How a Minnesota Paper Became One of the World’s Leading Sources of Ethiopian News

Henok Alemayehu Degfu, 34, founded ZeHabesha in 2008.

By Ibrahim Hirsi (MinnPost) |

Nearly a decade ago, when Henok Alemayehu Degfu spent his first two paychecks on a laptop, some of his relatives thought he was nuts.

Henok had been in the U.S. for only a couple of months at that point, and those close to him expected him to save the money he earned from his part-time job.

Henok, however, had a dream — one he had been determined to pursue since 2004, when the government in Ethiopia shut down the newspaper he ran there and accused him of defamation, charges that could have put him behind bars for decades.

His purchase of that Toshiba laptop was the first step toward establishing a news outlet in Minnesota — home to thousands of Ethiopian-Americans who arrived in the 2000s as political refugees — for and about his native country.

After securing a computer, all that Henok needed to do was to report, write and put together an entire newspaper. And in December of 2008, that’s exactly what he did, publishing the first issue of ZeHabesha, a 24-page monthly newspaper featuring articles that are important to the Ethiopian-American community.

“I started publishing 4,000 copies each month,” said Henok, 34, who serves as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. “It was very hard to do it on my own, but I knew people were hungry for news that is told in their language; and as a journalist, I felt I have a responsibility to provide that.”
A brief history of Ethiopians in Minnesota

Ethiopians started coming to the United States in the 1960s, mostly as students pursuing higher education or professionals who were sent here for career development. After their arrivals, many of them obtained permanent residency and extended their stay in the U.S.

That small group was later joined by larger groups, many escaping civil war and ethnic tensions — complicated by drought and famine — during the 1970s and 1980s. When those tensions escalated once again after 2000, an even larger wave of Ethiopian immigrants came to the U.S., according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute.

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