Shegitu Kebede (left) and Frewoini Haile at their Flamingo Restaurant, 490 Syndicate St. N., St. Paul. Photograph by Sarah Whiting.
Shegitu Kebede and Frewoini Haile are East African women activists and community leaders, from Ethiopia and Eritrea, respectively. Their two homelands have been in conflict for the majority of the women’s lifetimes. In the course of the over four-decade-long conflict, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. Others, like Kebede and Haile have experienced surviving war, displaced from their homelands as refugees.
A common bond
Kebede was 16 when she left behind her homeland of Ethiopia and found refuge in Kenya. She stayed in a refugee camp for three-and-a-half years until making her way to Fargo, N.D., with her young son, ultimately relocating to Minneapolis.
“Language is a huge barrier to communication in the U.S. if you speak no English,” Kebede said. “I learned English by watching ‘Sesame Street’ with my son, who was 4 years old.”
Kebede found herself facing financial and cultural difficulties, after leaving a difficult marriage. She was alone with her two children, when she began to work with CommonBond Communities, where she met other women whose experiences and difficulties echoed her own. She founded Going Home, Inc.-a program that provided cleaning jobs and training for immigrant mothers and other new immigrants with little work experience. She also set up an after-school program, recruiting volunteers from local colleges to work with the children.
Honored for her community service work, Kebede was a recipient of the Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Service from the McKnight Foundation in 2006. “It is mind blowing, amazing to receive recognition for something that you are passionate about. God,” she said,” has been good to me.”
Haile came from Eritrea via Sudan, where she was a refugee for three years, eventually seeking political asylum and arriving in the United States, sponsored by a cousin. As a young woman, alone, in her early 20s, everything was new to her.
“The weather,” she laughed, “was quite different from the weather in Africa. The food, the language, the culture is different. I had no documents-I worked to get my GED.” She paused. “You miss home-you have no family, no community. As a refugee, you don’t think you’ll be here permanently-you’ll leave. But you learn to live.”
Haile, too, believes in the power of hard work and education. “My daughter is a University of Minnesota graduate; I hope my son follows in her footsteps.” She herself holds a B.A. in hospitality sales and business management from National American University, with over 15 years in the hospitality and restaurant industry.
“Sheg and I met through a mutual friend,” Haile said. The two were part of an ekoub, a group of women who met monthly to support each other financially. For example, everyone puts in $100 and each month a different woman is the recipient of the group’s savings until everyone has benefited from the arrangement. “By putting our resources together, collectively, we were able to support each other,” Kebede explained.
“We had a bond right away because we shared the same dreams,” Haile said.
Dream in action
In January 2010, the two women opened Flamingo Restaurant in St, Paul’s Midway area, serving East African fare with the recipes and tastes of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia to a diverse clientele.
“We wanted to be able to have a place to showcase our culture,” Kebede said. “The food we serve is the same food that is on the table in our homes, the food we feed our children.”
Added Haile, “We buy produce from farmers’ markets, and are committed to supporting local businesses.”
“We are working together-not only in our business, but raising our children,” Kebede stated. “We are both single moms with a vision of making a difference.”
The future vision for Flamingo mirrors their desire to effect change-an opportunity and a place for refugee women to find community, flourish and thrive. “Our story can speak to other East African women about possibilities that can exist in spite of the obstacles we faced,” Kebede said.
In July, 2010, an obstacle occurred in the form of a failed electrical transformer down the street from the restaurant. When power was restored, the restaurant experienced a power surge, which shut down all of the restaurant’s major appliances. Haile and Kebede spent reserve funds to replace lost food and repair or purchase new equipment, confident that with insurance in place they would come out fine.
They were astounded to learn that neither their insurer nor Xcel Energy would compensate them for their losses or damages. The system, it seemed, had failed them; financially, they were in a difficult place.
“A lot of good came out of it,” Haile confirmed. She recounted the generosity, phone calls, the customers who used email and word of mouth to bring in business.
“The people of Minnesota came together from left and right,” Kebede said, who related the story of one man who ordered three meals-though clearly dining alone.
“I have to celebrate and count my blessings,” Kebede continued. “Being a refugee changes you. It causes you to lose who you are-makes you think. I purchased a home three years after I arrived in Minnesota, but this support confirmed that I am truly home among my own people-not an outsider-after this happened. It is amazing.”
East African Women’s Center
1525 S. 4th St., Minneapolis, MN 55454
The women’s center offers ESL classes for moms and an early childhood program for the children at the same time. Other programs at the center include a girls’ group for 5-10 year old girls, sewing and textile cooperatives and a class that helps women bridge the gap between the culture of home and the realities of life in the United States.
Casa de Esperanza
P.O. Box 75177, St. Paul, MN 55175
Administrative Office Phone: 651-646-5553
An organization with a mission to mobilize and empower Latinas and Latino communities to end domestic violence. Among many services, the group staffs and provides a 24/7 hour bilingual crisis line, information resource centers, family advocacy and an emergency shelter.
Center for Asians and Pacific Islanders (CAPI)
3702 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, MN 55406
Sabathani/ Food Shelf
310 E. 38th St., Suite 29, Minneapolis, MN 55409
CAPI assists Southeast Asian and East African immigrants and refugees to become increasingly self-sufficient. CAPI has the state’s only Asian-specific foodshelf. Managed by Hmong-speaking staff, it often serves as a gateway to services offered by CAPI and other organizations, connecting clients to services such as ELL classes, health care clinics, tax-assistance, earned income tax credits, WIC, access to food stamps, and housing assistance agencies.
Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together (HWAT)
PO Box 14127, St. Paul, MN 55114
HWAT’s mission is to mobilize Hmong women and girls to actively engage and participate in their families and communities to elevate the status of Hmong women and to shape their own lives. HWAT does not work directly with individuals, but selects projects that cast a wide net towards the community to change in ways that will be more inclusive of Hmong women at the decision making tables, and to inform others about the plight of Hmong women and improve opportunities for their voices to be sought out, heard, and their issues, championed.