Yemane Berhe’s home country of Eritrea is a long way from selling Real Change on the streets of Seattle. Yemane left Eritrea for Sudan in the 1990s, where he opened a restaurant. Then he got a visa to immigrate to the United States. He drove a taxi in Washington, D.C., for 12 years and was able to bring his girlfriend over from Eritrea after a year and a half. Still, he didn’t speak much English, so it was hard if his passengers had complicated directions. To help with that, he took English classes three days a week for a year.
Yemane is separated from his girlfriend, who still lives in D.C. with their two children, now teenagers. He was working a good job in Alabama when a friend invited him to Seattle to work with him as a parking lot attendant. When he arrived, his friend had been fired from his job. While looking for work, Yemane used up all the money he’d saved. Eventually, he found Real Change.
“It was hard at first,” he said. “I would sell in one place for an hour and then go to another place.” A woman who bought the paper told Yemane he needed to stay in one place to build up a customer base.
He learned the lesson well. He began selling in the University District on a tip from another customer. There, he greets students from the Middle East with Arabic he learned when he lived in Sudan.
Yemane has regular customers who look for him each week. Some are very generous, giving him $3 or $5 for a paper. Yemane sends any extra money to his kids, his brother in Kenya, and his family in Eritrea. He sends them old copies of the paper, too, because he likes to show them what he’s doing.
Yemane spent three weeks this winter getting trained in asbestos and lead removal. To make sure he understood each class, he wrote down all the words he wasn’t sure of. At home, he looked them up in a dictionary and went over them with a friend. He got his certification but hasn’t been sent to any jobs, so he’s waiting to get into a program for the next level of training. In the meantime, he does temporary work. His goal is a job with dependable benefits, and, someday, enough money to start a business.
In the meantime, he appreciates being able to set his own schedule. He appreciates the lack of hassles and the control he has over his earnings. “I can get a gas station or 7-11 job, but I don’t like them,” Yemane said. “There, they make the money; I make more money doing this.” He said if he finds a job with benefits, he’ll still go back to selling the paper on his days off so he can greet all his customers.
“I’m single right now,” he said. “I can’t spend my whole day at home.”