Ethiopian entrepreneur Khadija Ali has found success in Turkiye through her eatery, where she shares the flavors of the Horn of Africa while employing other immigrant women.
Khadija, 35, moved to Ankara in 2018 and opened the Blue Nile, the city’s first and only Ethiopian restaurant, serving traditional cuisine with spices and condiments such as Injera, Ethiopian sour flatbread.
“My late husband was of Turkish origin. He was a senior official in an Ethiopian company. There is where we met and married and had a good life,” she said.
“Usually, we used to come to Turkiye for vacations,” she said, adding that unfortunately her husband got sick in Ethiopia and was diagnosed with cancer. “It took him away from us last year,” she said.
Despite the impact of COVID-19 on her business and the other obstacles she has endured, Khadija has never considered returning home. Instead, she is determined to work hard and make her dream a reality by opening more branches of her eatery in Turkiye.
The restaurant, located in the heart of Ankara, serves not just Ethiopian cuisine but also Ethio-Turkish, Somali, Djibouti, Sudanese, and Eritrean dishes, which have many cultural similarities.
“I cook Turkish meals in an Ethiopian style, and Turkish customers that come adore our food,” she explained.
The decision to launch the restaurant not just comes from the responsibility to take care of her family, but also from Khadija’s desire to focus on and share the flavors of her East African heritage.
Through the restaurant, she hopes to pursue her passion for cooking and baking by opening new branches in Turkiye.
“I am the only one who bakes Ethiopian sour flatbread in Turkiye. And I plan to export it to Europe,” Khadija said.
“I have dedicated my life, and will not stop until I realize my dream of having an international standard restaurant serving East African cuisine,” she said.
Khadija also underlined that she mostly works 16 hours a day to maintain the restaurant up to standard. She said she is reshaping it as a family business, with help from her younger brother and sister.
“I and my brother cook together here. We both took hotel management courses, worked at 5-star hotels in Ethiopia, and owned a restaurant there,” she said.
Sense of belonging
Meanwhile, she expressed her sense of belonging to Ankara and said: “I have two daughters, one is six years old and the other is eight. I want my children to grow up here. Turkiye is very beautiful and clean. I also became a Turkish citizen.”
Her husband got a promise from her prior to his death that her children would be raised by their grandmother, she said.
“Now, the kids are staying with their grandmother, we only see each other over the holidays. My husband’s family also helps me because I make my living here,” she said.
Many Ethiopians in the city admired her kindness in supporting others who have been financially impacted by the pandemic.
“She was giving her restaurant stocks to those who run out of food and money during the pandemic,” said Mahir Mohammed, a student in Ankara who worked with Khadija during the pandemic.
“When we even have personal problems, such as money needs, she lends us some even if she is not much wealthy than us, or if we want to seek a job, she tries to reach out to her connections and find a job for us,” Samrawit, one of the Ethiopian residents in Ankara, told Anadolu Agency.
“Her restaurant is like a second home to us,” she added.
Shortly after opening her restaurant, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Turkiye, and the first and longest COVID-19 lockdown in Ankara was implemented that year. The pandemic has unexpectedly affected her business, the mother of two said.
As an immigrant, familiarizing oneself with Turkish culture and learning the language were challenges added to one’s life circumstances. To make matters worse, her husband died five months after launching the restaurant, which had already been adversely impacted by the pandemic lockdown.
She said: “There were times when I could not pay the bills, and I got into many debts during the pandemic. But I did not give up. I got a loan, paid off some of my debts, and continued to operate my restaurant.”
Though business is improving, the pandemic has had a significant financial impact, she added.
When she first opened the restaurant, she employed seven workers. Now, four are currently engaged because things have slowed down owing to the unhealed economic effects of COVID-19.
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