London, England–On a recent Tuesday night, nearly every table was occupied at Harar, a small Ethiopian restaurant in Vauxhall in South London.
Most of the clientele were Ethiopian, eating the flatbread called injera and drinking either coffee or tej, a traditional honey wine. The restaurant was redolent of frankincense, burned as part of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
“I miss everything about Ethiopia. My family, the traditional food, the coffee ceremonies, the festivals, Easter and Christmas,” said Alex Abraham, who sought asylum in the UK 10 years ago. His half-Ethiopian, half-Eritrean heritage made staying at home dangerous. He now works as a taxi driver in London.
But things are changing back at home. Since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed office in April, he has taken radical steps toward transforming the country. Ethiopia has been in and out of a state of emergency in recent years, and at war with Eritrea for 20 years.
Since the 1980s, Ethiopians have been fleeing the country. First from the violent Derg dictatorship that deposed Haile Selassie, and then from the increasingly authoritarian Federal Democratic Republic. The quashing of opposition and alleged human-rights abuses led to a rise in Ethiopians applying for refugee status — 37,014 applied globally in 2016.
But in just a few months the new Prime Minister has made policy changes many Ethiopians never dreamed of seeing in their lifetimes. This has included the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners and an end to the country’s war with Eritrea.
“The change is really magnificent; it’s great because there is reconciliation between the two countries,” Abraham told CNN. “I’m planning to go back to Ethiopia for good in one or two years’ time. I have to see the change, whether the peace and tranquility lasts,” he said, finishing his injera plate.
Such sentiments extend beyond the UK, Legesse Geremew Haile, deputy head of mission at the Ethiopian Embassy in Ottawa, told CNN.
“Our communities across the globe in general and in Canada, in particular, are content with the changes that are taking place in Ethiopia and have shown strong interest not only to visit their country but also to engage in investment and support their people in different ways.”
He added that a clear indication of this interest has been the “constant phone calls and dozens of emails” the Embassy has been receiving from diaspora members in Canada following Abiy’s reforms.
Changes lauded by diaspora
Reforms have brought a new wave of optimism in the country and among its diaspora — there’s even a hashtag, Abiymania. Over the past month Ethiopians have gathered at celebration rallies in honor of Abiy Ahmed in London and Washington, and during his “diaspora tour” of the United States this week, vast crowds gathered at Minnesota’s Target Center hoping to catch a glimpse of the man of the hour.