Note: This is the first of two reports examining the African immigrant communities in the Twin Cities. Today’s report profiles the communities that have established or plan to establish cultural centers in St. Paul. Monday’s story focuses on the communities’ economic impact.
From a former medical clinic within St. Paul’s Bandana Square, members of Minnesota’s Cameroonian community organize a Scrabble tournament, lawn tennis and career mentoring programs while debating the fractious politics of their home country.
Some bear physical scars that tell of their political activism in Central Africa.
There’s similar energy brewing near Dale Street and University Avenue, where the city’s sizable ethnic Oromo community gathers in a converted church for summer cookouts, teen dance shows and college-readiness classes. Members of this community, too, have shed blood and lost loved ones while speaking out for basic rights.
In a one-story storefront a few light-rail stops down the road, the Eritrean community runs a third cultural center dedicated to yet another growing segment of the African immigrant population in St. Paul — and they also have stories to tell about war, upheaval and progress.
Thousands of African immigrants have landed in Minnesota after fleeing political persecution or civil war in their home countries. Others have been lured by the opportunity to continue their education at the University of Minnesota or accept jobs at major employers such as the Mayo Clinic and IBM.
After decades of their numbers growing, they’ve pooled money to establish permanent community spaces where they can break bread and celebrate their language, culture and faith. Several are in St. Paul.
Economist Bruce Corrie isn’t surprised. Corrie, a professor at Concordia University in St. Paul, believes the state’s African population produces $14 million in philanthropy within Minnesota each year, on top of $150 million in annual remittances to countries in Africa.
At least 73,000 African immigrants call Minnesota home, according to the 2008-2012 American Community Survey, or 111,000 with children included. Advocates say they wouldn’t be surprised if the real number was double that figure.
The immigrants represent at least 25 countries in Africa, making Minnesota home to the ninth-largest African community in the country.
Roughly 60 percent come from East African nations such as Somalia and Ethiopia, and 25 percent from West African countries such as Nigeria and Liberia. The rest hail from throughout the continent. About one in five immigrants in Minnesota is African, according to the U.S. census.
In late May, Corrie released a 45-page report — “The Economic Potential of African Immigrants in Minnesota” — at the Snelling Cafe, not far from Snelling and University avenues, an area he’s dubbed “Little Africa” because of the many immigrant-run businesses.
Among his findings: the state’s African immigrants maintain a total annual income of $1.6 billion, but they remain relatively anonymous outside their own circles.
But they are politically primed. According to his surveys, some 70 percent of the voting-age population goes to the polls, and similar numbers volunteer in schools and community centers and felt optimistic about their future.
Here’s a look at those immigrant communities from Africa who have, or plan, to form community centers in St. Paul:
Last May in the basement of the Oromo cultural center in St. Paul, four giggling schoolchildren listened to clues offered by their peers in hopes of guessing the celebrity names posted on the wall behind them — Mickey Mouse, Anna from the Disney movie “Frozen,” pop star Chris Brown and Ali Birra, the reigning king of Oromo dance music since 1961.
Hassen Hussein estimates there are some 40,000 Oromo in the Twin Cities, most of them from Ethiopia, where they are the largest single ethnic group but have faced political reprisals for decades. Oromo also hail from the neighboring East African countries of Kenya and Somalia.
In Ethiopia, “the Oromo … are treated marginally. Until 1990 to 1991, we could not even speak our language in public places,” said Hussein, director of the Oromo Community of Minnesota.
“You don’t see a household that has not experienced a family member disappearing” without anyone ever facing charges, he said.
At the Center for Victims of Torture, on Dayton Avenue in St. Paul, the Oromo constitute 22 percent of clients, making them the largest group seeking mental health counseling and social services, said Betsy Brown, director of communications for the center.
Hussein came to the U.S. in 1991 to attend graduate school in Rochester, N.Y., and discovered an established Oromo community in Minnesota, where unassuming personalities struck him as the norm.
“One of the things that originally attracted us here is that the Oromo like to go about their lives and keep a low profile,” he said.
In 2008, the Oromo Community of Minnesota pooled private donations to buy a one-story church at 465 Mackubin St., two blocks east of Dale Street and a block south of University Avenue, and convert it into a community center. The $600,000 mortgage was paid off in 2013. On May 26, the association broke ground on a 34-space parking lot.
Open seven days a week, the center organizes a Fourth of July celebration, an annual summer soccer tournament and a September festival known as Irreecha, which marks the end of the rainy season back home. There’s also senior day care, youth arts classes, educational programs ranging from pre-kindergarten reading through college readiness, employment counseling and health outreach, among other offerings.
Last year, 19 of the 24 high school seniors involved with the center went on to college, Hussein said.
Small Oromo coffee shops and convenience stores have sprung up wherever the community is concentrated, including behind an Oromo mosque — a stone’s throw from the cultural center. In March 2014, the Oromo Chamber of Commerce of Minnesota was launched on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis.
Hussein is quick to point out that the community center he directs is not a religious center. Almost half of all Oromo are Muslim and almost half are Christian, with the rest adhering to a traditional African spiritual practice.
“Religiously, we are very diverse,” he said. “Among the Oromo, it’s not uncommon to find people following different religions within the same household.”
Another organization, the Ethiopian Community in Minnesota, rents office space within the West Seventh Community Center at 265 Oneida St.
During the school year, they partner with an organization for Minnesota families who have adopted children from Ethiopia — the Ethiopian Kids Community — for traditional language and dance classes on Sunday afternoons. Other services include helping Ethiopian immigrants with health insurance forms and immigration paperwork.
Board members with the Ethiopian Community in Minnesota say they plan to raise money to buy their own building, but plans are still preliminary.
An estimated 4,000 immigrants from the central African nation of Cameroon call the Twin Cities home. Their political dedication runs deep.
Wearing a coat and tie, Robert Ndifor Tamukong, a pharmacist, delivers his end-of-the-year YouTube address in front of two large flags — one American, the other Cameroonian.
“Each day brings new challenges and the promise of new rewards,” says the president of MinCam USA — the Minnesota Cameroonian community organization. “These rewards are not always tangible. They can be as simple as the sun shining on our flag as it is floating in the wind at sunrise. … I am not MinCam. We all are.”
Spanning at least 50 ethnic groups, the community he is addressing is well-educated, well-heeled and battle-scarred.
While studying linguistics at Cameroon’s state university in the early 1990s, Tamukong founded a student protest group to criticize the country’s repressive governing regime. After seven years of nonviolent demonstration, he was repeatedly jailed and tortured.
In 2001, while held at a prison known for executions, he was beaten, kept in chains and forced to sleep on a concrete floor in a pool of cold water. He eventually escaped when fellow inmates broke through a cell window.
A new life in Minnesota followed, including a career as a pharmacist. In August 2011, he won a hotly contested election and unseated the founding president of MinCam with 60 percent of the vote, raising some concerns that the community organization would splinter.
At the time, Concordia University political science professor Immanuel Tatah Mentan — husband of MinCam’s vice president, who had supported the outgoing leader — issued a written statement imploring fellow Cameroonians in Minnesota to set aside their political differences.
“I wish to state unwaveringly again that my appeal is not intended to tamp down the democratic principles we all cherish,” Mentan said at the time. “It is mainly to ensure that we do not inject the politics of bitterness into our midst. We all know that splittist politics can very easily derail us. … Such political faux pas would raise us inevitably up to scorn in Minnesota.”
Rather than splinter, the community came together in December 2013 to make a major acquisition. For $250,000, they purchased a vacant Allina Clinic medical building that had originally been listed for $5.8 million in the Bandana Square business district off Energy Park Drive. The property owners were able to treat it as a charitable contribution.
Near a Best Western Hotel, the two-story center spans 57,000 square feet and will serve as a home base for classes, sports tournaments and cultural celebrations.
A Career Pathways mentoring program matches working professionals with students. A conference room can seat upward of 500 people. Initial remodeling wrapped up in early June, but Tamukong is envisioning a computer center, gym and art museum.
For MinCam, it seems things have settled down on both sides of the Atlantic. Cameroon has had the same ruler since 1982, but opposition parties enjoy greater political freedoms today than 20 years ago, said Tamukong, who won a second three-year term as president of MinCam last August in an uncontested election.
Following 30 years of armed conflict, Eritrea established its independence from Ethiopia in May 1991.
Last month, some 1,000 members of Minnesota’s tight-knit Eritrean community held a celebration to mark 24 years of independence — the cultural equivalent of a Fourth of July party — at Battle Creek Regional Park in St. Paul, which was followed by music and dancing at the Eritrean Community Center of Minnesota.
Purchased by the community in 2001, the one-story center sits at 1935 W. University Ave., not far from a Menards store and the new Habitat for Humanity headquarters in St. Paul. It’s a nondescript building compared with some of its neighbors, but it serves its purpose, said community center chairman Dawit Solomon.
While no one has taken an official census, Solomon estimates that some 5,000 Eritrean immigrants call Minnesota home, and some have been here since the early 1970s.
It’s a small and diverse community. There are at least nine distinct ethnic groups in Eritrea.
“Eritreans never viewed themselves as refugee settlers, even though in the ’80s, some did arrive with refugee status,” Solomon said.
The center is open at least twice a week for activities, including monthly dinners and presentations about college life given by teens who have made the plunge. The goal is to provide some advice and perspective to their younger peers.
“Our vision is to establish a community here that is proud of their heritage, to help them become economically or socially well-integrated into mainstream life here,” Solomon said. “We do have a lot of activities, where kids play soccer on Saturday — every Saturday.”
In addition to a law degree from William Mitchell College of Law, Hassan Mohamud holds the title of imam — a combination of religious leader and scholar who weighs in on what behavior is prohibited and allowable under Islam. The Somali community in Minnesota is overwhelmingly Muslim.
“Our mosques are like community centers. That’s what we use,” Mohamud said.
Three Somali mosques and Islamic centers dot St. Paul, including a worship space near Dale Street and Minnehaha Avenue. The Minnesota Da’wah Institute, where Mohamud presides, maintains another Islamic Center on University Avenue, between Mackubin and Arundel streets. A third mosque sits near Metropolitan State University in Dayton’s Bluff.
The ongoing civil war and instability that has gripped Somalia since 1986 has had a profound effect on a wintry Midwest state halfway across the world.
“I would say it’s affected every Somali family,” Mohamud said.
Mohamud, who returns to Somalia annually, says many are hoping for free and fair elections next year, though he’s skeptical. An internationally backed government was installed in 2012, the first since the dissolution of the parliament in 1991.
“It could be and it may not be,” he said of fair elections. “There’s a lot of improvements in Somalia right now. A miracle could come. I’m an imam — I believe in miracles from God.”
Of more than 85,700 Somalis officially known to reside in the U.S., nearly a third are thought to reside in Minnesota. That’s about 39,000 Somali immigrants and their descendants, according to federal American Community Survey data released in 2010, though Mohamud believes there could be as many as 80,000 or even 100,000.
As for the official U.S. census counts, “I don’t believe that number,” he said. He said families move often and may undercount unrelated guests who live with them to avoid landlord scrutiny or public housing regulations.
In Minneapolis, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood has been nicknamed “Little Mogadishu” because of its large Somali population. In 2013, Abdi Warsame made history by becoming the highest-ranking elected Somali official in the country when he won a seat on the Minneapolis City Council.
A low-income high-rise in St. Paul’s Midway — the 500-unit Skyline Tower building at 1247 St. Anthony Ave. — has provided housing for the city’s growing Somali population, at one time earning it the nickname the “United Nations of the Sky.”
Led by doctors, engineers and other working professionals drawn to the state’s many colleges and universities, the Nigerian community once represented the largest African immigrant group in Minnesota.
Despite an immigration visa lottery in the 1990s, they’ve been eclipsed in number by their West African peers such as the Liberians, as well as more recent immigrants from East Africa such as the Somali.
Adekola Adediran, president of the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Institute for Nigerian Development, or MIND, estimates there are 14,000 Nigerians in Minnesota. The U.S. census’ 2013 American Community Survey estimates 6,500 Nigerians in Minnesota.
Established in the early 1980s, the Umunne Cultural Association of Minnesota maintains a St. Paul post office box but no headquarters.
That could soon change. In 2013, the association set up a committee to scout out a location for a cultural center.
Association treasurer Chioma Onwukwe, a commercial real estate agent, said the challenge is that Nigerians are more established and spread out in the metro area than other immigrant groups.
“We need classrooms, not just a party place,” he said. “We want to teach the children our language and cultural dances.”
In the Igbo language, the word “umunne” translates to “brothers and sisters.”
The Igbo, representing one of Nigeria’s three major cultural groups and traditional languages, come together annually in the Twin Cities for IgboFest, a summer celebration organized by the cultural association since 1993.
The next IgboFest will be Aug. 8 at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park.
At least 73,000 African immigrants call Minnesota home, according to the federal 2008-2012 American Community Survey. With U.S.-born children and recent immigrants included, advocates with the African Development Center of Minnesota say the true number could exceed 150,000.
About one in five immigrants in Minnesota is African.
Of the 50 states, Minnesota has the ninth-largest population of African immigrants. About 60 percent come from East African nations such as Somalia and Ethiopia, and 25 percent from West African nations such as Nigeria and Liberia. The rest come from elsewhere in Africa.
By country of origin, Somali immigrants are the fourth-largest group of foreign-born residents in Minnesota, after Minnesotans from Mexico, India and Laos. Minnesotans from Ethiopia are the ninth-largest group.
Roughly 80 percent of Minnesota’s foreign-born residents live within the Twin Cities’ seven-county metro area.