Ethiopians were among the first Africans to voluntarily immigrate to the United States, mainly as a result of cold war conflicts. In the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, 86,918 Americans and 15,725 Canadians claimed Ethiopian descent. Main concentrations of settlement included Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York City, and Dallas, Texas. About half of all Ethiopian Canadians lived in Toronto.
Ethiopia occupies 431,800 square miles of East Africa between 4 and 17 degrees north latitude. It is bordered by the Red Sea and Eritrea to the north; Somalia and Djibouti, to the east; Kenya, to the south; and Sudan, to the west. A high-altitude plateau dominates the eastern portion of the land, while the mountains of the Great Rift Valley cover the west. In 2002, the population was estimated at 65,891,874 and was divided into two major ethnic groups and a number of smaller ones. The Oromo made up 40 percent of the population, and Amhara and Tigrean another 32 percent. Nearly 50 percent of Ethiopians were Muslim; 40 percent, Ethiopian Orthodox; and 12 percent, animists. Ethiopia wielded regional dominance in the medieval period. In 1880 Ethiopia was invaded by Italy but remarkably managed to maintain its independence during the colonial era of the 19th and early 20th centuries, excepting the northern coastal province of Eritrea, which became an Italian protectorate in 1889. Italy successfully conquered the country’s heartland in 1935. Freed by Britain in 1941, Ethiopia was ruled by Haile Selassie I until 1974, when he was ousted by a military junta. In 1977, Ethiopia began to cooperate with Communist Russia and Cuba, countries that helped Ethiopia defeat invading Somalian troops in 1978. In 1984, a severe famine killed nearly 1 million people. Both the political unrest and famine led to widespread immigration.
There is no record of formal Ethiopian immigration to the United States prior to 1980, though some were admitted as students prior to that time. The Refugee Act of that year established a formal procedure for admitting African refugees. Ethiopians formed the largest group between 1982 and 1994, about 68 percent of the African total. Between 1976 and 1994, more than 33,000 Ethiopian refugees were resettled in the United States, often after spending time in Sudanese camps. In 1993, Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia, and a war ensued until 2000 when the province won its independence. The war cost Ethiopia nearly $3 billion and displaced approximately 350,000 Ethiopians. Multiparty elections for a federal republic were first held in 1995, following a coup by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Between 1992 and 2002, annual Ethiopian immigration to the United States averaged about 5,000. Between 1983 and 2001, more than 31,000 Ethiopian refugees were admitted to the United States.
Prior to the political turmoil of the 1970s, only a handful of Ethiopian students resided in Canada. With the refugee crisis of the 1980s, Canada began to screen and admit a number of Ethiopians, mostly those who spoke English and came from middle- and upper-class families. Many came from countries of first asylum, including Kenya, Italy, Egypt, and Greece. Toronto was the number-one destination as it provided the greatest job opportunities. Of 13,710 Ethiopian immigrants in 2001, fewer than 600 had arrived prior to 1981, and more than 8,100, between 1991 and 2001.