Ethiopia: Oromo community in Minnesota struggles for visibility

Feyisa Lilesa posing with a Minnesota resident at Friday's event Courtesy of the Oromo Cultural Institute of Minnesota

When Feyisa Lilesa, a medal-winning Olympic runner from Ethiopia, visited Minnesota last weekend, most of the state didn’t notice.

Lilesa became a local hero among Oromo people last month after flashing a well-known protest sign against his country’s government at the finish line. The move prevented him from returning home to Ethiopia, fearing reprisal from those in power, but it made him welcome among many Oromo people living in the United States.

Oromos have been protesting against their government for decades, and many have fled the country since the 1970s fearing persecution. When violent demonstrations erupted over the Ethiopian government’s plans to reallocate farmland for development last November, some human rights groups said hundreds were killed by government forces in the backlash.

Here in Minnesota, thousands of Oromo people gathered at the Minneapolis Convention Center to welcome Lilesa as he visited the city over the weekend. But Minnesota’s Oromo leaders say that the event’s lack of attention reflected a longstanding feeling of invisibility among Oromos living in the state.

“We couldn’t accommodate everybody because there was no space,” said Oromo Cultural Institute of Minnesota Board Chair Girma Hassen. “But there was no media.”

The feeling isn’t a new one, Hassen said, and many Oromo living in Minnesota feel that their culture and history isn’t known or understood by the rest of the state’s population.

Earlier this summer, a survey conducted in partnership between the Oromo Cultural Institute of Minnesota (OCIM), the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation and the West Bank Community Coalition, showed that most of the city’s Oromo face serious language barriers — and often feel invisible to the rest of the state

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