For African Immigrants, St. Paul Starting to Feel More Like Home

Frederick Melo, Twin Cities, July 4, 2015

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.

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[Editor’s Note: The rest of the story goes into detail about each big African community in Minnesota.]

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