A U.S. citizen survives political prison in Ethiopia

Okwa Omot is sleeping safely in a warm bed at his home in Washington, D.C. this week. That is something of a miracle considering that only a week ago – and for 107 days before that – he was sleeping on freezing cold concrete floors in Ethiopian prisons, accused of treason and threatened with execution. The 32-year-old hotel housekeeper and U.S. citizen had traveled to Ethiopia in July to visit family members he hadn’t seen for nine years. Instead, he was arrested for inciting revolution and shut away in prison. He was released last Tuesday after friends in Minnesota and U.S. Embassy officials in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, worked for weeks to convince Ethiopian authorities that Omot posed no threat to their country. Continue Reading

Stared down by neo-Nazis, she battled back with love

When Giselle Stern Hernández finished writing her one-woman show, “The Deportee’s Wife,” not in her wildest dreams did she imagine she’d one day perform it for neo-Nazis.  That would have been like a sick joke or an awful nightmare. After all, Stern Hernández is the daughter of a Polish Jewish father and a Mexican mother – and her play tells of her struggle to bring her Mexican husband back into the U.S. after he was deported to Mexico.  Yet when Stern Hernández took the stage last Thursday at the Riverland Community College here, she found herself standing before a crowd of 120 people – including four neo-Nazis. Sitting about ten feet ahead of her in the theater’s front-row-center seats were two men and two younger companions wearing black stadium jackets and T-shirts emblazoned with symbols of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), a group that advocates the deportation, “peacefully or by force,” of all people in the U.S. except citizens of “pure White blood.” Bullhorn Rants Stern Hernández delivered her lines while looking almost directly into the eyes of Sam Johnson, the NSM’s “Unit Leader” in Austin and the organizer in recent months of several attention-getting rallies opposing liberal immigration reform.  Burly and bald-headed, Johnson is known throughout southern Minnesota for his bullhorn rants at public rallies, his racist outbursts and for wearing swastikas. In a typical appearance last July, he disrupted a pro-immigration event in Albert Lea by standing close to Mexican migrant workers while shrieking, spittle-mouthed: “You think America’s going to let you get away with this? Not a chance! Continue Reading

The idiot monster and the news

That our news media is busted will come as no surprise to consumers of vanishing newspapers, shoutfest TV “news shows” and the unchecked political soapbox called the Internet. But the devolution of our news media has now reached a point that is in some ways so extreme, and with the stakes for democracy so high, it seems useful to take stock. Larger and larger swaths of the news media now embrace sensation and celebrity, harshly partisan rhetoric and gossip, rumors and lies to beat the competition and grab market share. Trusted sources of information are fading into irrelevance as we race into a new golden age for anarchists, demagogues and online pamphleteers. The Web, to be sure, puts masses of indisputably proven facts at our disposal. Continue Reading

McGill on the Media | The Politico Paradox: Feeding the media we hate

For just a brief moment before Politico.com co-founder John Harris spoke last Friday at his alma mater, Carleton College, he might have allowed himself to think that finally – finally! – he would safely be able to relax in the warm embrace of a completely friendly and appreciative crowd. After co-founding the gossipy, sensation-loving, successful Washington news web site Politico.com three years ago, Harris has taken plenty of hard public whacks from media critics for having added yet another rumor-mongering, ethically-dodgy “news” outlet to the global media. A former political reporter for the Washington Post, Harris often fights back when criticized this way by insisting that he in fact despises what he calls “the freak show” of modern American politics and the media. In speeches and a book he calls the freak show “a type of politics that rewards attack, rhetorical bombast, the most flamboyant personalities and the most incendiary arguments.” Continue Reading

A journey from war to football and first snow

Since Feras Alkaisi, his wife Sulaf, and their two young children moved here four months ago, they’ve experienced a lot of firsts – backyard barbecues, a casino  (Treasure Island), carnival rides (at the Mall of America), watching football on TV, and last week, falling snow. 
“I saw snow once before but it was on the ground and just a little bit,” Feras recalls. “I never saw snow falling through the air until last week.” He paused for a moment to take in the new memory, then a question occurred. 
“Is it often cold in Minnesota ?” 
Newcomers, indeed. And their culture shock is all the greater given their city of origin which is Basra, Iraq, an ancient capital and commercial port that has seen some of Iraq’s worst violence in recent years. 
Feras, Sulaf and their two children, Ahmed, 5, and Dima, 2, are one of 16 families that have moved to Rochester in the past year from Iraq, as part of a wave of thousands of Iraq War refugees who are now resettling in the United States. 
Thinking Error
The 16 new Iraqi families in Rochester comprise 77 people, with another 100 or so Iraqi refugees planning to resettle in Rochester in the coming year, according to Catholic Charities, the local non-profit that handles refugee resettlement. Some 32,655 Iraqis have resettled in the U.S. in the past two years. 
One thing that isn’t giving the Alkaisi family the least bit of culture shock in the U.S., though, is consumer culture — houses, cars, computers and shopping malls. 
“There is an error in some thinking here about Iraq,” Feras says. “Many people ask us if we were living in the desert before.” Well, hardly. 
Iraq’s major port city on the Persian Gulf, Basra is a metropolis in the heart of the country’s most productive oil fields. Continue Reading

Her job is ‘welcoming the stranger’ to Minnesota

When Mary Alessio gave a speech at the Kiwanis Club in Rochester last summer, she was shaken when she looked out at her audience and saw dozens of men who looked exactly like her father – row upon row of her father, one father per seat.   
“My father’s a tough critic,” Alessio recalls, “and here I was giving a talk to a whole room filled with him.” 
To make matters worse for her, Alessio was speaking that day about a topic she knew her father would ask some very demanding questions about – the resettlement of refugees from the world’s most troubled war zones to here in Rochester, Minnesota. 
Alessio knows a lot about the subject because she is Director of Refugee Resettlement in Rochester for Catholic Charities, the not-for-profit agency that has resettled thousands of refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq and other countries gutted by violence, war and famine over the years to this town. 
90-to-180 Days
Sure enough, when the Q & A started, one of her fathers out in the audience immediately raised his hand and fired away. 
“We have enough problems taking care of people right here in the United States,” he demanded. “Why don’t we focus on solving that instead of taking in all these new people for a short time and then just dropping them?” 
There’s no surefire answer to that question, as Alessio has discovered over the past five years, first as a case worker and then leading the agency in its basic daily work of guiding new refugee arrivals through a jam-packed 90-to-180 day resettlement process. During that time, each new arrival is introduced to the network of city, state and national agencies with programs to help them. Office visits are made to the local government center, the Olmsted County Public Health Services, the Rochester Public Library, to school offices for language testing, and so on. 
But Alessio and her agency’s other case workers are known for taking their jobs a step beyond this required checklist of duties. 
Eight Percent
One time, Alessio was driving by Miracle Computers on 37th Street NE and on an impulse, she stopped and went in. She told the startled company owner about a newly-arrived Iraqi refugee who was terrific at fixing computers and lined up a job interview for him on the spot. Continue Reading

After ruin in Iraq, a new Minnesota life begins

Raad Ghareeb uses the phrase “below zero” quite a bit, but not in the way that Minnesotans employ it during our frozen winter months. Rather, Raad deploys his personal tag line with a grin in sentences like: “When I started my new life in Minnesota, I started below zero,” and: “I had everything in Iraq, but when I lost everything after the war, I fell below zero.” All said with a dazzling smile, twinkling eyes, and the gregarious energy of a merchant, which was Raad’s line of work before fleeing Iraq in 2006. After a white-knuckle escape into neighboring Jordan he spent two years as a refugee there with his family, and they all arrived in Rochester in July of 2008.   Minnesota Cities His cheerfulness makes it hard to fathom that Raad’s customized-for-Minnesota pun is tragically true. He and his family of five lost all that they physically owned during the Iraq war; they lost the country where they were born and raised; they left all their friends and relatives behind in Iraq; and they now live in Rochester as refugees trying to make a new life in our strange, nice, so-often-cold state. Continue Reading

In Minnesota, Ethiopians brace for a dreaded visit

Pulling up folding chairs to round tables, sipping hot sweet tea out of styrofoam cups and arguing politics into the afternoon, the men at the Horn Afrik café here last weekend all had the name of one man on their lips. Every time that man’s name was mentioned, the volume of chatter was deafening. I was the one native Minnesotan in the café, and a journalist, and when the men there learned that I wanted to hear about this man who was causing such a commotion, they gathered around me, eager to tell their stories and to show me their wounds. Osman had a scar that runs from his lower lip to the tip of his jaw. Mohamed had a raggedy star-shaped scar in the center of his forehead, and another at the crown of his head. Continue Reading

When Ethiopia invades Somalia, Minnesota takes a hit

It sounds a bit roundabout at first, but if Minnesotans truly want to know why Minnesota became a breeding ground for young Somalis who take up arms with Somalia’s extremist militias, we need to look first at Ethiopia. Specifically, we need to scrutinize U.S. foreign policy towards Ethiopia, which the U.S. has supported with millions of dollars in annual aid for many years. Connecting the dots is always hard in the Horn of Africa, and therefore also in Minnesota, which has one of the world’s largest diaspora populations from the Horn of Africa, including refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Kenya.Fortunately, a new policy paper from the Council on Foreign Relations does an excellent job of connecting the dots by drawing a bright line connecting U.S. financial and military support for Ethiopia and the rise of Islamist militant groups in Somalia, of the type that recently attracted 20 Somalis living in Minnesota to join. Somali MilitiasFive of those young men have died in the fighting, and one of the largest domestic terrorism investigations ever in the U.S. is underway to determine how Somalis in Minnesota and other states are recruited to fight with Islamist Somali militias.The connection to Minnesota is implicit in the CFR paper but deeply compelling. It is so because the report clarifies how U.S. support for Ethiopia is a key component – possibly the most critical one – contributing to the radicalization of young Somalis living both inside Somalia and in the global Somali diaspora, such as in Minnesota.The paper’s very first sentences provide the context for that claim: “U.S. strategic interests in the Horn of Africa center on preventing Somalia from becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other transformational jihadist groups. Continue Reading

Ethiopia in Minnesota: The local front of a distant war

What am I, truly? Saint or sinner? Hero or boob? When I report the harrowing stories of the torture and persecution of Ethiopian refugees who now live safely in Minnesota, am I being  “noble” and “brave,” a “freedom-loving” journalist who is “a friend to the voiceless ones”? Or am I – as dozens of riled-up critics of my reporting charge – in fact being a sucker for refugees who lie to win asylum status, and even worse being a “biased,” “ignorant,” “confused white man” who “sits down in [my] luxurious home in the Twin Cities to write about what happens in the Horn of Africa,” believing that I am helping to heal the world while in fact I am only “fostering more violence”? Continue Reading