Yemane Berhe has a family spread out across the globe. Originally from Eritrea, he lives in Seattle. His two sons live with their mother in Washington, D.C. So do two sisters, a nephew and a niece. His brother and sister, who have been living in Kenya, just got visas to work in Australia. His mother and another sister just moved to Sudan. He hopes his mother will continue on to Australia to stay with his brother. And he still has family — two sisters and one brother — in Eritrea.
Much of his family’s movement is due to his own efforts — he’s been sending money back to Africa for two decades to help them, in particular supporting his brother while he earned his degree in Kenya.
It was that education that allowed his brother to land the job in Australia. “And my mom, [for] almost 20 years, the rent, the food, I took care of everything,” Berhe said.
Subsidizing his family for so long was quite an achievement. Berhe’s own odyssey began in the 1990s, when he left Eritrea for Sudan, where he ran a restaurant for several years. He was able to emigrate to the United States and eventually brought his girlfriend over.
He first worked in his sister’s restaurant, then as a Washington, D.C. taxi driver for years, and then for two different chicken factories. He came to Seattle on the promise of a job that fell through and found himself homeless.
That’s when Real Change was able to help him. It wasn’t easy to learn how to sell papers on the street until he understood that the key was building up a base of loyal customers who knew him.
Even after he started regular work at Street Treats, which makes ice cream sandwiches and cookies, he’s kept on selling Real Change in his off hours to maintain that connection as well as for the money.
Personal connection paid off for Berhe at Street Treats. He met his boss while selling Real Change. Now he works on everything from packing catering boxes to mixing cookie dough. He’s able to take long breaks to visit his far-flung family. His boss helps him find cheap airline tickets and helped him one time when he lost his apartment.
Berhe knows he’s trusted at his work; he signs in and out, rather than punching a time clock, and works on his own when his boss is away on trips.
Berhe is going to D.C. this winter to see his sons — now 22 and 20, both working, and the oldest one going to school. He’ll visit other family members there, too. He’s promised to find a way to visit his mom in Australia if she moves there.
Recently Berhe bought a battery-operated lantern to send to his siblings in Eritrea; they don’t have electric lights. But he ended up donating the lantern to a homeless man who had just had his tent destroyed. The lantern can be replaced more easily than the relationships he’s building with people.
Yemane is one of 300 active vendors selling Real Change. Each week a different vendor is featured. View previous vendor profiles.
Read the full Feb. 6 - 12 issue.
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