Born in Asmara, Eritrea, Yemane Berhe arrived in Washington, D.C., as a refugee. He spoke no English, but he was able to earn money helping his sister in a restaurant. He also drove a taxi, though language often was a problem.
When Yemane came to Seattle for a job that didn’t pan out, he ended up homeless for six months. Finally, though, he was able to share an apartment with another man from Eritrea.
“He’s blind. I help him to cook, do the laundry.”
Yemane started selling Real Change about six years ago. While his regular spot is in the University District, he’s built up his Real Change sales selling at farmers’ markets around the Seattle area. He sometimes thanks his customers with free T-shirts made by a nephew in D.C.
“I just give them to my customers at the farmer’s market. They give to me all the time.”
Making connections with customers has paid off in a big way. In the spring, Yemane met the owner of Street Treats (streettreatswa.com) “selling ice cream at the farmer’s market. She told me, ‘I need help here.’ First she hired him for 20 hours a week, then 40 hours, helping with catering and packing cases of ice cream sandwiches.”
Ironically, for health reasons, Yemane eats very little ice cream: “Once a week, maybe one cookie.” He can take less medicine when he cooks healthy food for himself, mostly Eritrean dishes, including injera bread.
Yemane’s still selling Real Change, but he’s had to cut back because of working at the ice cream shop. He’s worried his regular customers will wonder what’s happened to him.
“I’m trying to come [to the U. District] one day a week at lunch time.”
Yemane has often gone back to D.C. to see his sister, his nephew, his niece, his cousins and especially his children. “My family is doing good. My kids are grown, age 22 and 18.” The last visit was just this winter.
Getting a full-time job means that Yemane can do something he’s wanted to do for a long time. He can afford to go back to D.C. again this summer, and then continue on to Africa, first to visit his brothers and sisters who live in Kenya — he’s planning to stay there for two weeks — and then his family in Eritrea, for two months.
“My mom, my aunt is there. Big family.”
“When I come back, I’m doing Real Change and the ice cream.”
He knows the owner of Street Treats will hire him back. “She says, ‘Sure, come back anytime.’”
In the past, when Yemane was done working for the week, he’d buy a six-pack to relax.
Now, when he buys a six-pack, “I drink one. A second one, I cannot finish it. Because I’m tired. How many am I going to drink? Right now I’m busy. I work in the morning. I go to the farmer’s market. Then I get home; I sleep.”
Yemane is one of 300 active vendors selling Real Change. Each week a different vendor is featured. View previous Vendor Profiles.
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