When 18-year-old Belai Mergia walked through the jungle from Ethiopia to Sudan in 1984, he didn’t picture a restaurant named Selam in his future.
Belai had hired two guides yet feared that they might either abandon him or do him harm. Using cobbled sign language, they assured him: “If you die, we’ll die, too.”
In the midst of his dread, Belai saw a man – likely an English hiker, he thought – who wore binoculars around his neck and carried a large backpack. Another apparent hiker appeared soon after.
“They came out of nowhere,” Belai said, of the men headed for Ethiopia, the country he was fleeing.
The Ethiopia monarchy had been overthrown by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who attempted to create a communist state run by the military.
“He was ruthless,” said Belai.
Mariam’s Red Terror carried out hundreds of thousands of massacres across the country, including those in Wollo, the city in which Belai had been born and raised. Sometimes the military demanded money from grieving families to pay for the bullets that had killed their loved ones.
Now at what appeared to be a border between two countries, no military guards stood watch.
“Are we in Sudan or Ethiopia?” Belai asked the first person he saw. The answer: “Sudan.” Belai and the guides followed a dirt road for two miles, trailed by boys who offered water – hot water. And Belai didn’t care. It was water. The first sign of civilization was a bar where tourists from England and Canada gathered.
But life wouldn’t be a series of friendly bars. Rather, Belai spent time at sites for displaced persons, including an unauthorized encampment where some refugees had lived up to 10 years.
“That was the time I worried,” he said. He didn’t plan to stay indefinitely.
Ultimately he worked his way to Sudan’s capitol city, Khartoum, where UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) was quartered.
“I followed the news, made friends and was interviewed at UNHCR. It was a big relief,” said Belai, noting that the refugee card he received eight months later paved his way to the U.S.
After flying to New York, he connected with a friend, a machinist, in Patterson, N. J. For seven years Belai worked there as a machinist and took accounting and English classes.
He moved to Minneapolis during the summer of 1991 and was hired as a quality control inspector.
After back-to-back shifts on Halloween, Oct. 31, 1991, he opened the building’s door to exit and stepped into the snowfall that was on its way to 28.4 inches.
“I don’t belong here,” he said to himself as he searched for his car. But he stayed.
“I’d always wanted to have a business someday, as my father did. Because of 9/11, I wanted a business that brought people together.
“So, in 2002, I started looking for that business. Walking on Minnehaha Avenue, I saw a sign for a storefront that was on the market. I thought: ‘This is what I’m looking for.’ ”
On that first encounter, he didn’t realize that there was a five-bedroom house attached to the back of the store. Perhaps a renter in the future? He continued his quest to purchase the structure.
“Bank after bank wasn’t interested in giving me a loan,” he said. “I finally found one, but had to pay 20 percent down.”
The zoning classification for the property was C1, zoned for general business purposes. However, after buying the property, Belai learned that the zone had been changed to ORI, which allowed only minimal businesses – such as nail salons. He asked neighbors to sign a petition that would grant an exception. They complied. And for more than seven months, he appeared at the courthouse to plead his case. Eventually, he won.
“At this time, I didn’t have a wife and family,” he said. The act of simply surviving had consumed him for years.
In 2005, he flew to the Ethiopian capitol, Adas Ababa, and on to Wollo, the city of his birth. He returned to Minneapolis with Rahel, his wife. His older sister, a friend of Rahel’s mother, was involved in the meeting.
“So, I liked Rahel and I thought that she liked me,” said Belai.
Rahel was more detailed in her reply: “He’s a good man who works hard. And he’s funny, too.”
They did like each other, enough to marry and return to the U.S. with Eden, their first child, on the way. And they liked each other enough to build a business. The coffee shop opened in 2007. Eventually daughters Helena and Bethlehem graced the family.
With war raging in Afghanistan and Iraq, the timing was not ideal for a coffee shop run by foreigners.
“Rahel ran the coffee shop and I worked two jobs,” Belai said. “We were tired. There was very little cash flow. But the people at our church and others helped us,” he said.
Eventually Belai, who worked as a quality control inspector for 14 years, was hired by another company as a “final inspector” – a step up.
The family of five worked diligently as they transformed the coffee shop into a restaurant during the pandemic. They re-covered benches and painted walls. Eden and a friend decorated the bottom of the counter with tiles.
In the morning, the girls now raise the umbrellas on the outdoor seating and arrange the chairs.
Rahel was poised to cook, she said. “I learned to cook to make my mother happy and to make healthy food.”
Both parents work a second job, for now. Five days a week Rahel works the early shift in maintenance at the University of Minnesota. As soon as Rahel returns home, Belai leaves for a 10-hour shift that dips into night.
Some 40 years after Belai escaped from war-torn Ethiopia, he, the dreamer, and Rahel, the culinary artist who dreamt with him, offer sumptuous meals in a restaurant where patrons are invited to dine in or take out. And enjoy.
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