From third-floor offices at the Court International Building along University Avenue in St. Paul, Ewnetu Bilata Debela helps serve “Ethiopians in diaspora” — families displaced by decades of border wars and government crack-downs on political dissidents, including many young people.
Debela assumed the position of consul general of the Federal and Democratic Republic of Ethiopia to Minnesota and the Midwest last month.
Ethiopia is now the only African nation represented in Minnesota by a fully-functioning career consulate with full diplomatic powers, as opposed to an honorary consulate. The only other Ethiopian consulates and embassies in the U.S. are located in Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and New York City.
Debela, who was once chief of staff to former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, spent nearly two years under his country’s old and new governments representing Ethiopia in Brussels.
In St. Paul, the new consulate has a broad range of powers and responsibilities, from granting travel visas and passports to promoting tourism and trade, the Twin Cities Pioneer Press reported.
Dawit Jida, proprietor of the Demera Restaurant on University Avenue, said it was a relief to finally have an Ethiopian consulate in St. Paul.
Until now, Ethiopians had to travel to the embassy in Washington, D.C. to resolve visa and passport issues face-to-face, or seek help with others matters requiring government documentation.
Now, “you can talk to somebody firsthand,” Jida said. “It’s a very good service for the Ethiopian community.”
Debela recognizes that he has his work cut out for him. His biggest challenge has little to do with administrative paperwork.
The looming question is one of trust: Some 80 ethnic groups call Ethiopia home, and of them, the Oromo are the largest, though federal police and other government institutions were long dominated by a smaller ethnic group, the Tigray.
Ethnic divisions have long spilled over into the work of Ethiopia’s 100 consulates and embassies around the world, which have sometimes been accused of favoring one group over another.
He’s hoping to change that perception, in part by surrounding himself with a diverse staff of 12 workers.
At least four different languages are spoken throughout the office, including English.
Favoritism “has been a weak point of other consulate generals. This consulate general belongs to all 80 ethnic groups,” said Debela, who pledged to “serve everybody without any prejudice to their ethnic background.”
Trust will also be key in tackling one of Ethiopia’s largest challenges — unemployment.
“We had two universities 20 years ago. Now we have more than 50 state universities, and some 20 private universities,” said Debela.
He noted education has progressed faster than job growth, fomenting street protests in recent years led by students and other young people.
“We’re really doing good as a prerequisite for development, but the problem is there’s a gap between the demand and supply of jobs.”
The solution may be found, in part, in Minnesota. At least, that’s the hope of Abebe Lema, the Consulate General’s investment, trade and tourism promotion officer.
Ethiopia, which once spurned foreign influence in its economy, is now courting it in hopes of growing targeted industries.
“The government is opening up economic sectors for foreign investors, including airlines, shipping and telecom, which were previously restricted to domestic investors,” Lema said.
It will be a while before the Consulate General gets up and running with its investment outreach, but that and tourism promotion are somewhere on the horizon.
“We are focused on diaspora services right now, but as time goes by, we will focus on outreach to the chambers of commerce, find a venue to organize our trade (fairs), network with corporations,” Lema said.
He foresees hosting an investment forum, perhaps within the next year, featuring business leaders from Minnesota and Ethiopia.
Tensions between ethnic groups remain in Ethiopia, even as a once-centralized government authority opens itself up to more democratic institutions.
Teshite Wako, a leader in Minnesota’s Oromo community and chief financial officer of St. Paul’s Neighborhood Development Center, who spent long hours in recent years traveling to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness of human rights abuses.
Wako said he believes economic opportunity and political stability will grow hand-in-hand.
“How much has changed in a year, for the Ethiopian government to open a consulate here,” said Wako, marveling at the arrival of the 5,000-square-foot mini-embassy along St. Paul’s Green Line light rail corridor. “That’s really a testament to how much the government has changed from the inside to respond to human rights demands.”
Following a peaceful transition of power within the Ethiopian government in April 2018, the East African nation of 100 million people has ended a 20-year war with neighboring Eritrea and granted amnesty to thousands of newly-freed political prisoners, including students and journalists.
The government of new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has also loosened trade and travel restrictions, opened key sectors of the economy to foreign investors, and extended new outreach to Ethiopians living around the world, including the estimated 100,000 Ethiopians in Minnesota.
Challenges remain, including high unemployment, and the growing privatization of state-owned businesses has drawn attention around the world.
But to Wako, these are better days for Ethiopians in Minnesota, and for their relatives back in his country of origin.
“We have to focus on economic diplomacy to bring more jobs to the country,” Wako said.