At the third annual Ethiopian Festival in Silver Spring on Sunday, Teru Fentike was dishing out plates of lentils, greens and injera — a traditional starch.
“I’m so excited!” she said.
Fentike lived in Silver Spring when she first came to the U.S. 26 years ago. Now, the Bowie resident still runs a restaurant, Bete Ethiopian, just blocks from Veterans Plaza, where music boomed, and Ethiopians, friends and festival-goers mingled, many sporting soccer jerseys or traditional dress.
The area, and the Ethiopian community, has changed since then, she said.
“When we came here a long time ago [and saw another Ethiopian] we’d hug and say, ‘It’s another Ethiopian!’ Now, look,” she said, waving at the thousands of people packed into the plaza.
“The Ethiopian community is growing rapidly,” she said, grinning.
Silver Spring’s — and the metro Washington, D.C., area’s — Ethiopian population has exploded in recent years, according to festival organizer Tebabu Assefa. There are more than 75 Ethiopian small businesses in the greater downtown area of Silver Spring, many of which have opened since 2008, he said.
“We have great momentum for making Silver Spring the major social and economic hub of Ethiopians living in the U.S.,” he said after the festival.
And the event, which was first held three years ago, has grown into one of the largest such events nationwide, he said, adding that he thought that there could be more than 30,000 attendees Sunday.
It also drew fans of the country’s cuisine.
Heidi Thompson of Columbia Heights, D.C., was in line waiting for some food with her friend Rose Berger.
“It’s just yummy,” she said, when asked what food she was waiting for.
“[It] always tastes better when you can eat it with your hands,” she added with a laugh.
David Hartmann of Silver Spring was in line as well. Hartmann served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia from 1966 to 1968, teaching math at a secondary school seven hours from the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa.
“It’s unbelievable coming back here living in Silver Spring, and having an Ethiopian festival,” he said.
Nearby, Fareed Sherefa was showing potential customers a keyboard that typed both Amharic and English — a tricky feat, considering Amharic has hundreds of letters, he said.
“It’s very important,” he said. “We’ve never had a hardware version before.”
It had been about 10 years in development, he said.
And Birye Abebe was showing parents a literacy toy — the Feedel Gotera, which looked a little like an abacus with rows of spinning letters.
“A lot of parents, we still want to teach [our children] the language, and maintain the connection to the language,” he said.
Others watched musical performances, the fashion show, or browsed vendors’ stalls hawking everything from toys to oils and soaps.
Dolores Hearast of Washington, D.C., wandered through the festival crowd decked out in a dress, jacket, purse and more bearing signs of the celebrated country.
“I love the culture,” she said. “And I have a lot of friends from Ethiopia.”
Hearast said she enjoyed the festival’s singing and dancing and had already bought some bracelets and was look to do some more shopping.
“I have so much to do,” she said.
Among a street full of other vendors, Bethlehem Yohannes and Tigest Teshome sold a variety of treats at their stand “Sweet Corner.”
The baklava, Yohannes said, was a family recipe from Teshome.
In Ethiopia, she said, people are often too full after a good meal for sweets — but if a sweet is to be eaten, there’s a beeline to the baklava.
Yohannes said her specialty is dabo kolo, an authentic Ethiopian snack that’s nonperishable and full of carbs, a good fit for travelers.
“I made one with cocoa — I Americanized it,” she said laughing.
The two women — who have known each other since they were kids — are in the start-up phase of their business and were looking on Sunday to network with other Ethiopian business owners at the festival.
“This is our coming out,” Teshome said.
Rachael Lesniewski of Annapolis attended the festival with her husband Chris, two sons and two daughters. About an hour and a half into their visit, the family stood listening to the festival’s music.
Lesniewski said she and her husband adopted 5-year-old Joshua from Ethiopia two years ago and are planning to adopt two Ethiopian girls.
Part of attending the festival, she said, was “introducing them [her other children] to where their brother came from.”