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Columbia Pike florist fled persecution in Ethiopia and made arrangements for Biden’s inauguration

When florist and collage artist Azeb Woldie fled Ethiopia after being harassed and imprisoned by the government, she settled on Columbia Pike and began working with a flower shop in Alexandria.

She never imagined that within a few years of moving here, her arrangements would make it onto TV and be seen by millions of people.

Around this time two years ago, Woldie had the unforgettable experience of making some of the flower arrangements used in President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Now, she owns her own flower shop on Columbia Pike called Azi Flowers (903 S. Highland Street), which she opened in September.

“I am a fierce entrepreneur and a fighter, and I only see things in a positive way and I use all negatives to develop my business as opportunities,” she tells ARLnow.

From a young age, she remembers painting and playing with colors, eventually moving into collage art, which was exhibited in art galleries in Ethiopia. She worked with flowers for more than 15 years in Ethiopia and during that time, opened a photography and film school with her youngest brother in Addis Ababa, the country’s capital.

“It was an exciting time to see young people learn to express themselves through pictures and making films,” she said.

Her students began making films that expressed their views on human rights and alleged abuses happening during an armed conflict dubbed the Tigray War. The United Nations said last year that both the federal government and Tigrayan rebel forces committed human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, rape, sexual violence and starvation. The war officially ended last November with a peace deal.

The films put her at odds with the Ethiopian government, which accused her school of producing photojournalists who opposed the state.

“I was harassed, imprisoned there,” she said. “Finally I just could not go on where I had to flee the country and come to the United States.”

Now, she is settled on Columbia Pike, where she says people are encouraging and friendly, helping her along as she works to grow her new flower shop. She says the flower business is like a jigsaw puzzle of promotion, marketing, financial capacity and networking.

“I am working my level best to put the different pieces in my capacity to land in their place, but not all pieces are coming together,” she said.

Inflation has hiked flower prices, leading fewer people to spend money on arrangements or to check the price tags more often when they do. Still, she finds solace in how people turn to flowers to express their joy and their sadness.

During the pandemic, people used flowers “to show their camaraderie and connection to affected family and friends,” she said.

Woldie says she enjoys making arrangements for funerals and for weddings the most because of the milestones they communicate.

“A funeral is the last day of life, and showing your love with beautiful arrangements gives the living solace and shows their affection for the passing,” she said. “A wedding is another life event where the two people have a new beginning in life, and at that juncture it is a way of showing a delightful beginning.”

Woldie says flowers are a natural way to show “love, affection and caring.”

“One can even see the flower beds in the garden or flower pots at your doorstep and [get] a good feeling,” she said. “It is nature’s way of smiling at you [against] all odds.”

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