Eritrean, Ethiopian communities unite to help victims of Sonoma County fires

The close-knit Eritrean and Ethiopian community of Santa Rosa gathered at Roseland Elementary School Sunday to offer encouragement and support to 10 of their families who lost homes in the October wildfires.

About 200 guests came together to break bread - the spongy injera and sweet himvasha bread - and share a traditional feast of beef stew and vegetables at a luncheon hosted by the Bay Area’s Women 4 Humanity Now, which supports women and children in times of need.

The “Meal to Heal” luncheon was the brainchild of Women 4 Humanity Now founder Lia Berhane of Kensington and Sawait Hezchias-Seyoum of Sacramento, who started a GoFundMe account for the fire victims after her sister and brother-in-law lost their Coffey Park home.

Her mother, Tebeltz Bein, nearly lost her home in Coffey Park as well. Although it survived, looters made off with Bein’s laptop, TV and jewelry.

“There’s been a lot of smoke and dust,” said Bein, who cooked for the luncheon. “But my home is still there.”

Hezchias-Seyoum, who was staying at her mother’s house in Coffey Park the night of the fire and witnessed the devastation, hoped to raise $20,000 when she started the GoFundMe account, but she easily exceeded that goal by raising $25,000.

“We wanted to gather everyone and express our thanks for life, family and friends,” said Hezchias-Seyoum, who handed out checks for $2,300 to each fire victim family at the luncheon.

Along with Santa Rosa firefighters, Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares also attended the luncheon. He knows the community from attending past Thanksgiving dinners at a northwest Santa Rosa apartment complex where many of them live.

“It’s a reminder that we have such a diverse community here,” he said. “Their community is very close-knit, family-oriented and supportive of the youth.”

Several people from Santa Rosa Junior College attended the lunch to support the community that has woven itself into the fabric of the junior college.

“We’ve had a lot of Eritrean students and people who work there,” said Ellen Licht, an ESL instructor at SRJC.

“This community was hard hit.”

Members of the Red Cross brought donated goods for fire victims, and about 40 youth from throughout the Bay Area came to serve the lunch.

Mesfun Tekle, who works for Santa Rosa’s street maintenance department, lost his rental home on Old Redwood Highway the night of the fire after he had been called to work at 11:30 p.m. to clear downed trees in the downtown. His wife, Azeb, and two children barely got out in time, after a friend called them. When they woke up the fire was already in their backyard.

“I ran to the car in my pajamas,” Azeb said. “My son grabbed the bird, and my daughter grabbed her phone.”

Mesfun tried to return to the rental but could not get past the police barricade. He was relieved after his wife called him to say they were leaving, and he saw them drive out.

“We’re just starting from scratch,” he said. “I’m just glad there are people that care … and we have family that loves us.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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