Girma Hailu came to the United States as a refuge from Ethiopia in the late 1980s. After the fall of the Selassie government in Ethiopia, his early years in Ethiopia were ones of hunger and famine. He endured one of the worst humanitarian events of the 20th century. He was sent by the Ethiopian communist government to school in Russia. He managed to escape from the technical school and he made his way into East Berlin and then to West Berlin to seek asylum at the United States Embassy. He became a citizen of the US in the early 1990s, has raised a family here and has been the very proud owner of the P Street Seven-Eleven for many years. He has given back to other Ethiopian refugees in many different ways over the past 30 years, employing them in his store, mentoring them, and finding resources for them. In his interview with Cathy Farrell he tells his story and gives the credit for his successful life in the US to Georgetown and its citizens who mentored him, provided opportunity, and supported his ventures for the last thirty years.
Girma Hailu Interviewer; Cathy Farrell, 4/4/2019
Cathy Farrell: Interviewer; We’ll begin with the story of how you arrived in Georgetown?
Girma Hailu: My name is Girma Hailu. I’m from Ethiopia. I was born in Ethiopia, and I was a student. In early ’80s, in 1983, from Ethiopia, I went to Russia for the higher education. While I was in Russia, the situation politically was not good at that time. It was the Cold War time.
It was not suitable for me to be there, so I left Russia. I escaped from Russia and went to East Germany. From East, I went to West during the Cold War, and I seek asylum while I was in Berlin. From Berlin, while I was asking asylum, I went straight to the American Embassy. I told them the story.
My father during the time of Haile Selassie, he was a senator. When the government changed and became a communist country, at that time, my father was a senator.
When they deposed the King, also they shut it down, the Parliament, because a communist system came in. My father left the job, but he’s being the senator and he was helping the people.
During the military government was there, I was against the government, but we were fighting as young children. At that age, we were against the government. I happened to be in jail for a while because of the political situation there, but I was literally in high school at that time.
Interviewer: You must have been a teenager?
Girma: Yes. I’m a teenager at that time, maybe about 14.
Interviewer: Very young.
Girma: Very young age. At that time, they don’t have age limits. We all come against the government, the military government. If they catch you or they know that you are against the government, they put you in jail, torture you.
The government they try to deter you. They can deter you, even kill you. There was a lot of killing at that time. Maybe you remember the Red Terror?
Girma: They did a mass murder in Addis. I was born in Addis Ababa, the capitol city. At that time, there was nowhere to go. After all that passed, I finished high school, went to Bahadur Polytechnic Institute, graduated and worked. Through that, I end up working in a factory for a while.
Then, when I got the chance to get a scholarship and finish my scholarship to go to Russia, I took that chance to get out of the country.
Interviewer: You accepted the opportunity to get out of the country?
Girma: Yes. I took it out, and after I went to Russia, the system what they giving us was, at that time, was the same thing, the communist system. They want you to study. I was not interested in that for me, so, when I got the opportunity to escape, I escaped from there. I went to Berlin. In Berlin, I stayed about a year or a year and a half.
I got here in 1985. I arrived here October, 1985. My first job was at 7‑Eleven, because at that time the easiest way to get in, it was easy, was 7‑Eleven. When I got in 7‑Eleven at that age, in 1985, I think end of ’85, I worked in the city, in different 7‑Elevens at that time, like the night guy, or day time.
Interviewer: How old were you at that time… 22? 23?
Girma: I think about 21, 22. Yeah, I remember. After some time working at 7‑Eleven, at the same time I was driving a cab. At the same time, to support myself and family back home, I have to work another job at the Union Station as the general manager for Favorite News, for the news company there.
I was working there. There were about five or four, I think there were five Favorite News. The one in Union Station, I was the manager for those, the general manager. About a year and a half or two I did that.
Eventually, when I became a manager with 7‑Eleven here, and after working in different 7‑Eleven’s in southeast, northeast, you name it, in different place, when there was chance to became to be a manager, I took the opportunity to be a second‑level manager.
After I became a manager, when they gave us a chance to be a franchisee, I have the opportunity to purchase the P Street. I was a clerk, a manager, and then I became a franchisee of the P Street Georgetown 7‑Eleven. I was a night guy here and going to school.
That’s why most of the neighborhood, I can say some of whom are not alive right now because of the age or different reasons, but it doesn’t matter what, this neighborhood is my neighborhood because I grew up in here. Since 1985, I didn’t go nowhere else. It’s almost over 30 years.
Interviewer: You’ve been here on P Street for over 30 years?
Girma: Yes, from the beginning of 1986 until now, but the last 20 years as a franchisee. I’ve been here 20 years as a franchise. Actually, I’ll send you a letter. I have the one 7‑Eleven sent me to say congratulation. They gave me a watch, everything, as being a 20 years anniversary.
Interviewer: I understand you were honored by 7‑Eleven for your contributions to the corporation?
Girma: Yes. I have the letter. I’ll give you the copy. They send me a watch, too, with a 7‑Eleven print. I will bring it and show you. I was supposed to bring it today. I forget.
Interviewer: That’s all right.
Girma: 20 years as franchisee and then being from here, again, I added up another 7‑Eleven, the MacArthur Glen Echo 7‑Eleven. I purchased that one. About over 10 years, I had that one. Recently gave it back because of some situations, which I don’t want to say for right now. I left that one.
Now, I’m selling this store. Me and my wife, we were together in the company over 20 years. We’ve been together, married, over 24 years together.
Girma: Thank you so much. Our oldest son is 20 years old. The youngest is 18. One in college. The second one will be in college next year. He’s going to graduate high school this year. Both of them, we raised them in this store. That’s why all the community people, they know them.
Interviewer: They’re Georgetowners as well?
Girma: Yes, because since they were in mommy’s stomach, grow up, get born and raise them. Because we couldn’t afford for a babysitter, we have to bring them with us here, especially they were in the basement with us. That’s in the short way I’m bringing.
During the September 11, we were in this store when it happened. Most of the people, when they run out from the Pentagon and run, they come to shelter in here.
Actually, one of our very close ‑‑ I forgot to remember his name ‑‑ one of our neighbor who passed away, he was our regular customer. We put his picture here, the one who died in Pentagon.
Interviewer: At the Pentagon?
Girma: Yeah. He was a very good friend of us. He was from the neighborhood. I forgot his name.
Interviewer: Very interesting. We’ll look up his name and add that to the interview later.
Girma: Yes. He was a good customer of us. He used to come every day here. We used to have a good coming like Mark Plotkin, our regular customers, still up to now, every day, every morning.
Interviewer: Every morning Mark comes in?
Girma: Every morning, twice sometimes. We know him long time. George Stephanopoulos and his wife, they were our regulars.
Interviewer: They’re regulars?
Girma: They were. Our former homeland security, the one who used to live here…
Girma: No, when Obama was…
Yeah. I forgot his name now. Jeff, I think, we’d call him. He used to be our customer regularly. We have quite affluent people, which they used to come and go during the…Some of them even, I forgot their names, they used to be here.
[Jeh Johnson was Secretary of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017.]
Still, they come. Some of them even, we recognize who they are, but we will just keep their privacy so they can come in and come out.
Interviewer: It was recognition by some members of your community that led me to you. People who have known you for 30 years have said, “Please interview this gentleman who has made such a difference to this corner of P Street.” Can you describe a little bit what this was like when you started and the changes that you have made?
Girma: When first time I came in this store ‑‑ this store was opened in 1960s ‑‑ it was the half of…small size. It’s not like a regular 7‑Eleven. Majority of people, they want some personal kind of materials ‑‑ items like this one. We provide those kinds of things plus the personal service they need.
It used to be half of the size. At that time, they need cleanliness and friendliness. All that, plus when they want their security, nighttime, daytime, we are here, especially me. I was here most of the time.
So, from that small size, when the customer need was greater, from especially the community, we start to need the extra space. We expanded. That’s why we expanded which has really helped us a lot.
Interviewer: Was the other store a little thrift shop?
Girma: It’s used to be frame shop.
Interviewer: Frame shop. All right. Well, there was a thrift shop here at one time.
Girma. Yeah, I remember. [laughs] What happened is during this time, we used to have Ms. Silver, Mario ‑‑ these two people were in the neighborhood for a long time. Mario, one from our neighborhood gave him an apartment to stay. That’s why now he lives on Q Street.
He’s wrote articles on the… Georgetown Gazette?
Interviewer: In “The Georgetowner”?
Girma: Yeah. He writes down an article about something also. He was a good writer. He used to be homeless. A house he never had.
Interviewer: He was a homeless person?
Interviewer: His name was Mario?
Girma: Mario, yeah. He’s a tall, skinny guy. He was on Q Street, somewhere. Now he’s in Kew Garden. Somebody from our neighborhood, they rented a place for him.
Girma: Yes. He lives there. It’s really amazing. He used to stay in here all night. When you seen him, he’s homeless, but that guy is brilliant. One time he was a student…
Interviewer: So, you let him sleep in the store?
Girma: Yeah, because when I was working nighttime, we used to talk. He reads books a lot. He used to be one time a Howard University student. They pass on him, then he came on the street.
Wintertime, like this, I know he wants his pride. I saw him. We talked and we build up a friendship. Instead of let him go, I let him stay here.
They don’t bother nobody, and everybody from the neighborhood, they buy their food for them. They’re clean, everything. Doesn’t harm anyone.
Interviewer: Who is Mrs. Silver?
Girma: Ms. Silver, she used to live in the neighborhood, I think. What happened is this lady, she has a daughter and granddaughter. They live the other side of the city. She used to come and clean starting from Thomas circle, she cleans the street. All this our neighborhood, she cleans.
We happen to find out about her when I got close to her. She’s from Latin America, I think, but she’s been for a long time here. She’s a little bit English speak, but she’s very harmless. She sleeps across the street on the streets, right here.
Interviewer: Over in Rose Park?
Girma: Yeah, sometimes there. Sometimes she’ll be by the church, right here, outside. The other time, when I work here and when I left, I saw her there, in freezing, chilly weather. I invited her to come. She came in. She wants to clean the store. She doesn’t want to take nothing for free. Nothing.
Me and my wife, we have to pay her not to do that. Sometimes, there’s a translator. We offered her coffee. Sometimes she wanted something, we’ll offer her. She ends up to live here. Every night time, you see her cleaning. If we don’t see her for two, three days, I’ll drive around to find out where she is, what happened to her.
Interviewer: So, you’re taking care some of your regular residents?
Girma: Yeah. We make sure. How do you say? We talking to my wife. In the morning, we don’t see her, or if we don’t see her somewhere, we’ll try to find out where she is. Recently, I think about six or seven months ago, or last year, I can’t reach her. Something happened to her over by GW. I can’t reach her because something happened to her leg. We have to call her relatives. Her daughter and her granddaughter explain what’s going on. She got a son too. They have to take care of her. Because of that, now, I think she stays with her daughter.
Interviewer: Oh good. You and your wife were instrumental in connecting her back with her daughter?
Girma: Yes. Actually, they came. They wouldn’t believe, even when they see where she was staying, how many items she has in the store, in our place here. They came here. They cleaned everything. They took all her stuff and they moved her to her daughter place. She’s been very Georgetowner, I can see her, without no address.
Interviewer: A Georgetowner with no address.
Girma: Mario and her. Mario, he has an address. He has an apartment now. I wish I know who it is, but I know someone is supporting him from our neighborhood. That family is the one who rented for him, furnished the place. This guy, he’s in his normal mind now.
Interviewer: Georgetown takes care of you?
Girma: Like a family. Georgetown is more than home for me. When I came here, I don’t have anything, in this country. I have to build myself up, went to college, work two, three jobs, but stay with 7‑Eleven. They gave me management classes to take, courses, training to be who I am. Then, to be a multiple franchisee. Raise my children, send to college.
Interviewer: You had two 7‑Eleven franchises?
Girma: Now I have one. Back to one. This is my favorite. I don’t feel it is like a workplace. I feel it like home because most people here, I know them minimum 30 years by name. We changed our color from black to grey together.
Some of them are like a family, a friend. If I don’t see them, I go to Kew Garden where I’ll try to find out what happened. Sometimes, if they cannot come to the store, I don’t want to name their names, but when they were sick, they couldn’t come, they need an ice, I have to deliver for them. Still I do.
Interviewer: You still do?
Girma: Still I do. They call me. They know even my cellphone, and if they need…because one time, they were young coming here. Now, they are seniors.
Interviewer: They need your help.
Girma: Most of them, still they come. Still, you can see a lot of them. It’s amazing to see.
Interviewer: If they call, you go?
Girma: Oh, it doesn’t matter, regardless time. Regardless time, I go. This place also used to be a substation, a police substation, by the way.
Interviewer: A police substation?
Girma: Yes. We used to have a desk, a table for police officers. They do their reports before there was a cellphone, before a pager.
We used to have a small desk, a telephone, and they used to do their reports. When it’s busy, this is their station, it used to be. That’s why you see a lot of police officers come, because of that mentality. They feel it’s their home because, at that time, in the past, the only communication they had is home phones.
Interviewer: Home phones before cellphones.
Girma: Yes. Because we have a huge crowd on Fridays, Saturdays, weekends, we offered 7‑Eleven for them. We used to have a big sign at the window that it’s a police substation. They write their reports. Every time, they sit down, do everything. At same time, we offer them a free coffee. Still, we do. From the secret service, you name them, to the Capitol Police. All the park police. That’s why you see motorbikes, all that.
Interviewer: They all come here?
Girma: All of them, they come here. Most of them we’ve known each other the last 30 years. Most of them, they retired now.
Interviewer: They still come?
Girma: Still they come to say hi, at least twice a year or three times. It doesn’t matter, the same, they come and see me.
Interviewer: You have seen a lot of changes.
Girma: A lot. A lot. A lot.
Interviewer: The cellphones. Communication is different. What about your safety issues?
Girma: Right now, this store is safe, because most of the time, we are 24 hours open. I’m 24 hours open, and very rarely we have incidents. Very rare, because of the police coming every time. Police don’t say against them because they come too much to our store. One, it’s closer to the White House, and most of them who are there, or the diplomats, the embassies around here who are there ‑‑ this is the nearest one to use a restroom.
I’ll show you. The restrooms are clean, and we keep them closed. Only we let them to use it because they needed to relieve themselves, or whatever they want, so it’s to be accessible for them. It’s clean. At the same time, they’ll get a coffee so it’s easier for them to go back to their job. Other see, every half an hour or whatever, different police come in and come out, it makes the neighborhood safer. Because they see the cars parked right here.
Interviewer: Because of the frequency of the people coming in and out, the street is safe.
Girma: Yes, especially nighttime. At nighttime too, yeah. There are other characters who also, they come around. They come, they get their coffee, like this one. But the more they are frequent coming here, it doesn’t matter what their visibility, it helps a lot for the community. That’s why you don’t see break‑ins or that kind of thing, or some kind of criminals coming to this area. That’s the main reason. They don’t stay five minutes to listen. But the cops park here. They get what they want. But the visibility of the car was outside right there ‑‑ that makes anybody who wants to do terror, criminals, not come here.
But lately, we had boxes missing from the doors, from the front doors. That’s why we got the Amazon locker here. I don’t make that much money out of that, just to give the service for the neighborhood. I put it on the blog. I post a picture. It’s packed. Every time, it’s full because the neighbors, …
Interviewer: Instead of having a delivery to the house, the delivery is here. It goes in the locker. Then they take it out?
Girma: Yes, 24 hours. I don’t close my door.
Interviewer: [laughs] That’s quite a service you provide for your neighbors.
Girma: The only time the door was closed and we had the key was when we did the remodeling. That’s why I remember that I need a key.
Interviewer: You never locked your door?
Girma: Never. The only time, when we remodel, we end up shutting the store. At that time, that’s what I found out, that we need a key. That’s why we made a key for the door. I laugh.
Interviewer: You have only one key?
Girma: Yeah. Even Christmas, all times, we never close because the neighborhood, they need us at that time for something unique. You cook something, you need something, so you run. To make that available, that’s why since I was here, we never shut.
Interviewer: You actually order things for this particular location that are not typical to a 7‑Eleven because of the needs of your neighbors?
Girma: Yes. Exactly, like the organic items, nutritional items.
Interviewer: Your food looks better than any other 7‑Eleven I’ve ever been in.
Girma: Most of whom, they come and they ask you because also, if you see some buildings, they are small, tiny places. The freezers are all so small. They don’t want to buy in bulk. All those to customize…
Interviewer: You’re the neighborhood freezer as well? [laughs]
Girma: Anything what you see is in the sizes they want. Most of them, they will tell you. They will come, “Girma, we need this, this, this. Is there any way you can find it?” We have outside vendors who bring the organic items, nutritional items.
Interviewer: You get them from independent vendors?
Girma: Independent vendors, exactly.
Interviewer: To serve the needs of your community?
Girma: Majority of what you see right now is based on what the community needs.
Interviewer: Those empanadas, the community desperately needs them? [laughs] They look delicious.
Girma: Exactly, most of whom, from middle class and whatever it is, whatever you need it, from 99 cents, croissants baked inside the store.
Interviewer: Baked inside the store?
Girma: Yeah. We bake our own cookies and our own croissants. We bake them here inside the store. Starting from there, 99‑cents water, 99‑cents drink. Plus, 79‑cents coffee, we have. You’ll come with your own cup. You pay only 79 cents.
Majority of the people, they have their own cup. They get espresso from lattes. All that, they will get it themselves. The most people in here, this area, they came in their pajamas or whatever.
Interviewer: [laughs] They come in their pajamas in the morning?
Girma: Yeah. They pick it up. They just put a dollar and go. See? That’s why they like it.
Interviewer: It’s a very old‑fashioned story.
Girma: Yes. It’s completely a neighborhood store. It’s not something flashy or anything. We want to keep it blended with the neighborhood, to serve the neighborhood.
Interviewer: Tell me a little bit about how you aided the CAG Safety Committee. There was a time when your surveillance system was helpful to CAG in the late ’80s.
Girma: Yes, in the ’80s. We had an issue. A lady was stabbed. She has to come over here, so we call the police for her.
Interviewer: The lady was stabbed? Somewhere around here?
Girma: She happened to come up to our door. It came to my attention that things are getting on the wrong direction. At that time, to put the camera system was expensive. Still, it was helping the neighborhood.
What I did is I installed my own camera, not 7‑Eleven’s. I spend my own money, like this one right here, what you see. See? That’s 27th Street. You can see anything going on right there. You can see the streets, not only inside, even outside. We can see what’s going on.
Interviewer: You can see the neighborhood, as well as the interior of the store, on the monitors.
Girma: This is my own camera and this has helped a lot.
Interviewer: You have eight different views on that monitor.
Girma: Yes, and that’s also a… that one’s a 7‑eleven. It can give you the whole area, doesn’t matter what. Anything comes, you can see. Especially our seniors right now, they can be safe. They know that once they go outside, we can watch the monitor.
Even the police officers, majority of the time, the police officers will get that information from my system here, because that’s clear, see? They come in; they check it. It’s good for 30 days. n30 days, yes. For 30 days, the information is here.
Interviewer: Yes, because you have a clear view of all of the streets around you.
Girma: Yes, plus if somebody was attacked or anything, we can see here. Plus, if anywhere they do something, they come, usually ‑‑ everybody stops at the 7‑Eleven, regardless ‑‑ if there’s a good description, we will find that here. We will find something about it.
Plus, by looking that, we have a camera system, anybody who wants to do anything in the block, they won’t do it, because they know that already they are on the system, only we need the description.
Interviewer: This actually has become a safer area as a result of your surveillance system, and you share those tapes with CAG or with the police, anyone who needs them in terms of protecting the community?
Girma: Also, I’m on the website of…There’s the one that serve the whole community, so it helps…Hold on a minute. I think I have it here.
Interviewer: Oh, it’s a community website?
Girma: It’s a community website, at the same time. This one is a…
Interviewer: Like a listserv where postings are made?
Girma: Yeah, it’s a community, some kind of…They opened it. Do you know the Nextdoor Digest?
Interviewer: Yes. You’re part of the Nextdoor digest?
Girma: Yes, I’m part of that. Anything I see, like, for example, when we had the box, right here, for the packages. When I brought it inside the store, that’s where I advertised it. Took a picture of it, put it there.
During the Christmas time, like this one, people get a lot of deliveries. They can use this box, so they don’t lose their boxes from the front door. Since then, now, it became really famous. UPS, FedEx, Postal Service, everybody. They use it.
Interviewer: They use the box here at the 7‑Eleven?
Girma: A lot, and now, it’s full. Right there, see, even it’s on the camera. You see how I put it? It’s by the camera. Now if you go and check it, it says it’s already full. The minute somebody came and take their stuff out, you’ll see right away. Yes, somebody put it in. [laughs] I wish, if I have the space, I would have made it bigger, so the neighbors don’t have to go anywhere. Plus, it’s 24 hours, so they can come anytime. People are using it a lot here.
Interviewer: Their packages. You post to the Nextdoor Digest what’s been delivered to that box?
Girma: No, no, no, no. No. Only I told them that we have this box. If they want to use it, that it’s accessible.
Interviewer: It’s available to them, to use?
Girma: Available, yes. I took a picture of that and put it here. Yes, just to make them aware, instead of leaving it outside. Just bring it. That brings a lot of unwanted situation. When you have a box in front of the houses, one person gets one thing, they know it’s a little bit of value. They don’t care. Then they start to come around. You see? They start to loiter.
Interviewer: Because they’re watching for deliveries?
Girma: Yes. That will bring a good one to deter that.
Interviewer: That avoids people loitering on the street, looking for deliveries?
Girma: On the streets and our neighborhoods, yeah, to bring it to quieter, good ones.
Mostly when we see something suspicious, we know that, or it’s a worrying kind of thing, we know that there will be officers in every half an hour or something, or I’ll call the police. If I have a description or whatever, I’ll let them know.
Especially, anything to happen this side of 27th Street, 26th Street, in this area. Sometimes I walk around. When I see there’s something suspicious, I’ll wait. I’ll wait and I’ll look. Usually it’s quieter, calmer. We don’t have that situation basically.
Interviewer: You really don’t have too many problems?
Girma: Before, in 80’s, 90’s, before we have camera system, yes, it was a problem. Since we got the camera, immediately I put it in, they know they are being observed. Sometimes I take a picture and put it on the door. When they see that we are watching them and they see their picture on the door, they stop. It was in 80’s. After that, everything stopped, even in the park. We used to have a problem with the parks, like this one.
Interviewer: The park, they are managing? It is lovely with the cherry blossoms this morning. It’s beautiful there.
Girma: Lovely, beautiful, yes. That’s helped a lot to the community to became safer and quieter.
Interviewer: Let’s look at our questions and see if there are anything else. You have recollections of interesting people who have lived around here, with whom you have interacted. Any personal experiences or wonderful stories that you’d be willing to share, other than Mrs. Silver and…
Interviewer: And Mario. Anybody else? Any favorite institution in Georgetown, other than the 7‑Eleven here, that has been helpful or that you have helped or aided in any way? How about church attendants in this area on Sundays? Do those people frequent your 7‑Eleven as well?
Girma: I want to say the Reverend Washington, the reverend, his church used to be here. He passed away a long time ago. When I came here, he was the one. I used to go to hear his voice there, inside the church. He used to come every day here. We used to talk a lot.
He was very influential for me at that time, when I was young, the time in toward my late 20s, to be straight and do whatever is the right thing to do.
We used to have a good conversation. He was a good pastor, a good church leader. He just retired about 10 years ago or something. He passed away. We had a new one. Mostly, I used to go to this one just to talk and chitchat with him.
Interviewer: He was influential.
Girma: He was influential because he used to come and talk to me when I was a clerk, even when I was a manager.
Interviewer: His name was Washington? The Reverend Washington. What’s the name of that church?
Girma: Jerusalem. It is a Baptist church.
He’s the only one. I have your email if I remember some…After you write it down, you’ll let me read it? If I have to add, I will add it. Plus, I’ll give you the documents I have.
Interviewer: Your documents, yes. They would be very interesting to see. Tell us about raising your children here in the DC area? What kind of opportunities were available to them?
Girma: When they were here, when I raised them, they used to go to the school on 27th. We start sending them for a year or two. They went to one of the schools for a year, I think. They went there. I live in Maryland.
Interviewer: You live in Maryland?
Girma: Yes. I just put them there in school, but for a year or something, it was at the…
the one next to the 7‑Eleven. Right now, they are remodeling it. Wisconsin and N, I think.
Interviewer: It’s below N, yes. It’s Prospect, I think. It’s where the Restoration Hardware used to be?
Girma: Yes, right there, but next to the Wingos, when you go there. Right there, I think for a year…when they were little. There used to be, also, day care right here. There was one. In the community, used to have right here, next door. Now, it became another business right now, right here next to me. Sometimes, we keep them there. Majority of time, they are with us here in 7‑Eleven.
Interviewer: Other than that, they’re educated in the Montgomery County Schools?
Girma: Yes, the Montgomery County schools. That’s where they are educated. Both of them, they graduate from there. One, right now, is going to University of Maryland. The second one will graduate this year and looking for a college. He’ll most probably go to University of Maryland because that is where I went.
Interviewer: The University of Maryland has been your education go‑to point?
Interviewer: If you think of other things that you would like to share…
Girma: I have, but I want to make it on the right way. We had over this store, while I became a manager or after I became an owner, a franchisee of 7‑Eleven, most of Ethiopians when they come from Ethiopia or any other countries, this is their destination. When they come, most of the time, they come and apply for the job just to start. They don’t know how to do it. They don’t know the American system. This is the turning point for them.
Interviewer: As it was a turning point for you.
Girma: I’ve hired over 200 because that’s how I learn to be an owner here.
Interviewer: You’ve had over 200 employees?
Girma: More than, come, hired, trained. They start their future. Some of them, even while they are working with me, like some of them. I can name some of them. They went to college, graduate from college. They became successful.
Some of them, they start to work with me. After they found their English, they find out about the American way of life, how to make a living, how to blend with the American people and respect the law, everything. Then after that, they start their own life.
Most of them are doing good. Some, they became business owners. Some of them, they graduated from school, start a family. They come, and they’ll say “thank you.” When I go to church…
Interviewer: How did they get to you?
Girma: Some of them, they were told by the church about me. Some of them come in through the Catholic charities or some from different organizations. Some of them, by word of mouth from people. “Hey. I was working with him.” Some of them, they bring the people who brought them in, sponsored them.
Interviewer: You have maintained your relationships with the Ethiopian community here in Washington?
Girma: Oh, yeah, very strong. Yes. I’m very active with the community, with the church organizations. Still, I love to help back home because they need help.
Interviewer: You made an attempt to get textbooks and computers and send them to Ethiopia.
Girma: I tried at schools, yes. I tried. Sometimes, I go to visit, myself. After the new government came, I had a chance to go. I’m a proud US citizen. I will never change it.
Interviewer: Very fine.
Girma: More than half of my age, I was here. I was a teen, almost, at least 20 years old. Most of my life, more than half of my age, I lived in here, got educated, got the privilege to be a business owner, entrepreneur.
All this is by the support of the American people, especially Georgetown. I’m in debt for Georgetown people, to a lot of them. They were my family. That’s what I call them. That’s why I always say if they don’t see me for a week, they will ask, “Where’s Girma?” Not the week now or a day or two, if they don’t see me, they’ll ask my wife. “Where’s Girma? Is he OK?” That how I’m close to the Georgetown people.
Interviewer: This really is your home?
Girma: Yes. Five years after I stayed here, I became a US citizen because I believe in it. I learned it. I got the freedom which I was looking for, to be who I am. This country made me. I don’t have to look behind me and I sleep safely.
That’s why most of us, we lost, and we left our countries. Most of us left. This is where I got. I believe if you work hard in the United States of America, doesn’t matter what color you are, where you come from, it doesn’t matter what religion you are. The only place, if you work hard to be somebody, is in the United States.
Interviewer: It’s wonderful that you have given so much back to this community in so many different ways.
Girma: Thank you. It’s time to give back. In any way I can, always I like to do it, most especially the young generation. That’s what I’m looking at. When I see something and I like to guide them the right way, telling them my story, from where I come.
Interviewer: How many employees do you have on the payroll right now?
Girma: Usually and roughly from 5 to 15. When I had two stores, I used to have two people 5:00 to 10:00 because in different times, they rotate. Most of the time, I want them to come stay with me for a while, learn everything, and go to the next stage of their life.
Some stayed up to 10 years with me. There was an employee, I miss him so much. He went back because he retired. He used to be with me for 10 years. He was a very nice man. He moved to Maine. That’s where he’s from, Maine state. He worked there. He was very nice.
Interviewer: You miss him?
Girma: Yes. He looks like Santa. That’s why we used to like him.
Girma: He was a very good man. I miss him so much. Some of them, they start to build their own family. When they bring their families, they’ll come to me. Sometimes it comes through the church when they come, because the most of them, they come as a refugee. They come as a refugee from different countries.
They don’t know what to do or where to go because it’s completely different kind of lifestyle. You are coming from Africa or Asia, it doesn’t matter. When they bring him in, you have to lower yourself down and be like them. Hold their hands and show them everything.
From the language, the way how to speak English, if they’re learned in English or African English. It’s not the same. You have… The slang, everything. They have to find it how to hear. From there, to hold them…they’re afraid usually. Very. Sometime they have to earn money instead of being on a food stamp or something. They have to earn and make a living. That’s how I show them.
The minute they walked in, I put them on a payroll. I teach them. I pay them. At the same time, when they make the money, they have to know that they earned it by working hard.
I can say more than 200. When I was a manager, it’s a different story. When I became a franchisee, a different one. Sometimes if I don’t have a space here, I’ll call other friends and I’ll send them so they can hire them.
Interviewer: You’re a resource.
Girma: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah.
Interviewer: To these people who are coming in.
Girma: If they come in, they will come. They’ll ask for a job. I can show you. Here you can see. I have a lot of applications here. They come. If I don’t have it, I tell them I don’t have it, but I feel sad when they go back. It reminds me of myself. I’ll call. Just give me two days, I’ll say. I’ll call and try to find them somewhere to put them inside so they can be a good citizen.
Interviewer: I’m very glad to have met you and to record your story.
Girma: But the one thing I saw is… I believe that America was the country of immigrants who came in and do it. Even history you learn, it’s true. It still applies. If you have lived in this and if you have the right mind to work hard, to be honest and loyal to the system, you can make it. Oh, yes.
Interviewer: Honesty and loyalty.
Girma: Yes. Those are the most important things. To be honest, the American people, they are very generous people. From outside of their house…
Interviewer: It certainly has been your experience.
Girma: Yes. Because that’s what I saw. Very generous. I’ve been in the Soviet Union for a year and a half for two years in college. By profession, I supposed to be electrical engineer. I’ve been there. I went to East Germany, from East went to West. From West, I came here. I’ve seen different cultures, different kind of views, including Africa from Ethiopia.
Interviewer: You essentially came here in the mid‑’80s.
Girma: In mid‑’80s, during the Cold War. I came 1985.
Interviewer: I guess Reagan was president.
Girma: Reagan. I had two years from this life. I call him my hero though. I like him because he gives the speech, all that, during the East and the West …
Interviewer: “… tear down that wall.”
Girma: Yeah. That was the right thing to do. Families separated in different places. I had to pass through that because I was staying towards the east side and the west side.
Interviewer: You went through Checkpoint Charlie?
Girma: I lived there in Berlin and I saw. I’ve been in Munich and I saw. That’s a good age to travel. You observe. When you come here, this country…My generation, I can say it, we took it for granted what the American families think, how they suffer to bring this country to this level.
The young generation, at my age or later on, they didn’t know what they have. They didn’t appreciate it. We took it for granted what our families, or the grandfathers, or fathers, they paid for it all. Grandmothers, everybody paid for this country to be safe. The young ones, they took it for granted. They start to spend it instead of to preserve it.
I wish every…Like the Peace Corps. I like Peace Corps because I saw them in Ethiopia. They come. They experience the other side of life, in most case, when they go. I took my kids to my country. I want them to see. Twice I took them so they can understand what life they have here, so they can appreciate it. They can work and be successful. There, when you go, you have to earn it. Even if you earn it, the standard of life is not the same like we have here. We have to appreciate it. We have to take it and preserve it. Nurture it so it can be safe and good for the next generation. The last 200 years, they paid the price. That’s why we are living here. Not here, even coming from other when you have no freedom, where you have no rights. You have nothing. When you are oppressed and you know that your life is in danger, you came here and you get that.
When I was in school, or when I still have children, I tell them so they can think what’s going on in other places. We have to preserve it. I believe in that. That’s what I learned. It’s not just for anything. I believed in it. That’s why I took my citizenship here. I am a proud American.
Interviewer: You became a citizen within your first five years.
Girma: Yes, that was in 1990, something like that actually. First five years I applied and I got it. I believe in it. This is my home. This is where I want to be. It’s same thing for my children. I’m lucky to be in Georgetown. I’m privileged, lucky. My life brought me to this neighborhood and they took me to the right place. There were a lot of people from the neighborhood…
Interviewer: A little bit of serendipity involved with that. I guess you were lucky to land here.
Girma: Luck of like the landlord for this building, for 7‑Eleven, he’s Bob Enzo. He was a very helpful person in my life.
Interviewer: He was?
Girma: Bob Enzo, yeah, in different ways, including his daughter. There was also a lady over 100 years old. She used to be coming to play every day lottery…
Interviewer: A 100‑year‑old buying lottery tickets?
Girma: Over 100, yeah. She used to come. But Bob, after I became a manager, right after I became an owner, in different ways by advising me, talking to me like his own son.
Interviewer: How nice that your landlord was also your friend and your guide.
Girma: Very, very, friend. Very, very, very, very. He lives next door, right here, and we see each other 24 hours a day. I can say as if I lived…
Girma: He’s a very influential person, very helpful. In any kind of thing I have to go to him, ask him questions. There was a Stephens. Stephens, his name is, used to be a law office right here on P Street. They used to own that building. In different ways, legally, he tried to give me advice. There are people …
Interviewer: They gave you the advice you needed freely?
Girma: Freely, most of them, influential people here I have, which I don’t want to name them. [laughs] If I needed any advice or anything, always, they have time, regardless. I call them or they come walking. I’d say, “I need to do this.” Never charge me a penny.
Interviewer: It’s a unique community.
Girma: Yes, it is, very, very.
Interviewer: People feel totally comfortable. A lot of the older people in Georgetown are very grateful to be aging in Georgetown because they open the door and their friends are on the street.
Girma: You would be surprised to see between five, six, seven o’clock, between four, five, six o’clock, you’ll see a lot of senior citizens people. Sometimes they come with people you don’t know, who looking after them. They walk in. Right here, especially wintertime or something cold. They walk right here. They do their daily walk. Sometimes, it blows your mind like a movie. That person was somebody, a CEO or in the White House.
Interviewer: An important person?
Girma: Very important person, they were. All of a sudden, now they are aging. It reminds me to go back and think how life is precious, honestly. Sometimes, I talk to them. It’s a very beautiful, unique, chic neighborhood. It’s had its own way. They need their own privacy. It’s what they want. They want to walk around, not to be recognized, not to be bothered.
That’s why even here if you see on the coffee area, they don’t want to be recognized. Some of them, we know their names. I don’t want to call their names in front of people. I say, “Hi. How are you, sir? How are you, ma’am? Have a great day.”
Interviewer: You respect their privacy.
Girma: Yeah. I have some of them, they come, they pay once a week.
Interviewer: And others who come every evening at five?
Interviewer: Just to take a walk and be social?
Girma: Some of them, this area they like animals, majority.
Interviewer: They have animals?
Girma: Most of them. They have cats, dogs, small dogs like this. They don’t want to leave them outside, but they want to walk in. This is the only 7‑Eleven you see you can walk in with your dog. You can check it anywhere. They hold them close to them. They walk. They purchase, then they walk out. Some of them, they hold them in their hand. They come in the door. I know sometimes you have to be, because it’s a grocery store, but there are some who hold like their own child.
I have a dog and I know how it feels. As long as they don’t go to the foods like this and hold them, I don’t bother them.
Interviewer: You bend the rule just a little bit?
Girma: I’ll make it easy. That’s how you can play with the community, be a community. Most of them, it’s like their own kitchen. I can say most of them.
Interviewer: I hadn’t thought about it that way.
Girma: Most of them it’s like their own kitchen. They want something, a little one. They want to find it. I know it doesn’t sell for months. I don’t care because I know that person needed it. They want it, so I kept it.
Interviewer: You stock it?
Girma: Yes. Most of them, I can see because you can see 4:00 in the morning, 5:00 in the morning, people from neighborhood, they come. From the neighborhood, those people are unique. They want something, their coffee, especially the new one. We have a specialty coffee. We have it. They come with their own cups, honestly.
Interviewer: It’s only 69 cents if you have your own cup?
Girma: 79 cents. Any kind of espresso or whatever they want, they get it. Especially now we start to bake our own croissants inside the store, they want that one. But most of them got the coffee they want. They walk in, walk out, fast. That’s what they needed.
I love the neighborhood. It’s home. It’s really home.
Interviewer: Thank you so much.
Girma: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Interviewer: And I’d love to take your picture. You and your wife. Can we do that before I leave?
Transcription by CastingWords