From American Dream to Reality
The national violent crime rate is approximately 373 violent crimes for every 100,000 people. Despite its population barely exceeding 100,000 residents, Richmond, California has one of the highest crime rates in the country, upholding a violent crime rate of approximately 590 per 100,000 residents. The chance of being a victim of a crime in Richmond is 1 in 24, making Richmond more dangerous than 91 percent of cities in the US. In the heart of this “dangerous” city stands Carlson Food Market, a small, worn-down convenience store at the corner of Imperial Avenue and Carlson Boulevard.
Kes Thebremichael has owned and managed this convenience store with his wife, Elen Thebremichael, and half brother, Rezene Thebremichael, for over a decade. The store is a popular stop for local Richmond residents, selling an array of items, from basic snacks to warm fried chicken and biscuits.
Regardless of its flaws and potential dangers, Kes adores and appreciates the community in Richmond. He emotionally describes how the community has welcomed him and his family, giving him the opportunity to pursue the American dream.
“We are part of the community; we have been here for so many years. It’s like a family. We are welcomed around here. When there’s sadness, it’s our sadness; when there’s happiness it’s our happiness.”
However, Kes, Elen, and Rezene have not always been a part of the Richmond neighborhood. All three Thebremichaels are African natives, having previously lived in the small Northeast African country of Eritrea. The safety and sense of community that the Thebremichaels feel in Richmond could be in part due to the situation they were forced to escape from in Eritrea.
“There was a political situation [in Eritrea] that was not safe. Lots of arresting, lots of killing. We escaped from the country… and came to the United States… Back at home… if you go outside you would be scared,” explains Kes.
Rezene told a similar tale of the situation in Eritrea: “[There’s a] very big difference between California and Eritrea. Nobody bothers me here. In Eritrea, anybody of authority can do whatever they want to you.”
The danger that they faced in their homeland has allowed them to treasure the benefits and freedoms of being an American citizen, evident through the Elen’s exclamation of “God Bless America” at various points throughout the interview. The Bay Area holds an especially dear place in the hearts of Kes and Elen, being the location of where they first met and have since raised their family.
Elen recounts: “[We] first met at a gathering of mutual friends in Berkeley. We have been together since.”
America has given Kes and his wife opportunities which he would have never imagined for himself back in Eritrea. Although not exceptionally financially prosperous, Mr. and Mrs. Thebremichael have achieved the American dream in many aspects of their lives. For example, the hard work that they have put into their store has paved the way for the future success of all four of their children.
“We have four kids: our oldest son graduated from UC Santa Barbara, our second son is about to graduate from UC Berkeley, our third son has applied to UC Berkeley, and our daughter goes to Berkeley High,” Elen proudly states.
While only 36 percent of second generation immigrants receive a college degree in the US, the Thebremichael family is on track to defy the odds. Kes and his wife have overcome seemingly impossible obstacles in order to bless their children with the immeasurable gift of a high-level education. These obstacles, however, were not conquered with ease.
“I have been working with the public for almost 30 years. It’s not easy but it’s work,” Kes states.
Kes’s journey to success and happiness was a “long process, [which] took patience and persistence”. However, Kes’s positivity and dedication allowed him to satisfy his ambition: “I love people, I enjoy working,” he emphasizes at the end of our interview.
Kes’s brother, Rezene, also acknowledges the difficulty of achieving the American Dream stating that: “It wasn’t easy to get where I am. I have worked long hours for no money, almost having to sleep on the streets at some point… all of this took time”.
He briefly shares his experience of working at a 7/11 when he first emigrated to the US as one of the more difficult challenges he faced in his transition to America.
“Me and my brother-in-law [Kes] opened up a 7/11 when we first came here…When I worked at 7/11 there were a lot of problems because it was open for 24 hours and it was in a rougher neighborhood. You have to get through the bad to get to the good.”
Today, all three Thebremichaels continue to work hard, which was evident during our interview, as Rezene managed to answer my questions, while simultaneously working the cash register and preparing plates of fried chicken for waiting customers. However, the most demanding parts of work seem to be over for the Thebramichael family.
“I am not that ambitious to expand the store chain. I am happy where I am, my dreams are fulfilled. In three or four years I think I’m ready to retire,” to which I responded, “A well-deserved retirement”. Kes laughed and served me a small plate of fried chicken for free.
This small act of hospitality led me to a much greater realization: the Carlson Food Market is analogous to the city of Richmond as a whole. Similarly to Richmond, from the outside, this tattered convenience store triggers a negative and hostile impression. But upon entering the store, one is met with an unanticipated warmth and authenticity that is fostered through the people inside it.
For many Bay Area residents, Richmond remains unchartered land, and purposefully so. Yet this city is much finer than its connotations because it is where a family like the Thebremichael’s can turn the American Dream into a reality.