When Aqua Condominiums Doorperson Betty Girma immigrated from Ethiopia to Chicago in 1989, she experienced more than just a culture shock.
“It was on December 5,” she remembers. “I know it’s cold, I hear it, but when you’re really here… Oh my goodness. I never expected that weather.”
Fortunately, a small but thriving Ethiopian community had firmly established itself — and the culture of its homeland — in the Lakeview neighborhood that she moved into long before she arrived.
Among those who populated this touch of eastern Africa in the Windy City was her Aunt Atsede. Aunt Atsede not only helped Betty adjust to life in America, but also provided her the basic necessities to get by.
“My aunt had a restaurant here at 3462 N. Clark,” Betty says. “It was called the Ethiopian Village. She lived upstairs and I lived with her and worked there for like two years.”
Betty enjoyed the same dishes that she had known while growing up in Adis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia.
“The bread, they make it from a grain called peff,” she says. “It’s very heavy.”
She also dined according to the traditional Ethiopian custom.
“Everybody eats together,” she explains. “No fork. No knife. One big plate and everybody eats from that.”
At the same time, she began studying Business Administration at Harold Washington College and eventually earned an associate’s degree.
The neighborhood was also home to The Wild Hare, one of the most popular reggae clubs in Chicago and a big part of the city’s Ethiopian community.
The Wild Hare was co-owned and operated by Zeleke “Zack” Gessessee, an Ethiopian immigrant and former bass player for Ziggy Marley. His sister would one day marry Betty’s brother.
The other co-owner was the brother of one of Betty’s friends. She worked at the Harbor Point Tower grocery store. and, six years ago, told Betty about a doorperson opportunity at the Aqua Condominiums.
At the time, Betty was manager of a parking garage, a job that did not make use of her talents.
“I don’t like sticking in the office,” she explains. “I deal with people and I like them.”
So she applied at the Aqua, got the offer, and quickly turned the lobby into a second home for the tenants.
“It’s not just about ‘hi, bye,’ and smile,” she explains. “Of course, that’s great — that’s customer service — but you should also ask people how are you, how was your day. When people come through this door, I went them to feel like they’re at home.”
And what better way to make people feel at home than by offering them a nice meal.
“I took so many people from Aqua to Ethiopian restaurants and everybody loves it,” she says. “I bring in food. The people here are just like my family.”
When she’s not at work, Betty enjoys spending time with the rest of her family, 17 year-old daughter, Sarah, and 10 year-old son, Rafael.
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