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Wednesday, September 11, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ethiopian new year celebrated quietly today

Seattle Times staff reporter

Even after decades living in the U.S., there are unexpected, delicate moments when immigrants find themselves poised between this country and their country of birth.

Consider the exceptional significance of today's date, the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Then consider the tens of thousands of U.S. Ethiopians who, until last year, happily anticipated the arrival of Sept. 11 — Ethiopia's New Year's Day.

Under the orthodox Julian calendar used in the Horn of Africa nation, today is called Enkutatash and usually caps the end of three months of rain.

The day typically is marked by bouquet-toting youngsters, honey wine, dancing through the evening. New clothing — a bright dress! — and parties.

Community centers or churches, as a matter of course, hold joyous festivities for a holiday centuries-old.

"September also traditionally means celebrating the end of the rainy season and the arrival of sun," said Belete Shiferaw, 52, of Seattle. "All the flowers are in bloom."

Shiferaw is the proprietor of Kokeb, an Ethiopian restaurant on 12th Avenue near Seattle University. He opened his restaurant 20 years ago, when the Ethiopian presence in the city was about the size of a pinprick. Now there are enough Ethiopians to fill KeyArena.

Shiferaw fled the famine of Ethiopia and arrived in the U.S. in 1980 via Sudan and Germany. Before the restaurant, he worked at a 7-Eleven store and for the Seattle Public Library. With his wife, Yeshi, he is raising two children: a daughter at Garfield High School and a son at Lakeside School.

Yesterday afternoon, he mentioned these achievements not to boast but to point out what his life has been like so he could adequately thank the public at large for supporting refugees like him.

"We are not rich people as such," he said at a luncheon at his restaurant. "We're rich in spirit. We're rich because we can work. We didn't have this in Ethiopia."

A different anniversary took place at Kokeb yesterday, over plates of injera bread, lentils and chicken. Shiferaw invited youngsters, their parents and the staff from a nearby day-care center as a gesture of thanks to the larger community. He typically does so every year as the restaurant turns one year older.

But given the unanticipated timing of the Ethiopian holiday and the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks, he opted to hold the lunch yesterday. With so much negative talk about immigrants, he wanted to say something positive. Simply: We're grateful.

In Ethiopia this year, New Year's celebrations will be toned down, and the usual fireworks display has been canceled.

Local New Year's festivities have been canceled in Seattle, Shiferaw said. Instead, he plans to privately toast the holiday today at home with family. Publicly, he plans to commemorate September 11 by doing what he does any other day of the year.

"I don't want terrorists to feel like they've changed anything," Shiferaw said.

He'll drive his youngest to school in the morning, and by 11 a.m., he'll open Kokeb for lunch.

Information from Agence France-Presse is included in this report. Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or fdavila@seattletimes.com.

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