Shegitu Kebede's journey from refugee to restaurateur

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 5, 2014 - 6:41 PM

Shegitu Kebede, an orphaned refugee from Ethiopia, has lived the American immigrant’s dream. Now she’s going back to Africa to help others follow in her footsteps.

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Shegitu Kebede, co-owner and manager of Flamingo Restaurant in St. Paul, is going back to Ethiopia to start a school to help refugees learn job skills and English.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS • kharkness@startribune.com,

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Shegitu Kebede is one of those hardworking immigrant entrepreneurs who’s probably never going to get rich. But she believes she’s blessed. And she’s enriched herself and others with her heart and volunteer work. She would say that may be the greatest wealth.

“I’m eating and I support myself,” said Kebede, an orphan and refugee from war-torn Ethiopia. “I was picked from a refugee camp [in 1989] and assigned to go to America. I was blessed. I have an apartment. My son works with me and my daughter is in college in California. I have many friends.”

This month, Kebede returns to Ethiopia at the invitation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help build a school in a refugee camp where children and women bound for America can start learning English and a trade.

Since coming to America, Kebede, 45, has worked as a hotel clerk, run an office-cleaning business that trained other immigrant women and, for the last several years, has been co-owner and manager of Flamingo Restaurant in the Hamline-University neighborhood of St. Paul.

She also is a longtime volunteer and board member of the International Institute of Minnesota (www.iimn.org), which aids immigrants and helps them assimilate.

“I remember being a refuge,” Kebede said. “I just sat and ate a little. No running water or shower. No school.

“They need more schools and to learn to sew, make furniture and grow vegetables. To learn English. They are Ethiopian, Eritreans and Sudanese. Some will go to Western countries and others will be resettled. I want to start with one school, get it running. Do it well. Maybe we’ll be able to do another.”

Kebede has raised more than $20,000 from a fundraising dinner she hosted at the International Institute and other donations from customers, friends and admirers.

“Shegitu is one of my top role models of people coming from a tough background, rising to a middle-class lifestyle through hard work, and not forgetting to help the people from which she came,” said Joe ­Selvaggio, the veteran ­nonprofit ­executive who recently retired from Microgrants (www.microgrants.net), which connects donors and fledgling immigrant and other small businesses with small grants.

“Shegitu had several rough years with her baby in a Kenyan refugee camp,” Selvaggio said. “She was an orphan. She lost a brother to war. In America, she started a cleaning business. Now she toils endlessly at her Flamingo Restaurant and is helping her daughter get through college. She is always upbeat and works hard and [helps] disadvantaged Africans or any disadvantage person. And now she’s going to take three months off to go to that refugee camp and build a school.”

In 2006, Kebede was awarded the McKnight Foundation’s Virginia McKnight Binger Human Service Award. In 2011, she was featured in the Minnesota History Center exhibit, “The Value of One Life.”

She has written her powerful story in a 2011 book, “Visible Strengths, Hidden Scars.”

Kebede has a special place in her heart for women and children. She was beaten and raped while finding her way to a Kenyan refugee camp. And she survived an abusive relationship in America.

She finds solace and meaning through her faith, friends and work; whether cooking delicious food, serving guests or training immigrant workers.

Minnesota is an immigrant state. You particularly notice them in the resurgent core neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul. About 10 percent of Twin Cities residents are foreign-born.

Economic impact

Prof. Bruce Corrie at Concordia University in St. Paul long has studied immigrants and economics. After an initial cost for resettlement and education, they soon become net economic contributors. It’s estimated that immigrant-owned business alone employ 21,000-plus Minnesotans who produce about $2 billion worth of goods and services annually.

In 2009, a study sponsored by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Immigrant Coalition concluded, “Unlike native-born Americans, who are aging rapidly and creating what some have called a ‘silver tsunami,’ immigrants are generally in their prime working years when they come to the United States, thus providing a crucial infusion to the workforce.”

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