Clara Haizlett, Emily Hilliard Published

Ethiopian And Eritrean Immigrants Bring A Piece Of Home To Moorefield With Traditional Coffee Ceremony

Trihas Kefele, a native of Eritrea, is one of the many immigrants who live in Moorefield, West Virginia. Pictured is Kefele, her children, and two coffee ceremony guests outside of her home.
Trihas Kefele, a native of Eritrea, is one of the many immigrants who live in Moorefield, West Virginia. Pictured is Kefele, her children, and two coffee ceremony guests outside of her home.
Courtesy Emily Hilliard

Trihas Kefele, a native of Eritrea, is one of the many immigrants who live in Moorefield, West Virginia and work at Pilgrim’s Pride, a chicken processing plant in the small town. Although Moorefield, West Virginia has just about 3,300 residents, around one in 10 are immigrants—including Kefele’s small community from Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Due to long shifts at the factory, members of the community don’t have much time for socializing. But in their free time, they continue to practice a ritual that is custom to their region of East Africa—the traditional coffee ceremony.

On a Sunday—Kefele’s day off—she invited a group of friends and family to a coffee ceremony at her home. Incense and candles perfumed her small apartment, along with the smell of roasting coffee beans.

Spices used to prepare coffee.

Courtesy Emily Hilliard

Spices used to prepare coffee.

Kefele sat apart from the guests at a low table that was used to prepare the coffee, stirring the green coffee beans on a single-burner electric stove. She wore a floral dress and a wooden cross around her neck.

On the floor beneath her was a green mat, decorated with strips of plastic that look like grass.

“It just makes it look special, like you’re welcoming the guests,” said Kelefe’s teenage son, Finan, translating for his mom.

Three paper plates were lined up on the mat, each filled with a different colorful snack. On another table, fruit, homemade bread, and chilled drinks were artfully arranged. The ritual obviously took time to prepare, with each detail carefully arranged in anticipation of the guests’ arrival.

Women typically perform the ceremony, which can take up to two hours and involves multiple steps—from roasting the raw beans to serving fresh coffee individually to each guest.

Trihas Kefele Pours Coffee For Guests - - Photo by Emily Hilliard .jpg.jpg

Courtesy Emily Hilliard

Trihas Kefele Pours Coffee For Guests.

The coffee ceremony isn’t just for special occasions. Among family and friends, it’s a common pastime that involves sharing coffee and food, listening to music, and just enjoying each other’s company.

“You cannot just make coffee by yourself,” said Azeb Mekonnen, a guest originally from Ethiopia. “You call people. That’s how it’s fun.”

Mekonnen explained that the tradition is passed down by family matriarchs.

“My mom learned it from my grandmother and my grandmother learned it from her mom,” she said.

A couple of years ago, Kefele began teaching her 14-year-old daughter, Nebiat, how to make coffee, even though she’s lived most of her life in the U.S.

“I just watched my mom do it and I just learned from it,” Nebiat said.

Now, every evening, Nebiat makes coffee for her parents before they work the night shift at Pilgrim’s.

Cups and Plates Used in Coffee Ceremony

Courtesy Emily Hilliard
Cups and Plates Used in Coffee Ceremony.

The poultry plant is what brought Kefele and her family to West Virginia. Before coming to Moorefield, they lived in a rural part of Eritrea, farming vegetables. More than 10 years ago, they decided to leave their home and immigrate to the United States.

“We wanted to have a better life, better freedom and my dad was the first one to come here,” said Kefele’s son, Finan.

Kefele stayed behind with their children until her husband got settled. Their migration process was long and difficult. But after five years of separation, the family was reunited in the U.S. Now they’re all in Moorefield.

“It’s good and free… and it’s also free of violence,” said Kefele. “It’s always safe here.”

Kefele and her husband both work at Pilgrim’s Pride. Her job is to cut and debone chickens. She works long hours and it’s hard work—even harder, she says because of the language barrier. She mainly speaks Tigrinya.

“Whenever you go to work, you struggle with English a lot,” said Kefele as her son translated. “Even out of work, out of your house, you go somewhere, you struggle.”

Kefele hopes that learning English will make her life in Moorefield easier. So after each night shift, she comes home, showers, and goes directly to a 9 a.m. English class at an adult learning center.

It’s hard to make friends with native English speakers, she said, but the classes offer a chance to build community with immigrants from other parts of the world who are also learning English. They’ve even done coffee ceremonies together as a class.

“Everybody that goes in that class is her friend right now, ” said Finan.

Guests Socializing at Coffee Ceremony - Photo by Emily Hilliard .jpg

Courtesy Emily Hilliard

Guests Socializing at Coffee Ceremony

The coffee ceremony also plays an important part in maintaining social ties within their East African community in Moorefield, where Mekonnen said there aren’t many outlets for leisure activities.

Mekonnen, who worked for eight years at the Pilgrim’s plant, said her life in Moorefield has primarily consisted of work, spending time with family, and more work. There’s not much else to do.

“Maybe you go Walmart; where can you go?” she said. “Maybe you go somewhere in Ponderosa or somewhere here, you know?”

For Kefele, who comes from a small village in Eritrea, rural life hasn’t been such a big adjustment. But Mekonnen is from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, and lived in Atlanta, Georgia, before coming to Moorefield.

When Mekonnen gets the chance, she goes over the mountain to cities in Virginia like Winchester and Harrisonburg, where she can find ingredients from East Africa, like green coffee beans. She said the coffee ceremony helps alleviate some of the tedium of her life here.

“Like get together like this and make coffee—I love that,” Mekonnen said.

Mekonnen often hosts her own coffee ceremonies, but that Sunday she was a guest – sharing snacks, coffee and conversation at Kefele’s home in downtown Moorefield.

After roasting the beans and brewing the coffee, Kefele moved around the room with her coffee pot, serving each guest. She poured the coffee from up high into little espresso-like cups.

The coffee was strong and sweet. It tasted of cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger, which Kefele ground and stirred together with the beans.

As Mekonnen sipped her coffee, she explained the coffee ceremony’s significance in her community in Moorefield.

“With ceremonies you think you are back there still. Your mind go back there,” she said. “So we feel like we are back home.”

On Monday, Kefele and most of her guests would be back at work at the chicken plant. But for that hour or two, her living room was full of guests and conversation, fueled by coffee and the warmth of hospitality.

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.