San Francisco restaurant owner calls on Bay Area restaurants to raise funds for Ethiopian war refugees
Over the past two years, Mellay Menelik, originally from San Francisco, has come to terms with the harsh realities of life in rural northern Ethiopia, where drinking river water and drinking water is common. ‘dodge the bombs,’ she said. Born and raised in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, she moved to her parents’ native Ethiopia in the summer of 2019 to open a second location of the family restaurant SoMa Moya and start a farm. Now, at 34, she says living in Ethiopia was harder than she could have ever imagined. Between COVID and the outbreak of a war between the Tigrayans and the Ethiopian central government in November 2020, the past few years have been devastating. “The day the war started, I planted our first plants for the first harvest,” Menelik recalls.
Returning to the Bay Area in late 2021, Menelik draws attention to Ethiopia’s ongoing civil war, calling on Bay Area restaurants to hold fundraising events to help the victims. Ethiopian restaurants, including Blue Nile and Mela Bistro in Oakland, have stepped up; in October, the Mela Bistro owner hosted a gala in Sausalito and raised over $50,000 for war victims. Now, Menelik says Moya also hopes to raise funds through her restaurant. “There is a connection to help Ukraine everywhere, and I understand that,” Menelik says. “I feel awful even bringing this up to justify what I’m saying, but there’s just nothing done for Tigray.”
Menelik’s family has deep ties to the restaurant industry in San Francisco; for five years they owned Cafferata, a century-old North Beach business located at the corner of Columbus and Filbert Avenues, which is now known as Piazza Pellegrini. Then, in 2009, the family opened Moya in SoMa, though a fire put them out of action for a few years before reopening in 2012 at 9th and Mission streets. Menelik’s mother, Fana Alemayehu, is a microbiologist, but says she never felt like she had been rocked into the science career she dreamed of. So after launching her successful restaurants in San Francisco, Alemayehu traveled to India to learn more about how science applies to food production. Then she decided to start a farm in Ethiopia, as well as a restaurant. This is how Menelik found his way to Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost regional state, just before the war started.
Menelik dropped out of school at the University of San Francisco in his senior year rather than complete his communications degree. “School was not for me,” she says. She was proud to have put the family farm in order, but for the first two months of the conflict, her family did not know where she was – most communications in and around the country had been destroyed. “I experienced the war like a movie,” says Menelik. “No communication, no internet, nothing.”
These days, Menelik divides her time between navigating conversations with government officials, in which she shares her experience of the war, and coordinating resources for Tigrayans still suffering from the conflict. Mehoni’s family farm grows aloe vera on a large scale – the farm is the size of around 50 football pitches – for use in cosmetics.
It was at the start of the war that Menelik’s sister started an Instagram page called Peace in Tigray, which now has more than 16,000 followers, and a non-profit organization called Free Tigray. Menelik encourages Bay Area restaurants to channel funds to Free Tigray or directly to family members and personal connections they may have overseas, as the country’s failing infrastructure can make it difficult to helping people in the field. “Our banks have been closed since November 2020. Our telephone lines have been down since November 2020. Our internet is down. We can’t bring medicine in,” Menelik said. “We are trying to meet those needs.”
She says she feels discouraged by the scant attention the war in Ethiopia tends to receive in some news sources. While Bay Area businesses, from bakeries to ride-sharing moguls, have put in place ways to support those affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine, Menelik thinks raising awareness of the genocide in Ukraine is much more difficult. Tiger ; there has been no real outpouring of interest and concern, in his view. “People have really galvanized other similar events, but not for us,” Menelik says. “It’s demoralizing.”