Silver City’s own Ethiopian chef shares recipes and customs

Written by on February 25, 2017

Hailu Robele, a Silver City resident, arrived in the U.S. in 1986 as a refugee from Ethiopia. He has a passion for cooking the traditional food of his home country and sharing his food and culture with friends.  (Press Staff Photo by Robin Austin)

It’s a Wednesday night and Hailu Robele is engrossed in a favorite hobby in his Silver City home. He is focused, yet merry, as he tosses garlic and spices into a dish bubbling on the stove without measuring anything. The kitchen smells wonderful, and it’s obvious even before tasting anything that he has mastered this favorite hobby of his.

Robele, now a U.S. citizen, is a native of Ethiopia, a country rich with ancient culture in the eastern part of Africa. As a young man, he worked happily as a tour guide giving tours to visitors from all over the world. But during Ethiopia’s long civil war he was forced to flee to Sudan to avoid imprisonment by the militant Derg that ruled Ethiopia at the time.

Robele walked for 10 days through the desert to reach the Sudanese border in 1983. He arrived in Sudan with nothing but the clothes on his back and the hiking boots he would keep for decades afterward as a reminder of that difficult time.

Because of the connections he had cultivated with tourists from other countries, including one with an adviser to President Reagan, Robele was able to achieve refugee status and was resettled in 1986 in Chicago, where he would make friends, hold jobs, meet his future wife and build a new life for himself.

“They told me, ‘You’ve been approved in two countries, the U.S. and Canada, and you have to choose one,’” said Robele. “I chose to go to the U.S. I think the reason was because I grew up with an American kid who lived in my neighborhood and we were very close friends. We always played together after school. That’s how I even knew how to speak English, was starting from that time with him. And that’s why I liked America, I had that influence.”

Years after last seeing each other in Ethiopia, Robele was able to reconnect with Peter, his childhood American friend, who was living only two hours from Robele’s own home.

Robele’s life in the U.S. has been successful by any measure. He has held numerous jobs in Chicago, Troy, Michigan and El Paso before finally retiring and moving to Silver City full time a couple of years ago. He’s been married to his wife, Nadine, for 28 years and the couple have three children, Joseph, 27, and Sophia, 26, and Hilari, a daughter adopted at 5 years old from Ethiopia, now 22. Joseph has a master’s degree. Sophia is currently working toward a master’s degree and Hilari, a graduate of Aldo Leopold Charter School, attends the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Robele’s devotion for his family and friends is evident in his joy of cooking for them. While the children were young, he stayed home to raise them, making them traditional Ethiopian food like he now does for his Silver City friends. He has even taken to teaching informal cooking classes for friends curious about the culture and delicious food from his home country. He teaches these friends how to make authentic dishes like spicy lentils and collard greens, both served on injera, the traditional Ethiopian sourdough flatbread. He takes pride in teaching his friends how to eat the traditional way by tearing his homemade injera into pieces and scooping up the lentils or collards that are a consistency similar to stew.

“I’ve been very excited my friends want to learn,” he said. “I’m so happy to show them and share what I know. Food brings people together because everybody likes to eat. If you say, ‘Let’s have some food,’ nobody will say no. In Ethiopian culture, if somebody knocks at the door you can’t just open the door and talk to them while they’re still standing there. You have to invite them in and offer them whatever you have.”

Robele owned his own Ethiopian restaurant with a business partner in Michigan for a while and even friends from long ago remember Robele’s delicious cooking.

“Me and Hailu were always cooking in our apartment,” said Solomon Abebe, a Chicago restaurateur and fellow Ethiopian refugee and Robele’s roommate when he first arrived in the U.S. “He knows the right kind of spices and ingredients and he really cares to make it good. People love his cooking and he’s very caring about how to make the dishes the right way.”

Robele’s passion for feeding friends and family is just one part of what makes him an important addition to the colorful and diverse fabric of this country. Anyone who knows him remarks on what a warm and lovely person he is.

“He’s very open-minded and always positive and wants to really enjoy life,” said Abebe. “He always has a warm hug for everybody. I tell people, ‘Everyone should be like Hailu.’ He just loves life.”

Robele says he has loved his life in the U.S. and has appreciated the freedom this country has given him. He says he has yet to experience any prejudice due to his status as an immigrant or a person of color and believes it’s because he has a smile for everyone and treats anyone he encounters with warmth and positivity.

“Hailu is very consistent and hardworking,” said fellow Ethiopian friend and physics professor, Melaku Bogale. “He is highly focused on what he wants to achieve. He raised three kids who have all gone on to college and I think he achieved that great accomplishment because he’s so focused on making his life and others’ lives as nice as possible.”

Robele said he thinks because Ethiopia was never colonized, he was not introduced to the idea that people should be treated differently based on their skin color. So, even now he doesn’t see the world in those terms and feels equal to everyone and treats everyone equally.

“I respect everybody,” he said. “I always smile to people and I get smiles. I’ve not had any bad experiences or feelings. And I have no fear about what people think about me. I’ll say ‘hi’ to you and if you say ‘hi’ back then good and if not, it’s OK.”

After three decades of living in the States, Robele and his wife were looking forward to retiring in Ethiopia so Robele could be near his family again. They put their Silver City house on the market and started to give away their belongings. But civil unrest has made the country dangerous once again and the couple haven’t been able to return. They took their house off the market and started settling back into life here.

Despite the disappointment of not being able to return to his home country, Robele is characteristically upbeat about the situation. He is both optimistic about the possibility of returning in the future and positive about living a happy life in Silver City until that day comes.

“Silver is so nice. Everybody is friendly and likes to talk and I like to talk too. I love to tell them about Ethiopia and share my culture,” Robele said.

To arrange an informal cooking class in your home, contact Roeble at 575-519-4441.

Source: Silver City Daily Website