Ethiopia: Becoming self-reliant as a refugee in Addis Ababa
30 March 2018

Kibret Fitsumbrehan is an Eritrean asylum seeker living in Addis Ababa (JRS)

My name is Kibret Fitsumbrehan.  I was born in a farming family at Seneafe-Menoxieto, Eritrea. I am currently living in Addis Ababa, 50 meters away from the JRS Refugee Community Center (RCC). JRS has been by my side since I arrived in Addis Ababa, supporting me to run my hairdressing business and helping me to be self-reliant.

My story

I left Eritrea seven years ago and came to Ethiopia seeking asylum. Before that, I was laboratory technician at the Betmekae Hospital in Eritrea. One day, while I was on duty at the hospital around 10 a.m. a lady who was known to me came to inform me that the police were coming to arrest me. She advised me to find a place to hide. Immediately I left the hospital, went home to collect my four-year-old daughter and hurried out putting no thought into closing the door and carrying nothing else. I headed straight to Senafe-Menoxieto, where my father used to live, which is on the Eritrea’s border with Ethiopia.  Shortly afterwards I fled to Ethiopia.

My parents were illiterate; they were peasants. I was fortunate to be educated at a Catholic School run by St. Anna Sisters at Adigrat-Edagahamus.  The Sisters have had a significant influence, not only on my education but on my overall human development as well. I completed grade 12 with good results and with the support of my parents I applied and was admitted to university in Asmara.

Life at the university was not easy. I had difficulty raising enough funds to support myself. After class, I would go out of the campus looking for small jobs such as washing and cleaning at private homes. I started doing this regularly and I would need on average a semester and a half to make enough money to cover my expenses.

One day a friend of mine was going to have her hair done and asked me to go with her. I was surprised to see her pay 50 Nakfa (Eritrean currency, approx US$3) for a simple Shuruba, a traditional Eritrean hairstyle which takes no more than 15 minutes to do. I compared this with the effort and time I invested each single day washing clothes and cleaning people’ homes just to get 15-20 Nakfa!  I asked my friend, ‘Is it so hard to make Shuruba?’  ‘No’, she said, ‘all you need is practice and you will become a Shuruba hairdresser within a short time’.

On our way back to campus, I bought a doll with long hair. I practiced traditional hairdressing throughout the night. The next morning before class I scribbled an advertisement for Shuruba services for only five Nakfa and pasted it on my dormitory door. I got many student customers. The price was fair and the service was spot on.  My aim was not only to make money but also to practice different hairdressing styles which, additionally, was a useful way spend time.

Gradually the number of customers increased. Sometimes they would wait for me in front of my classroom or even call me out from the library. I was becoming better at hairdressing and making enough money and I thought it was time to change the marketing strategy. Instead of offering my services only to students at a cheap price, I was going to serve the community at large at prices close to what other Shuruba hairdressers were asking.  I went to private homes and advertised my home- based   Shuruba service.  I got a few customers who were willing to be served in their own homes. I was now providing an improved service to the satisfaction of my clients and getting well paid. In addition, I was getting free publicity as my customers were recommending me to their friends and neighbors. I earned a living this way until I graduated from university and got a regular job as a laboratory technician. I had been living and working in Asmara for nine months with my daughter when I fled to Ethiopia.

Becoming an asylum seeker in Ethiopia

Arriving in Ethiopia, at a place called Dabaguna, I registered as an asylum seeker and obtained refugee status. I woke up the following day to my daughter’s cries asking for something to eat. Having no money to buy food, I had nothing to give her. That morning I went to the nearest health center in the camp and pleaded with the administrative officer there to employ me as a receptionist or even as a janitor. I was told that I would have to wait at least six months in the camp before being eligible for employment.  I went to the Chief executive’s office and told him all my problems.  He asked me about my work experience. I explained that I had a Laboratory Technician diploma and told him about my experience working in a hospital in Eritrea. He prepared a sort of job related exam which I successfully passed.  I was offered a job as a casual worker and, starting that afternoon, I was given food and a house to stay. I was earning a monthly salary of 600 ETB(Ethiopia Birr, approx US$22).

A new beginning

Kibret with her daughter
Kibret with her daughter (JRS)

When the Ethiopian government, in collaboration with the UNHCR, offered study scholarships for refugees, I seized the opportunity. The selection process was very competitive and out of the 700 who applied, only 300 were successful including myself. I left my daughter in the care of my sister who was living with me in the camp and joined Addis Ababa University to study journalism. I was receiving a monthly allowance of 250 ETB from the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA).  I was sending some of the money to my sister and daughter back in the camp, and I struggled to make ends meet with the little that was left.

One day, with only 50 ETB in my pocket, I went for coffee at a small shed in  town that served traditional Ethiopian coffee. The lady who was serving me the coffee came from Mekelle (northern Ethiopia) and spoke Tigrigna like me, so I struck a conversation with her.  She informed me that she had an opportunity to travel abroad and wanted to go to Mekelle to say goodbye to her parents before travelling. But she had not found anyone to replace her at the coffee shop so I said, “Why not me?” She accepted my offer and showed me how to make and serve the coffee. She also taught me how to prepare simple snacks made with potato, tomato and eggs. She then introduced me to her customers and told the owner of the shed that I was her sister. She handed me the keys and left promising to be back within two weeks.  From that day, I started combining my journalism studies with my new coffee business. I told my classmates about it and got many customers. I earned 3,300 ETB within just two weeks!

When the lady returned from Mekelle, she offered to sell me the coffee making utensils and other equipment used to make snacks and I accepted. I bought all of it together with the seats for a total amount of 2,200 ETB and took over the business. I was making a nice profit which enabled me to rent a house and bring my sister and my daughter from the refugee camp to live with me. I also hired an assistant whom I paid a monthly salary of 200 ETB to assist me in the preparation of snacks and coffee. I was so busy and soon run out of space as the number of customers kept increasing.

One of my customers advised me to rent a larger space at a good site. I did some research and found a good business site in an area of Addis Ababa called Kebena where I opened a Bar and Restaurant. I was paying 7,500 ETB monthly for rent and I employed a cook whom I was paying a monthly salary of 1,000 ETB. I also bought tables and chairs for an amount totaling 18,000 ETB. My situation improved a lot and I was able to send my daughter to school.  Within six months I had made a profit of 29,000 ETB. Meanwhile, I continued my studies and successfully graduated from university.

Becoming self-reliant

I was forced to sell my restaurant when the house where I ran the business was sold to an investor who build stairs. I sold all the equipment and left the area. I changed my business plan and opened a beauty salon. This attempt also failed due to a new road which was under construction. Thus I was confined to my home and spent all my savings. This led me to ask myself what I could do to begin generating income again and become self-reliant. I resolved to resume doing traditional Shuruba hairdressing from home. I also began producing artificial Shuruba wigs to be used in special occasions. I worked like this for eight months. I would go door to door promoting my business. I also went to different offices and to Merkato (a large open market area in Addis Ababa) to showcase my products.  I was fortunate to get customers in Merkato willing to buy and even export my products abroad.

Kibret in her beauty salon
Kibret with a client in her hair salon (JRS)

On Sundays and Saturdays I would prepare a variety of simple meals which I sold at the Sunday market at a reasonable price. One day I stumbled upon a notice about an available shed for rent which was administered by Jan Meda Health Center. I entered the competition and won the space. Unfortunately, I learned that my refugee status made it impossible to sign a lease agreement. I went to the manager's office and explained my situation and he advised me to find a local person with a valid ID to sign the agrement on my behalf. So, I went to my church and explained my problem and someone offered to sign the agreement on my behalf. This allowed me to secure the lease of the shed and I moved my hairdressing business there.

JRS at my side
A few months later, I visited the JRS Refugee Community Center (RCC) and asked for some material support. They asked me what sort of business I was doing and where it was located. They also inquired about the agreement I had with the health center where I rented space for my business. Shortly afterwards, they came for a visit and gave me different hairdressing equipment. JRS has been supporting me ever since. Eventually, government quality control officials ordered me to close following an inspection visit. They said that the location of my business did not fulfill the minimum requirements for a beauty salon.
I had to close the beauty salon but I continued to make synthetic Shuruba wigs. I still use the shed I rent from the health center to sell my products directly to my customers. In addition, I sell cosmetics, necklaces, ornaments and other dressing accessories. I have also started exporting my Shuruba based products overseas as well as traditional Ethiopian clothes.

I give thanks to God for the way my work is going. My daughter is now in 8th grade. JRS is always on my side, supporting, advising and motivating me to do well and become self-reliant. I love JRS so much. The staff at JRS RCC have always shown me love and concern. They are always there whenever I am in need and do the same for other refugees. Most of the time, what I need is someone to listen to me, someone with whom I can share my life's struggles even if they do not have a solution to my problems. JRS staff are always ready to listen and assist in any way they can. I remember how they came to my rescue when I lost three books I had borrowed from the library when I was still at university. I turned to JRS for help and they paid for the books on my behalf. Without JRS support, I would not have been able to graduate.

JRS RCC feels like a second home to me. JRS assist urban refugees in various ways. Ethiopia is like our own country. Ethiopia gives refugees relief, peace, and good accommodation. Some refugees do not work, do not study, and sit idle at home waiting for resettlement and assistance from their families abroad. I believe that, instead of waiting for assistance from elsewhere, working for ourselves and being self-reliant brings a greater sense of satisfaction. It also contribute to one's peace of mind. Why not try and change lemon into lemonade? People abroad are also struggling to look after their own families. I believe that, with a little training, refugees in good health and with a willingness to work will find opportunities to make money. I am not suggesting that there are no abstacles to finding work. But such obstacles exist everywhere, even in our own countries. But in Ethiopia people are cooperative and helpful and there are training opportunities from JRS and other organizations which refugees can take to empower themselves for work.

My vision is to be engaged in higher level business activities,to establish myself as a successful refugee business woman, to run a beauty spa and make a living from providing quality services to the community. The government's plans to grant work permits to refugees add to my sense of optimism for our future as refugees in Ethiopia.

Story compiled by Asrat Abebe at JRS RCC, Addis Ababa

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