Born and raised in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, Mellay Menelik moved to her parents’ birth country of Ethiopia in summer 2019 to open a second location of their family’s SoMa restaurant Moya and start a farm. Now, at 34, she says living in Ethiopia was more challenging than she ever could have imagined. Between COVID and the launch of a war between Tigrayans and the Ethiopian central government in November 2020, the last three years have been devastating. “The day the war started was the day I planted our first plants for the first harvest,” Menelik recalls.
Returning to the Bay Area in February 2021, Menelik is drawing attention to the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia, hosting a fundraiser to help victims. “There’s a link to help Ukraine everywhere, and I understand that,” Menelik says. “I feel horrible to even bring that up to justify what I’m saying, but there is just nothing done for Tigray.”
Menelik’s family has deep ties to the restaurant industry in San Francisco; for five years they owned Cafferata, a 100-year-old North Beach business on the corner of Columbus and Filbert avenues that’s now known as Piazza Pellegrini. Then, in 2009, the family opened Moya in SoMa, though a fire had them out of commission for a few years before they reopened in 2012 on 9th and Mission streets. Her family later started a farm in Ethiopia, and a restaurant too, which is how Menelik found her way to Tigray, the northernmost regional state in Ethiopia, just before the war started. The family farm in Mehoni grows aloe vera on a massive scale — the farm is the size of about 50 football fields — for use in cosmetics products.
It was during the early days of the war that Menelik’s sister started an Instagram page called Peace in Tigray, which now counts more than 16,000 followers, and a nonprofit called Free Tigray. She says she feels discouraged by how little attention the war in Ethiopia tends to receive in some news sources. While Bay Area businesses from bakeries to ride-share tycoons have set up ways to support those impacted by the Russian war in Ukraine, Menelik feels it’s much harder to raise awareness about the Tigrayan genocide; there’s been no real groundswell of interest and concern, in her opinion. “People have really galvanized about other similar events, but not for us,” Menelik says. “It’s demoralizing.”
Update: April 22, 2022,10:15 a.m.: This story has been updated to omit the names of some businesses and individuals who did not agree to be included in the piece.