A Circle of Care in Washington D.C.’s Ethiopian Community of Silver Spring

Greater Washington D.C.  |  February 22, 2021
Twin sisters from Ethiopia are happy to assist Tzu Chi USA’s Greater Washington D.C. Region volunteers at their food distribution in Silver Spring, Maryland. Photo/Wendy Tsai

Translated by Penny Liu
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

In Maryland, Tzu Chi USA’s Greater Washington D.C. Region provided its second food distribution in Silver Spring on August 15, 2020. During the event, Tzu Chi volunteers reported getting some unexpected help from two little angels. Their curly black hair partially tied up into cute tiny buns, twin sisters from Ethiopia had accompanied their mother to the distribution – where she was to serve as a community volunteer – and were adamant about helping too.

We want to help our community. We are so excited, so happy!

Donning oversized Tzu Chi volunteer vests that hung almost down to their knees, the little girls carried armful after armful of food to care recipients’ cars, cheerfully insisting, “It’s not heavy, we’re strong.” They were part of a team of community volunteers of diverse ethnic backgrounds working together to serve families in need. As soon as a vehicle pulled up to the head of the line and parked, a group would converge, each volunteer completing an assigned task, some helping with translation, others bringing the food supplies, or loading them into the trunk.

During the distribution, the twin sisters bring food items to care recipients’ cars, where adult volunteers load them into the trunk. Photo/Wendy Tsai
The participation of the little girls adds to the joyful atmosphere at the distribution site. Photo/Wendy Tsai

The largest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Africa lives in the Washington region, and the Silver Spring area has come to be known as D.C.’s “Little Ethiopia.” Since Tzu Chi’s first food distribution here, the Ethiopian community has responded with an eagerness to participate in the aid effort, as was evident during this subsequent event. Tzu Chi volunteer Chiali Tsai gladly acknowledged how valuable their assistance was.

Many Ethiopian volunteers came to support us because of the last distribution. I’m grateful for their support so we can distribute more than 50 pounds of food to each family and deliver the food to those who couldn’t come or have no car.

In turn, volunteer Suechen Lee praised the positive energy the Ethiopian community volunteers added to the event’s joyful atmosphere. Although masks hid the lower part of their faces, the volunteers’ eyes shone bright and told their own story: “Their smiles really show the joy of helping others.”

Silver Spring residents of Ethiopian origin volunteer to help at the food distribution, a few bringing their children along, like these twin little girls. Photo/Wendy Tsai
Inspired to give back after Tzu Chi’s first distribution in Silver Spring, an Ethiopian community volunteer loads food into the trunks of cars at the following event in July. Photo/Wendy Tsai

Finding Common Ground

As one team of volunteers busied itself with loading food into the trunks of cars, another took the opportunity to encourage the families waiting inside to adopt a vegetarian diet. Holding posters to announce their message, they shared that vegetarianism helps improve health and mitigate climate change, among other far-reaching benefits. 

From their conversations with care recipients, the majority of Ethiopian origin, the volunteers learned that many are very receptive to maintaining a vegetarian diet. Those of certain Christian faiths already do on several “fast” days or periods. Ethiopians are predominantly Christian, and most belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which prescribes a fast of maintaining a solely vegan diet on Wednesdays, Fridays, and during the entire period of Lent. 

Tzu Chi advocates vegetarianism and veganism for numerous reasons, and the faith component of causing no harm to other sentient beings, based on Buddhist principles, is embraced in the rationale. Having found common spiritual ground regarding this dietary choice made the food distribution additionally fulfilling for the volunteers. Many care recipients pledged to vegetarian meals and were glad to learn about Tzu Chi’s Very Veggie movement.

Within two hours, we received pledges for more than 20,000 meals. Of the 56 households who came, 47 of them agreed to eat vegetarian meals.

Volunteers promote vegetarianism with a Go Veggie poster. Photo/Wendy Tsai
Families enthusiastically pledge and join the Very Veggie Movement. Photo/Wendy Tsai

Practice Makes Perfect

Learning from previous experience, the team also made some adjustments to how they gave out the food supplies to make the distribution process more efficient. “This time we’ve utilized open tray boxes from wholesale stores and the empty boxes [that contained packages of Tzu Chi’s] Jing Si Instant Rice and noodles to pack the food items we provided,” volunteer Suechen Lee explained. 

She also added that “volunteers called the families three days before the distribution to give them an ID number and to confirm their time of arrival, so they don’t have to wait in line for a long time.” Consequently, everything flowed smoothly and without undue delays, reducing close contact as a safety precaution of the pandemic too.

Volunteers confirm the time of arrival and registration ID of care recipients attending Tzu Chi USA’s drive-through food distribution in Silver Spring. Photo/Wendy Tsai
Using open cardboard boxes to pack the food items helps to speed up the distribution preparation process. Photo/Wendy Tsai

A Flourishing Alliance

Tzu Chi USA’s aid activities during the pandemic had caught the attention of Ken Flemmer, Executive Director at Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington (ACSGW). Established in 1983 as the collective health and welfare service of several local church congregations, ACSGW is a faith-based, non-profit organization whose mission is to help those less fortunate in the Greater Washington community. 

Touched by Tzu Chi’s missions and work, Flemmer kindly offered the ACSGW’s center in Silver Spring for Tzu Chi’s food distribution location, as he had for the first food giveaway in this community, and gladly lent a hand during the event as well.

Upholding the spirit of humanitarianism, Tzu Chi volunteers asked the families what they needed most last time, so today, they prepared (the food) they needed.

Ken Flemmer (right), Executive Director at Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington, is on hand to welcome Tzu Chi volunteers to the organization’s center, outside of which the drive-through food distribution event would proceed. Photo/Wendy Tsai

As soon as he saw the Tzu Chi volunteers arriving at the ACSGW’s center, Flemmer immediately showed off his mask, declaring that, “I only wear Tzu Chi masks now.” Tzu Chi volunteers had given him Tzu Chi’s signature blue cloth masks during the first food distribution, and he was happily using them since then. 

Flemmer was also impressed with the food items Tzu Chi was providing. Each box of supplies handed out contained Jing Si Instant Rice, beans, lentil bean powder, spaghetti sauce, pasta, and cooking oil, all of which will help feed the families in need. Always attentive to the particular tastes of different cultural communities, the volunteers included an Heirloom Bean Blend, an everyday food staple in most Ethiopian households.

The Heirloom Bean Blend given out at the distribution is a common food staple in most Ethiopian households. Photo/Wendy Tsai

The ACSGW also generously contributed more than its location to make this event of utmost benefit, providing cardboard boxes for packaging the food supplies, in addition to bread, rice, and fresh produce for distribution among the families. One can indeed conclude that when everyone works together to help those in need, the power is infinite.

We invite you to add your power as well, by supporting Tzu Chi’s missions of love and care in the United States and beyond.

Representing a kaleidoscope of ethnicities, the volunteer team collaborates with care and heart to complete the mission. Photo/Wendy Tsai

Everything from protecting the Earth to doing good for humankind begins with ourselves.

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