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More than a dozen family members and supporters showed up at the federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis Thursday morning to support Mekfira Hussein as she appeared in court dressed in neon green jailhouse clothing. To many of them, she’s a respected leader in the local Oromo community, but to authorities she’s one of dozens of suspects in the alleged $250 million embezzlement of federal food-aid funds.
One supporter, Aisha Ali, spoke highly of Mekfira.
“She’s left an amazing legacy in our community,” Aisha said. “She’s a role model. You know, the youth look up to her, the women look up to her. She’s just—she’s just an amazing leader.”
A day after federal agents raided more than 15 properties earlier this year in the opening salvo of what is now the largest COVID relief fraud in the nation, Mekfira told Sahan Journal that her nonprofit was above board and that she welcomed scrutiny. The FBI was investigating several organizations like Mekfira’s for allegedly falsely reporting that they served meals to large numbers of low-income children in order to receive federal money that subsidized the food.
“It’s discrediting people who are actually doing their job. That is not okay,” Mekfira told Sahan Journal in an article published January 21. “People will steal from banks, but why would you steal from children?”
Mekfira’s nonprofit, Shamsia Hopes, is headquartered in Brooklyn Center, which is also home to the local FBI office.
“I am next door to the FBI headquarters,” Mekfira said at the time. “They [FBI] can always stop by and see what we’re doing. It’s not like we’re hiding.”
Prosecutors this week painted a starkly different picture of Mekfira, accusing the Shakopee woman of trying to flee the country on a one-way ticket to Ethiopia. She was booked into a local county jail on Tuesday–the same day her flight was scheduled to take off from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport at 6:32 p.m. It was also the same day U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced charges against 47 other defendants in the food-aid investigation.
Luger’s office unsealed bribery charges against Mekfira late Tuesday, making her the case’s 48th defendant.
According to the charges: Mekfira is accused of paying more than $80,000 in kickbacks to Abdikerm Eidleh, a Feeding Our Future employee, for enrolling Shamsia Hopes in the federal food-aid program. Mekfira’s nonprofit contracted with Feeding Our Future as a food site that reported to feed children. Mekfira reported serving 5,000 meals every day seven days a week in December 2020.
Shamsia Hopes received more than $6.8 million in federal food-aid money between December 2020 and November 2021 for reportedly providing 3.4 million meals, the charges said. Prosecutors allege that Shamsia Hopes didn’t feed close to that many children.
Mekfira defended her nonprofit’s integrity in May 2021, when Sahan Journal reported on a dispute between Feeding Our Future and the Minnesota Department of Education. The dispute occurred months before the investigation into Feeding Our Future became public in January 2022.
The education department distributes the federal food-aid money to sponsor organizations, including Feeding Our Future. Those sponsors then disseminated that money further to smaller organizations like Mekfira’s nonprofit, religious institutions, and others that were supposed to feed children.
At the time, the education department wasn’t publicly making fraud accusations against Feeding Our Future. However, the department’s Assistant Commissioner Daron Korte spoke to the Pioneer Press about a “fraud risk” in the ballooning number of nonprofits in Minnesota receiving food-aid funds through the federal Child Nutrition Programs. That spring, the education department froze federal payments to some of the nonprofits, including Shamsia Hopes.
“That is a big accusation,” Mekfira told Sahan Journal then, referring to Korte’s comments. “I’m not saying everybody does 100 percent, because I can only speak for myself, but if they think someone is doing that, I think they should just call on that site, instead of just generalizing everybody.”
She told Sahan Journal in May 2021 that she laid off 30 employees and independent contractors because of the state freezing food-aid funds.
“I told them, ‘Give it a couple of weeks, and maybe we’ll be back,’” Mekfira said at the time. “Right now we have no job, so they’re praying.”
According to the charges against Mekfira, the same month she first spoke to Sahan Journal, she allegedly registered a 2021 Tesla Model 3 car in her name. In April 2021, she allegedly purchased a Porsche Cayenne for more than $93,000 with food-aid money. She paid off the Porsche with one check using Shamsia Hopes’ bank account.
In previous interviews with Sahan Journal, Mekfira said the business where she purchased food that her nonprofit served was called Oromia Feeds. The federal charges say Oromia Feeds is run by her husband, and that Mekfira allegedly diverted $4 million of food-aid money to Oromia Feeds, much of which wasn’t used to feed kids.
The title for Mekfira’s Tesla was allegedly transferred to her husband’s name in January 2022, the same month search warrant affidavits publicly revealed the federal investigation for the first time.
Asked about the government’s allegations against Mekfira, Aisha said: “I believe she’s innocent until proven guilty. We were just really shocked and just sad to see our beloved Mekfira in this situation, and that’s why we’re here to support her.”
Mekfira has held prominent roles in the local Oromo community. She currently serves as president of the Oromo Sports Federation of North America, a St. Paul-based sports club. She helped Minneapolis city officials organize Oromo Week this past summer, which included the city projecting the colors of the Oromo flag–red and green–onto bridges in Minneapolis.
Mekfira has also organized local rallies in support of Oromo people in Ethiopia who are being discriminated against by the government there.
Shamsia Hopes delivered food
Sahan Journal visited Shamsia Hopes’ office in February 2022 just weeks after the FBI raided at least 15 properties linked to the alleged fraud. Grocery bags containing crackers, fruit, and vegetables lined the front room so people could pick them up. Boxes of bulk food were stacked in rooms and the fridge was full of milk. Two food trucks emblazoned with the “Shamsia Hopes” insignia were parked out front.
At the time, the state had cut off food-aid funding from Mekfira’s sponsor organization, Feeding Our Future. Mekfira told Sahan Journal that she was serving food purchased with what money remained from the federal food-aid program. She also said she was planning to file paperwork with the Department of Education to become her own sponsor.
Mekfira at the time said she was giving out food at the office and about 10 other sites across the metro. One of those sites was at Dunamis Praise Chapel International, a Pentacostal church in Brooklyn Center where the congregation is comprised of mostly African immigrants.
Emmanuel Darmo, a pastor at Dunamis Praise, said Thursday that during the COVID pandemic, Shamsia Hopes delivered free bagged meals to the church once a week that would feed the entire congregation. He couldn’t recall the exact number of meals, but said it was enough to feed a couple hundred people. He said his congregation benefited from the meals.
Darmo expressed shock at the charges against Mekfira.
“To hear that, that surprises me,” he said. “I don’t know the whole scope of her operations, but she did deliver food to us, that is a sure case. Beyond that, I don’t know anything.”
Youthway Ministries is another organization that received food from Shamsia Hopes. Youthway Ministries recovers food that grocery stores pull off the shelf to discard, and makes it available to people in need.
Youthway Ministries runs three sites; the biggest is out of a megachurch in Fridley called Substance Church that provides food to 1,100 mostly Latino families each week.
Shamsia Hopes started donating food to Youthway Ministries in late 2021. The relationship started when Shamsia Hopes approached one of Youthway’s sites and asked if they wanted food. Youthway Ministries Executive Director Forrest Gregory credits Shamsia Hopes with helping stock his shelves during a difficult time.
“It really, really helped our program because we were short on fresh produce and stuff like that,” he said.
But Gregory also said parts of the Shamsia Hopes operation drew suspicion from him. The quality of Shamsia Hopes’ food seemed freshly bought off the shelves, unlike the leftover food that typically ends up at food shelves.
“They were buying stuff from Sam’s Club and Costco and it’s like, that’s expensive,” Gregory said. “Why don’t they get it from Second Harvest?”
Another thing that raised his suspicion is how often the Shamsia Hopes staffers who delivered food changed.
“I kept wondering, ‘Most food shelves are run pretty lean,’” he said. “‘Where do you get all your funding from?’ Every time I quiz them about it, they just say, ‘Oh, we have a sponsor.’”
Gregory condemned Mekfira’s alleged crimes.
“When I hear about people spending money like that–embezzling money–that really, really rubs me the wrong way, especially since we’re busting our butts to penny pinch,” he said. “The other thing that runs through my mind now is how it’s going to be even harder when we do get government money.”
Jailed then freed
The charges against Mekfira allege that she purchased a one-way ticket to Ethiopia that was set to leave September 20. Mekfira’s attorney, Jason Steck, said after her court hearing Thursday that Mekfira bought the ticket on September 2—weeks before prosecutors filed charges against her on September 19—so she could go tend to her sick father-in-law.
“There was no attempt to flee the country at all,” Steck told reporters. “She was going to visit a sick relative.”
Steck said Mekfira purchased a one-way ticket because she didn’t know how long she would be caring for her father-in-law. He has since died, Steck said.
Mekfira found out she was a target in the wide-ranging federal investigation Tuesday morning after FBI agents visited her home, Steck said. Mekfira wasn’t home at the time; FBI agents spoke to her child, who then called her at work.
“She called me, and then she called the FBI and immediately voluntarily turned herself in,” Steck said, adding that he and Mekfira were surprised she was charged.
Steck did not address all of the allegations against Mekfira, stating that he had not fully read through them. He maintained Mekfira’s innocence.
“It looks to me like the U.S. Attorney’s Office is pretty much indicting everybody in sight,” Steck said. “I think it’s over-expansive. I think that they’ve caught a bunch of people in their net that don’t need to be caught and are not guilty of this, and I think Ms. Hussein is one of those.”
He described Shamsia Hopes as “a longstanding nonprofit.” Prosecutors allege that several nonprofits were newly created just to embezzle food-aid money through their partnership with Feeding Our Future.
“This is not one of these nonprofits that was established by Feeding Our Future just for the purpose of channeling money,” he said. “It was a longstanding nonprofit and continues to be, serving the East African community.”
Business records show Shamsia Hopes was established in 2015 and that it’s nonprofit status is in good standing. Shamsia Hopes enrolled in the fall of 2020 to receive federal food-aid funds for the first time. Mekfira previously told Sahan Journal that her organization helped provide clothes to the needy and helped recently arrived East African women find jobs for themselves and schools for their children.
A woman reached by phone Thursday afternoon at Shamsia Hopes declined to comment on the case.
Mekfira was one of seven defendants in the food-aid investigation who were detained in a local county jail as of Wednesday evening. But prosecutors agreed Thursday morning to release her from custody as long as she surrendered her passport.
Mekfira could not be reached for comment Thursday.
When she first spoke to Sahan Journal in early 2021, Mekfira described how her experience fighting childhood hunger inspired her work feeding needy children. As a young girl, she and her family fled from Ethiopia to Kenya as refugees and often skipped meals.
She said she went full days without eating.
“Growing up, you’ll eat maybe once a day, twice if you’re lucky,” Mekfira said. “Three times were the people who actually have the money.”