It’s New Year’s Day and Taste of Ethiopia is closed for a private party. Woinee Mariam passes through the metal swinging doors from the kitchen with a large, steaming tray of hot food. As the invited guests arrive, the scene looks like a family reunion. Parents exchange hugs and hand shakes while kids begin to run around with one another. Smiles and laughter are seen throughout the floor, but possibly the biggest smile is that of Mariam’s.
“I love cooking and I love talking to people. I love being around people, feeding people,” Mariam says.
For over 10 years Mariam has hosted a New Year’s celebration for this community. But they won’t exit the restaurant to find other revelers celebrating. This celebration is happening in September, ringing in a new year in the Ethiopian calendar. Those celebrating with Mariam today are part of a community of adopted Ethiopians who call Texas home. And Mariam has built a close connection with these families. Now her goal is to build a relationship between these kids and Ethiopian culture.
“[What] makes me push to do this every year … is for them to know the culture that I know,” she says.
As part of this family, Mariam wants to teach this community about the Ethiopian traditions. Ethiopian culture follows the Ethiopian calendar, which shares roots with the Gregorian calendar used by most of the western world. But there are some noticeable differences between the two. The Ethiopian calendar has 13 months instead of 12, and New Year’s Day falls in September rather than December. But despite these differences, the holiday shares many similarities to its Gregorian calendar counterpart, most noticeably sharing food and celebrating with family. Mariam, who grew up in Ethiopia, remembers the joy the holidays brought her.
“All the neighbors come to our house, we eat, everybody eats,” Mariam says. “There will be singing, there'll be dancing … [it was] the most loving time.”
Being a part of a close-knit family created a sense of community for Mariam. But that community changed when she moved from Ethiopia to the United States at the age of 16. She remembers struggling to adjust to a new culture and society at a young age. She had to figure out her new home on her own, with very little help.
“My first holiday was a little bit harder because…I didn't have my mom, I didn't have my dad, I didn't have the big family celebration. It was just my sister and me,” she says. “It was kind of sad because I don't smell the food cooking. I don't see anybody coming to see us. It was just us.”
Mariam moved to Texas and opened Taste of Ethiopia in 2008. While becoming a restaurateur was not her initial plan, it gave her an opportunity to connect with neighbors through her favorite childhood foods. But one family in particular would offer her a chance to connect with one of her favorite childhood holidays. Mariam vividly remembers first meeting Shea Reck and her children, who are adopted from Ethiopia.
“The first time she bring her kids ... we got just really close,” Mariam says. “It was kind of a sense of belonging.”
Their relationship quickly grew from lunches at the restaurant to getting together for the holidays. Mariam, Reck and her kids started spending the New Year’s holiday in September together. The two considered inviting other adoptive families to join in the celebration. When discussing the plan with her husband, he asked what she was going to teach them.
“I said, ‘We need to talk about the holiday,’” Mariam says.
Reck and Mariam started organizing an Ethiopian New Year’s party at the restaurant in 2014. Through online networking and word of mouth, more families with adopted children from Ethiopia learned about the event and started attending each year. Reck believes the gathering gives their children a chance to connect to their culture and heritage.
“I think it’s understanding their roots, of their birth family, being proud of that. Even if they’re too young to remember or have grown up in that tradition, we can continue that tradition here,” Reck says. “We continue to do it every year because we want them to be proud, we want them to celebrate as they would, as their country celebrates back home.”
For many of these parents, the New Year’s celebration is a chance for their children to meet, connect and relate with other kids with similar stories. Luke Schwoch has attended the celebration with his family for several years. This event allows his daughters to both make new friends and connect with old friends.
“There's a family that we're here with today that one of their little girls was at the same orphanage as our daughters,” Schwoch says. “We connected with them early on.”
Families can bond in a setting that promotes Ethiopian culture in an authentic way, something important to Schwoch.
“One of the things that we wanted to do with our girls is to continue the Ethiopian culture in their lives,” Schwoch says. “We wanted to be able to retain some of that culture and some of that history in a unique but also true to Ethiopian way.”
For Mariam, the significance of this gathering is centered around the responsibility she feels to these children. As someone who's shared the same experience of leaving their native land to another country, she hopes to offer guidance to these kids in a way she wishes she had.
“I wish there was somebody when we came here who could coach us. We needed people like that, but it was not there,” Mariam says. “You need to have someone else that's going to have the same experience that you're going to. That is important to me.”
It’s also important to Mariam that these events have started a conversation between these kids. And what brings her joy is knowing they may benefit from these friendships.
“When they are all together in this place, trust me, they are getting phone numbers from each other so they know someone to talk to. If something different comes up, if they can't talk to their parents, they might be able to talk to their friend or me,” she says. “If I am adopted and I meet someone else who's also adopted, I don't feel [like] it's just me.”
The relationships Mariam has built with these kids and parents extends past the walls of the restaurant and continues after the parties. She considers these kids as part of her family. A family she has hopes they carry with them wherever they go.
“That’s my goal for the kids,” Mariam says. “That they connect to each other.”
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