Perilous journey, delicious destination Restaurateur's road to Winnipeg passed through famine, civil war and deadly heat of equatorial Africa
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/08/2020 (1008 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Every now and again a person in their 50s or 60s, somebody who frequented Harman’s Café back when it was a homey breakfast and lunch nook tucked inside a Portage Avenue pharmacy near Lions Manor, will curiously pop their head inside Harman’s Café at 570 Sargent Ave. Picking up on the scent of garlic, ginger, cardamom and cumin emanating from the kitchen, they’ll turn to owner Desta Negatu and openly wonder what gives, remarking her locale definitely isn’t the nosh they remember.
That’s when Negatu, born in Ethiopia, will explain that she worked at the original Harman’s and selected the name for her own restaurant, which opened in 2009 and specializes in East African cuisine, as a nod to where she got her start in the biz.
Except anyone who’s ever chatted with Negatu while she’s serving platters piled high with slow cooked meat, stewed veggies and rolls of injera knows full well that’s just the Coles Notes version of her story.
“You really want me to tell you the whole history? Because it is very long,” she asks, seated next to a photo of herself snapped “a lifetime ago” when, at age 20, she was preparing to board a ship bound for Italy, a journey that, in a roundabout way, eventually led her to Winnipeg.
When a scribe nods his head yes, mentioning he has no place else to be and all day to get there, she settles back in a chair, tells her lone employee to call for help if any orders come in, and begins.
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Negatu, 54, the fifth youngest of 12 siblings, is originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and home to some three million residents. When she was nine or 10 her family moved to Korem, a city in the north central part of the country, where her father, a political sort, was elected mayor.
Life in Korem was unsettled to say the least, owing to a number of factors. Chief among them was a two-year famine in the early 1980s that killed 1.3 million Ethiopians, coupled with a bloody civil war that largely paralyzed the nation from 1974 to 1991, resulting in hundreds of thousands more deaths.
Korem was home to a number of refugee camps. At the age of 14, Negatu, who dreamed of becoming a nurse one day, began spending much of her free time assisting members of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), an international humanitarian organization that provided aid inside the camps.
At 16 years old, having lost two brothers to the war, she made the difficult decision to leave Korem. Most of her older siblings were already gone, having spread out as far as Atlanta, Toronto and Rome. But due to the ongoing conflict, it wasn’t as simple as buying a plane ticket and bidding her parents farewell. Far from it.
Late one evening, after her mother and father had gone to bed, she snuck out of the house carrying a small bag of personal items. For the next two weeks she and 19 other “skippers” travelled to Djibouti, the capital city of the country with the same name, roughly 600 kilometers away.
“I couldn’t tell my parents I was leaving or they never would have let me go,” she says. “We had to pay 3,000 Ethiopian birr (roughly C$110) each for a ride out of Korem, but most of the trip was by foot. And because it was very dangerous — if soldiers caught us they would take us back or shoot us — we walked mostly at night, hiding wherever we could during the daytime.”
“I couldn’t tell my parents I was leaving or they never would have let me go…. Most of the trip was by foot. And because it was very dangerous– if soldiers caught us they would take us back or shoot us — we walked mostly at night, hiding wherever we could during the daytime.” — Desta Negatu
Not everybody in her party made it. By the time she reached Djibouti, the largest city in the country, only six of her companions remained, the others having succumbed to the heat — during their trek mid-day temperatures often soared as high as 45 degrees Celsius — or to members of the Derg, the military junta that ruled Ethiopia during much of the civil war.
Before departing, an acquaintance had instructed her to go to a specific hospital in Djibouti, the administrator of which was sympathetic to Ethiopians fleeing the country. She couldn’t speak Arabic or French, Djibouti’s two official languages, however, so she had trouble making herself understood.
Late one afternoon, after spending eight hours outside the hospital trying to spot “somebody who appeared to be in charge,” she was approached by a man in his 50s. Determining she spoke a bit of English, he asked whether she was homeless.
Yes and no, she told him, detailing where she’d come from and why she was there. It turned out her inquisitor was the very person she’d been hoping to meet. He invited her inside, fed her a meal of rice and chicken then showed her to an empty patient’s room where she was able to get a good night’s sleep.
The next morning the two of them sat down to chat. She told him she needed a job in order to save enough money to join her siblings abroad. He asked what skills she possessed. She said she had been a nurse’s assistant back home.
“I guess because I looked so young and skinny he laughed and said, ‘You know nursing? I’ll have to test you.’ I said that was OK, he could ask me anything he liked.”
After proving she was able to perform a few rudimentary tasks such as taking patients’ blood pressure and administering medication, he gave her a job, as well as a small apartment in a dormitory-style wing of the hospital.
Negatu, who was able to contact her parents to let them know she was safe and sound, spent the next three years in Djibouti working, in her words, 24/7.
With no friends or family in the city, she was only too happy to pitch in as needed, telling doctors not to worry about waking her up in the middle of the night if they needed a hand with a patient. Her strong work ethic was the reason everybody there was sorry to see her go when she finally left for Rome to live with her sister.
Negatu stayed in Italy for six years. During her time there, a brother living in Toronto implored her to come to Canada to pursue a nursing career. He sent her a list of people known for sponsoring African refugees, one of whom was Sister Aileen May Gleason, founder of Winnipeg-based Hospitality House Refugee Ministry.
Negatu still remembers the date — July 5, 2002 — when Gleason, who died in 2019 at age 94, picked her up at the airport to welcome her to Manitoba.
One thing, though; while Negatu knew Winnipeg was her destination, her original intention was to stay just a week or two — after all, her brother had warned her about the city’s harsh winters — before leaving for Toronto.
“I had no idea how far apart Winnipeg and Toronto are,” she says with a laugh. “I thought I could go back and forth, no problem. But after Sister Aileen showed me around and got me set up in an apartment on Garry (Street), I told my brother I was staying and enrolling in the (nursing) program at Red River (College).”
In 2004, Negatu and a classmate went for breakfast at Harman’s Café, 647 Portage Ave. At some point during their meal, the owner, whom Negatu later learned had travelled to Africa numerous times to volunteer at refugee camps, spoke to her in her native tongue.
One thing led to another, and within a month she had landed a part-time job at Harman’s slinging bacon and eggs. That despite the fact she initially didn’t have a clue what sunny side up even meant.
Negatu eventually put nursing school on hold to manage Harman’s full-time. The owner sold the building in 2006, and with no job, Negatu travelled to Israel, where a planned three-month stay turned into three years.
She returned to Winnipeg in 2009 intent on completing her studies. Except a chance lunch date with a cousin at a Vietnamese restaurant called Trieu Chau changed her life, yet again.
“I still don’t know why because it wasn’t like there was even a for sale sign in the window but as my cousin and I were paying for our meal the owner asked if I wanted to buy her restaurant,” Negatu says, pointing to a spot near our table where their conversation took place.
“I told her that was impossible, I had no savings, but my cousin kept saying I had to do it, that it was meant to be.” A few weeks later, Harman’s Café was reborn.
● ● ●
Negatu’s establishment was a hit right out of the gate, thanks to a glowing review that appeared in this newspaper not long after she opened her doors. She chuckles, recalling she didn’t know what to make of “this woman,” meaning former Free Press food critic Marion Warhaft, who arrived with three companions and told Negatu to bring them “everything on the menu.”
Not sure she’d heard her guest correctly, Negatu repeated back, “Everything?” “That’s right, everything,” came the answer. (“Eating here is a hands-on experience, although forks will be provided for those too squeamish to eat with their fingers,” Warhaft wrote for any readers unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine.)
Business was still going strong — besides life-long Winnipeggers, Negatu also welcomes people who moved to the city from Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia… “all over really” — when she shut down completely in mid-March to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
It was a gut-wrenching move, she says, because besides being her source of income, Harman’s Café also supports dozens of underprivileged children in Ethiopia via a charity she started called Bete Desta, or Happy Home.
“It’s overwhelming how generous people are. My brother was right. The winters here are cold but Winnipeggers’ hearts? They are so warm it more than makes up for it.”– Desta Negatu
“Normally I put on a big fundraising dinner every May with all proceeds going to ‘my’ kids,” says Negatu, the 2015 recipient of the YMCA’s Peace Medallion. “Due to COVID we weren’t able to do that this year, which hurt me deeply.”
Readers will be happy to know that many of her customers, regulars who are well aware of her philanthropic side, have stepped up since Harman’s reopened in June for takeout and delivery only.
Negatu is still lost for words when a person comes in to pick up an order and instead of paying for a single meal hands her enough to cover four or five dinners saying the rest is for Bete Desta.
“It’s overwhelming how generous people are. My brother was right. The winters here are cold but Winnipeggers’ hearts? They are so warm it more than makes up for it.”
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.