By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The smell of grilled lamb and exotic spices permeates Ghion, a restaurant run by Dessalegn Befekadu, a native Ethiopian. Desi, 48, is the evening chef; wife Amaki cooks lunch. That way they can trade off driving duties for their 13-year-old daughter.
Craving the flavors of home, Ethiopian and other African immigrants come from all over the city to eat at the Befekadus' storefront restaurant at 7001 Fair Oaks, just east of NorthPark on the other side of Central Expressway. Customers can dine at booths with Western utensils or the traditional Ethiopian way: sitting on stools around a massob, a colorful mushroom-shaped grass basket as tall as a table, where they scoop food and condiments with bite-sized pieces of injera, spongy bread that serves as a platter.
The Befekadus have operated Ghion for six years. Located in a strip of retail storefronts at The Villas at Vickery, a complex with 900 apartments, Ghion is at the center of an East Dallas neighborhood that might be called Little Ethiopia. Within two miles are numerous other businesses owned by Ethiopians: groceries, tax services, nightclubs, garages, gas stations, hair salons, beauty supply shops and African video stores. All cater to immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
Dessalegn "Desi" Befekadu left Ethiopia as a political refugee in the late '70s, living first in Djibouti, then Rome. With help from the International Rescue Committee, he moved to Oklahoma in 1982 and got work as a busboy. He learned the restaurant business from the ground up, moving to Dallas in 1987.
"There weren't too many Ethiopians in Oklahoma," Desi says. The success of Ghion is the culmination of his American dream.
But in April, the Befekadus and other owners of shops at The Villas at Vickery were given abrupt notice that they must move their businesses within 30 days. Exercising its power of eminent domain, DISD has purchased the 19-acre property for $14.3 million to build a much-needed school to relieve overcrowding at Hotchkiss, Hexter, Rogers and Kramer elementary schools. The purchase is part of the $1.36 billion bond program passed by taxpayers in 2002, says Jack Hill, associate superintendent for construction.
"The Villas at Vickery has been selected as a location for quite a while," Hill says. "That's a key location. That's where the kids are."
Unfortunately, it's also a key location for Dallas' African immigrant community.
"This is the highest concentration of African-owned businesses in the city," says Edward Okpa, a Nigerian real estate consultant who last year ran for mayor against Laura Miller. "People will come here straight from the airport." In a drive around the neighborhood, you might see young Sudanese women in colorful traditional robes or Congolese men wearing bright shirts made from African wax cloth.
"People feel comfortable here," Okpa says. "They catch up on the news here. It's not just brick and mortar for us."
Befekadu supports the school district's efforts, but he says the poor handling of the process has left the retail tenants dangling. Some, he says, could go out of business.
Built in 1976, The Villas at Vickery has an interior atrium that was home in its heyday to a popular club called The Mad Hatter. The two-story stucco complex became Section 8 low-income housing sometime in the '80s and has been poorly maintained.
DISD bought the property from Thurman Apartments; a subsidiary, Fifteen Asset Management, based in Florida, managed the residential leases.
"We always knew the property might be developed for another use," says Kathy Dickey, senior vice president of Christon Co., which handled the retail tenants for Fifteen Asset Management. "The apartments weren't all that nice, and it's a big piece of property."
Dickey says that several months ago, Fifteen Asset Management said that if she could help the retail tenants find new locations, the company might be able to help with moving expenses. But the tenants were confused. They had heard rumors for more than a year that the property would be sold, but were always told there was no reason to worry. Most of them have more than a year left on their leases and were told they had to honor their leases.
When the sale closed on March 12, Fifteen Asset Management withdrew its offer to help with relocation. The tenants were no longer its problem.
Befekadu says he learned of the sale through other tenants who received letters in mid-April saying they had 30 days to vacate. He called Lee Simpson, an in-house attorney for DISD, to find out what was going on. Simpson said that he had 30 days to vacate, and based on the terms of his lease, the district wasn't required to pay him anything.
Befekadu was stunned. To relocate, he says, he'll have to pay the first and last months' rent, the security deposit, moving expenses and any renovation costs, including the cost for new signs, business cards, menus and advertising.
"It took me years to build this business," Befekadu says. "But Lee Simpson said no. He was very mean when he talks to me--just you have to move out."
Also being evicted are Patience Okoroji (Discount Beauty Supply Plus), Benjamin Iheme (Market Grocery), Joe Onyema (Market Grocery and EasyLink Services), Victor Onyeujo (Commonwealth Travel and Shipping), Uchenna J. Orogbu (Nick's Salon), Luz Hortencia Solis (Unisex Hair Salon) and George Nwaugha (Tyme Insurance). Nwaugha, the longest leaseholder, has been there since 1989.
Okpa says that on such short notice they will not be able to find affordable commercial space in the neighborhood where their customers live.
"You can't show up and say you have 30 days to get out of here," Okpa says. "All they've been doing is using intimidating language. They wouldn't do this in Highland Park. I think they went over there and said there's a bunch of Africans and Asians and Hispanics and we can kick them around. Why can't they be fair and treat them as taxpayers?"
Dickey agrees that the residents have not been treated fairly.
"It's unfortunate," Dickey says. "I wish there had been better communications on the part of everyone. The district probably could have contacted those people individually and visited with them. A lot of times it's not what you say to someone, it's how you say it. These are not sophisticated business people. Some are highly educated, but they barely understood what condemnation was. They were incensed someone could take your property."
Luz Solis, who had put money into upgrading her hair salon, says she found another location but was told in March by former manager Karen Moore that she had to pay her March rent of $1,088 as well. Solis says she didn't have the money to pay two leases as well as expenses for moving and renovation. "I was scared to break the lease," Solis says. (Moore did not return calls for comment.)
Once a telecommunications field engineer, Benjamin Iheme has been in the United States 21 years. He had only recently bought the grocery, the largest in Dallas that sells African imported food.
Now he faces starting over in a new location. "I have five kids, a car note and a mortgage," says Iheme, who seems to be holding back tears as he talks about his options. He still owes the previous owner, Joe Onyema, for the business.
All of the owners have lost income as tenants have moved out of The Villas at Vickery. They worry that they will not find retail space near their customers, who often walk to do their shopping.
"I just really feel sorry for those people," Dickey says. "They are genuinely nice, gracious people, with wonderful manners. They're just little business men and women, trying to make it work. Benjy's got a lot of money sunk into the business. For him, it's terrible, because he still owes the guy he bought the grocery from. Both of those--groceries and the hair salon--are difficult to move."
"I have to really fault the former owners more than DISD," Dickey says. "They didn't do those people right."
Only Pat Okoroji has been offered money to relocate her beauty supply business, because the terms of her lease are different from the other tenants'. Dave Sherbal, chief financial officer of Fifteen Asset Management, offered her $16,000, but Okoroji declined. "If I have to go and they don't pay me," Okoroji says, "I can't do it over."
Sherbal did not return calls for comment.
Okpa says the tenants are considering court action against the previous landlord and DISD. "They can't move in 30 days," Okpa says. "They need at least six months to a year."
Florentino Ramirez, outside attorney for DISD, says that under the terms of the other leases, no tenant was obligated to pay any rent after March 12 and that anyone who did so can request a refund.
"If she [Solis] was charged rent, she gets her money back," Ramirez says. "It's a matter of bringing it to someone's attention." But DISD is not obligated beyond that, Ramirez says. "We don't have any options but to follow the terms of the lease. The lease does not provide for relocation expenses."
This answer doesn't pass muster with Okpa. "It is wicked for a public agency to withhold information from the people who are going to be impacted. These immigrants aren't troublemakers. This is something they do in Third World countries."