Aklilu Burayu stands for a portrait on top of one of the four parking garages he supervises in downtown Minneapolis on Tuesday, July 2, 2019. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

MINNEAPOLIS — Calling Aklilu Burayu a parking ramp attendant doesn’t come close to describing the roles he’s played in the Twin Cities economy.

In the 13 years since coming to Minnesota from Ethiopia, he’s been a painter and sander at a Blaine wood factory, an assembly line worker in Arden Hills and worked a succession of office jobs through a staffing agency. These days when he’s not at the ramp, he picks up shifts at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as a chef.  

“America makes you a perfect person,” Burayu, 62, reflected on a recent day outside the ramp, comparing the intensity of struggle being new in America to the crushing geological pressure that forms diamonds in the earth. “It will push you to work hard.”

Like generations of immigrants before them, many Twin Cities East Africans are sacrificing now — working many of the jobs that others don’t want — betting it will deliver a better future for them and their families.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy in the present. Everyone who does it understands the cost: long hours at some of the region’s most thankless but necessary jobs.

‘For the first two years, I just cried’

East Africans are ubiquitous in the region’s low-level jobs. They’re the people walking quietly into offices, schools, retirement homes and hospitals after hours to clean or provide security overnight. 

It’s a good bet your taxi ride to the airport will come from an East African immigrant, as will the person weighing your bags or hauling them to the gate. The Amazon packages on Twin Cities doorsteps were likely handled by immigrants at the retail giant’s Shakopee distribution hub.

The jobs create opportunity, but they also come with the challenges of being new to the country, navigating cultural and social systems that can marginalize people.

East Africans born in America or brought here young, said Burayu, “they are not Ethiopian,” or Somali or Eritrean entirely, and “they are not American.”

Sebrin Ahmed came to America from Ethiopia when she was 16. Now 22, she works at a money exchange counter at the airport and said she still sometimes feels stuck between two worlds. 

“I can’t relate with people raised here and I can’t relate with people who just got here, if that makes any sense,” she said. “I have American characteristics and Ethiopian characteristics in me.”

She’s found a path forward through education. Ahmed took for-credit classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College while finishing high school, and is taking general courses now at St. Paul College. 

She’s pushed herself to make friends in Minnesota beyond those from her community and that’s helped make life here easier.

“For the first two years I just cried,” said Ahmed, recalling the loneliness she felt when she first arrived.

Mohamedsaid Ali, 20, said he’s felt those same tensions as the Minnesota-born child of Somali parents who immigrated to Eden Prairie in the mid 1990s before moving to Burnsville. Like Ahmed, he’s found ways to navigate different cultures.

He works at the airport and relishes the community of elders and young people who greet each other warmly and help each other. He’s also taking nursing classes at Normandale Community College.

“There is nowhere I could live [in America] but Minnesota without going crazy,” said Ali, 20, noting the community of Somalis and East Africans in the Twin Cities. “[A Somali] can only know a speck of English and can live here in Minnesota … It’s beautiful.”

Americans’ overall attitudes about immigrants have swung significantly over the decades. 

Despite the current tensions, though, recent surveys show a large percentage of Americans see immigrants as an asset to the nation.

In March, the Pew Research Center reported that nearly 60 percent of U.S. adults surveyed say “immigrants make the country stronger because of their work and talents,” while one-third saw immigrants as a “burden because they take jobs and social benefits.”

Those results are nearly exactly opposite of attitudes in the 1990s, “when most Americans said immigrants were a burden to the country,” Pew noted.

Futures delayed but not denied

Burayu grew up in Ethiopia. As a young adult, he worked there as a high school teacher and writer, got married and had four children. One day, he applied for an American visa lottery and won.

Though Ethiopia’s war with neighboring Eritrea had died down, and his entire family and friends and everything he knew was in Ethiopia, Burayu said that he, like many people from all over the globe, just wanted to come to America. He had a friend who could find a place to house his entire family of six in Columbia Heights, so he headed for Minnesota. 

He knows that it hasn’t been as smooth for others. He said he still hears the rumors people spread before coming stateside that everyone who moves to America becomes rich. It can be a shock when new arrivals see the rhetoric doesn’t match reality.

Hibaq Mohamed understands that feeling. 

“When I came I thought you can get whatever you want,” said Mohamed, 24, who was 17 when she arrived from Somalia. “When I come here, I get snow and wet,” she added with a laugh. 

Mohamed worked at the Amazon center in Shakopee. East Africans have become a substantial part of that workforce, drawn by relatively good wages. But tensions between management and those workers have boiled over in recent months.

Employees work 10 hour shifts and have to meet production quotas that change every week, she said. Taking the offered breaks makes meeting quotes that much harder and workers are often afraid to speak out, she added.

Mohamed and other East African and non-East African workers, have formed an unofficial union at the center. Whenever work conditions get too intense, the group temporarily stops work, bringing the shipping center and its package delivery system to a halt. One stoppage earlier this year lasted 24 hours.

Despite the struggle, Mohamed said she hasn’t soured on America, capitalism or the opportunities here. After injuring her knee on the job at Amazon, she said she’s taking a break from that job and is now in the nursing program at St. Paul College.

“I love the Twin Cities,” she said. “There are jobs here. I can find another job.”

The parking ramp job in downtown Minneapolis appealed to Burayu because he could easily take the bus to work from Columbia Heights or Brooklyn Center, where he lives now. He’s had the job for nearly his entire time in Minnesota, adding the majority of the parking ramp employees are East Africans.

“There is opportunity here,” said Burayu comparing prospects in Ethiopia and America. In Ethiopia, its peaceful enough for him and beautiful, there are colleges and universities, factories and businesses. But the schools aren’t as good and there jobs aren’t as plentiful. 

His kids in Minnesota, he said, live astonishingly different lives than if he had stayed in Ethiopia, and he is proud of that. Two of his children are University of Minnesota graduates, one is studying at the U and the other is finishing high school. 

“If you are hardworking,” he said, “America is yours.”

Contributing ReporterSolomon Gustavo is a contributing reporter for Sahan Journal. He's lifelong Minnesotan and first-generation Eritrean. He’s been published by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, City...