Addis Ababa – Abdulwahid Mohammed, a young Syrian refugee from Hama, is tending to customers at Damascus, a restaurant jointly owned by Ethiopians and Syrians in Addis Ababa’s Bole Michael district.
He currently manages the restaurant, serving a mix of Syrian and Ethiopian food.
Among his Ethiopian staff, he is known as a shy workaholic.
“I came to Ethiopia through Sudan. Ever since arriving in Ethiopia I have found it to be a stable country, with a relatively easy process to get foreign residence ID. Ethiopian people have been generous to me,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mohammed wears sunglasses during the interview to disguise his identity. He fears exposing relatives back home in Syria to possible retribution by both government and rebel forces.
He is one of the hundreds of Syrians who have set up home in Ethiopia, a non-Arabic speaking, predominantly Christian, East African nation.
Many Syrians know of Ethiopia through the Holy Quran, which mentions ancient Ethiopia as a place of refuge for the first Muslims.
While Syrians make up a tiny fraction of the refugee population in Ethiopia, estimated at more than 905,000 people by the United Nations, they have attracted attention and sympathy among locals.
The combination of extensive international media coverage of the Syrian civil war, the long distance between the two countries and the presence of light-skinned destitute people on the streets of the capital – a rarity in Ethiopia – has many Ethiopians extend their generosity, ranging from financial assistance to job offers.
Yemane Gebremeskel, a spokesperson for the Ethiopia Immigration, Citizenship and Vital Registration Agency (EICVRA), a government organisation that registers foreign nationals, said despite Ethiopia being a poor country, it has taken in refugees from more than 20 countries.
After undertaking a survey from August 1 to December 16, Gebremeskel said there were at least 560 Syrian refugees in Ethiopia, most of whom arrived via Sudan.
According to the agency, 157 Syrians have registered as refugees and 50 have received a temporary residency permit, while the rest are on transit and tourist visas.
The total number of Syrians who have entered Ethiopia since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011 is likely to be higher, according to the agency.
“Ethiopia has a long history of receiving refugees,” said Gebremeskel. “The Syrians are no exception, with Ethiopia having signed a raft of refugee conventions. The service being given to Syrians fulfils our international obligations.”
The Ethiopian government has allowed Syrians to move around the country, unlike refugees of other nationalities, and helped them receive assistance from UN agencies.
On average, Syrians receive monthly stipends of $80 along with counselling, health and educational support from the UN.
Gebremeskel said while many arrive having consulted their Ethiopian friends in Syria or Sudan, other factors are at play.
“Many Syrians know of Ethiopia through the Holy Quran, which mentions ancient Ethiopia as a place of refuge for the first Muslims.
“There is also a strong historic religious connection between the Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox Churches, so Ethiopia isn’t a totally foreign country to many Syrians.”
God is great, Ethiopians are treating me well. They are very nice but my situation is difficult. I want to find work in Ethiopia until Syria returns to peace and I can return.
Despite their small numbers, the Middle Eastern refugees have a visible role, with Addis Ababa witnessing a mushrooming of Syrian restaurants and Syrian carpets gaining steady popularity among Ethiopian shoppers.
But other Syrians are forced to beg on the streets of Addis Ababa or near mosques and churches, holding “help me” paper signs in Ethiopia’s official Amharic language.
Although they speak little English and no Amharic, their pleas elicit sympathy.
Ahmed (not his real name), 18, is a Damascus native and has been begging in the capital with his seven-year-old niece for weeks.
He arrived with his niece, brother and sister after the rest of his family was killed in the war.
“I came to Sudan five months ago by plane from Syria after many of my family members were martyred. I used to work in a shawarma restaurant in Khartoum. An Ethiopian who was working with me suggested I migrate to Ethiopia and I decided to take his advice and came to Addis Ababa,” said Ahmed.
He said he came to Ethiopia by road after receiving a visa from the Ethiopian embassy in Khartoum.
At night, he stays in a hotel room and says he has already formed a friendship with a Syrian who works at a restaurant in Addis Ababa.
But not all Ethiopians have welcomed Syrians, with local media reporting occasional fights between the refugees and impoverished Ethiopians over “begging turf”.
There have also been occasional police raids on Syrian beggars while those on tourist and business visas, but neither on vacation nor employed, have created legal ambiguity.
Nevertheless, for now at least, many are pleased to be in a country safer than Syria.
“God is great, Ethiopians are treating me well,” said Ahmed, the beggar. “They are very nice but my situation is difficult. I want to find work in Ethiopia until Syria returns to peace and I can return.”