe, a job training program where she learned classic cooking techniques and proper sanitation methods. She particularly enjoyed that because it fed her love of science. Remembering her time as a housemaid in Djibouti, she says her employers loved her cooking and were more like family, even introducing her to her husband.
Her mother grew up cooking for nine uncles and taught Zaheen and their housemaid how to cook to her specifications. Today, Zaheen cooks traditional Ethiopian fare in an immaculate home redolent with the warm spices of cumin, cardamon, cinnamon and ginger.
Doro wat, a robust stew of chicken, caramelized onions and hard-boiled egg, is a family favorite. Spinach, cabbage and beets make their way to the table among assorted lentils and legumes. Then there are tibs, cuts of meat seasoned with berbere, an Ethiopian chili powder spice blend fragrant with fenugreek and clove. These are served over injera, oversized porous sourdough flatbread made from the fermented flour of an ancient grain called teff.
The food taboos of the Old Testament are observed, so pork and shellfish are haram. Utensils aren’t used, so with right hand only (very important) you scoop up the food with injera. It’s customary to eat from the same plate or feed others out of hand as well.
After settling in the U.S., Zaheen found work at Inspiration Cafe where she learned classic cooking technique and professional kitchen sanitation methods—skills which built on a lifetime of cooking traditional Ethiopian stews and injera flatbreads alongside her mother. Today her doro wat, a robust stew of chicken, caramelized onions and hard-boiled egg, is a favorite of Zaheen’s 10-year-old twin daughters.
Zaheen loves cooking the special foods eaten only at Ramadan and also cooks Somali food. Laughing, she tells me that one of the Somali national dishes, macaroni with a thick tomato meat sauce and sliced banana, was a result of Italians colonizing the jungle.
Hungry for more? Step inside Zaheen’s kitchen and learn her recipes for doro wat, tikil gomen (stewed cabbage and carrots) and Ethiopian greens: Home Cookin’: Recipes from Ethiopia
Wary of the Ethiopian government, she doesn’t participate on social media for fear of retribution. She loves America and became a citizen in 2006. She’s liberal but also an observant Muslim who misses her old way of life and culture. Ramadan just isn’t the same in a non-Muslim country with no call to prayer 5 times a day, or month-long dawn-to-dusk fast with your neighbors.
When Zaheen’s oldest daughter spoke at her graduation ceremony, she singled her mother out. “Everything we have, she gave us. It all came from her.” Surrounded by the other parents, most from more elite social stratas, Zaheen had no issue declaring she was a maid, a mother and a refugee. In fact, she couldn’t believe she was even sitting there.
Flashing a smile exuding wisdom and inner beauty, Zaheen says in her singsong voice, “God is with you when you make people happy. America, you people, your hearts are very nice.”
Many people have helped her, for which she is eternally grateful. While she herself has never experienced discrimination from wearing a hijab, her kids have. She dismisses it as kids being kids who don’t know any better, and tells hers to “just explain to them about our religion. You have to sit down and talk, and listen, to solve any problem.”
When Zaheen’s oldest daughter spoke at her graduation ceremony, she singled her mother out for praise: “Everything we have, she gave us. It all came from her.” Surrounded by the other parents, most from more elite social stratas, Zaheen had no issue declaring she was a maid, a mother and a refugee.
Crediting Ethiopia’s diversity for making her an early advocate of human rights, she says, “Everyone God created is the same. You meet people, or you do business with them, have an understanding, and they become family to you. This I strongly feel.”
She believes Islam has been corrupted and hijacked by a small minority. The Islam she loves celebrates mothers, sisters and daughters. She opposes female genital mutilation, calling it “circumsurgery.” By moving to Chicago, she protected her daughters from a fate she couldn’t escape.
During our conversation, Zaheen was trying to explain something to me but was missing a crucial word. I supplied it—“nationality”—and her thanks was so quick and effusive you couldn’t not feel her genuine thirst for knowledge. I’m hoping that reading these stories—in some small way fostering the understanding that we all have similar hopes and fears—will bring us closer.
Maybe be more willing to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, or hijab.
Don’t miss the companion piece, Home Cookin’: Recipes from Ethiopia, where Zaheen shares her own recipes for family favorites.
Alan Lake is an award-winning chef / percussionist / writer / reprobate and lover of all things beautiful and delicious. Born and raised in Chicago, Alan’s spent just enough time away to appreciate it even more. He speaks fluent Chicagoan and invites you to meet his extraordinary neighbors in his soon-to-be-published Home Cookin’ series. Follow him on Instagram or Twitter.