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Refugee to top cuisine

Avon chef escaped political turmoil in Ethiopia, learning to cook on his way to America

Avon resident, Shimelis Adem, executive chef for Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indiana Convention Center, was a teenager in Ethiopia when a violent political campaign gripped the country in 1977 known as the Ethiopian Red Terror. He spent the next few years as a refugee in Africa, learning to cook on his journey before finally arriving on U.S. soil when the American Dream became his reality.

Adem was a student in 1977 when competition between political groups turned violent in Ethiopia. It was a bloody period in the Ethiopian Civil War which started after the monarchy was abolished in 1974.

“A lot of things changed during that time,” Adem said. “It was unfortunate when the country became socialist/communist. Even students in high school and college were being arrested.”

The new Leninist/Marxist dictatorship attempted to root out the opposition. While estimates widely vary, the number of lives lost was in the tens of thousands.

To escape the political turmoil, Adem fled the country in 1977 to a convent in Djibouti, a French-speaking country located on the Horn of Africa. He would spend the next two years at the convent where he learned how to cook from its resident French nuns, a skill he may never have learned had he remained in Ethiopia.

“I was never told that I would be a chef when I was back home,” Adem said. “In Ethiopian culture, men aren’t allowed in the kitchen, only women. So ever since I was a kid, I was curious about what was going on in the kitchen.”

Adem said the nuns introduced him to French and Italian cooking by letting him work in the convent’s kitchen, knowledge he would later use in America.

“When I was in Djibouti, all of the refugees knew that America was the best country in the world, and I was one of them. But I didn’t think I would get the chance to come here,” Adem recalls. “The mother (Superior) of the convent, she asked me if I wanted to go to France. I didn’t have any choice at the time so I said I’ll think about it.”

While Adem contemplated moving to France, the opportunity he never thought would happen, happened.  In 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced The United States Refugee Act, an amendment to immigration policies that opened the door to refugees of special humanitarian concern.

“When the door opened for Ethiopians I was so happy,” Adem said. “We knew about America when we were back home. But when I first got here, I was afraid to cook because of my accent, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to understand American accents. But I’m grateful to be in this country and grateful for right now.”

Adem said his friends went all over the United States depending on where they were being sponsored. Adem was offered sponsorship in Philadelphia where he found a job cooking at an Italian restaurant.

Despite his initial fears about the language barrier, Adem built up his culinary reputation as he worked on the east coast over the next two decades. In 2007, he accepted a chef position in Indianapolis and moved his family to Avon. Adem and his wife, Meaza Abate, have three children: Maeron (17), Leeyha (15), and Youval Shimelis (13).

“I always talk about how fortunate I am to live the American Dream. I’ve become an American citizen, I got married, and I have three children. I enjoy every day living in this country with freedom.”

By Chris Cornwall

On the back-burner with Chef Shimelis

What is your favorite restaurant to eat at in Avon?

I go out with my kids, and they like Cheddar’s (Scratch Kitchen). But most of the time in Avon, like in summer right now, I cook for my kids, my kids’ friends, and my friends around Avon. So I do a lot of cooking at home.

What do you enjoy to do when you aren’t cooking?

I like soccer, watching movies, and taking photographs and videos.

Did you play soccer in Ethiopia?

Yes, growing up I played soccer. When I came to Philadelphia, we created a team there in 1981.

Have you returned to Ethiopia since you left in 1977?

I’ve gone back two times. Once to marry my wife who I met in Philadelphia. By then, the (socialist/communist) government was no longer there. So I went there with my wife to get married in front of our parents. Our families are from the same place so they already kind of knew each other. The other time I went to Ethiopia was just to visit.