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Oromos in Minnesota: The Making of Little Oromia

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Women at the March for Oromia in St. Paul, 2007

Oromo women participate in the March for Oromia at the Minnesota state capitol in St. Paul on July 26, 2007. Photo by Oromia Entertainment, CC BY-SA 2.0.

After Kenya, which supports about half a million native Oromos, the state of Minnesota has the largest population of Oromo people outside their homeland in Ethiopia. As a result, Oromo people worldwide know the Twin Cities as Little Oromia. The story of how the area came to earn this name is intertwined with Oromo culture, politics, migration, religious faith, and adaptation to life in the United States in the late twentieth century.


The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, accounting for 40–50 percent of its population. Prior to the 1980s, outsiders knew very little about them, and what they did know came from Abyssinian writers, who called them Galla. The term Galla, of unknown origin, referred to people without religion, culture, or civilization in an Ethiopian context. The Oromo never called themselves Galla, nor were they always part of the nation of Ethiopia.

According to historical records, the Oromos have lived in the same general area they now occupy in central and southern Ethiopia since the twelfth century CE. From then until the close of the nineteenth century, they lived as neighbors with Abyssinian kingdoms, with whom they went to war intermittently. As the Oromo did not have a written language, all descriptions of them were composed by outsiders—mainly Abyssinian scribes and their European allies. The Abyssinians stood to benefit from presenting the Oromo, their archenemies, in a bad light. Europeans who visited Abyssinia, therefore, unwittingly propagated Abyssinian prejudices when they wrote about the Oromo.

When Europeans divided up Africa among themselves in 1884 and 1885 during what became known as the Scramble for Africa, they exempted Abyssinia since it was a “Christian empire.” They also gave Abyssinia firearms and allowed it to expand its imperial territory. As a result, the Oromo fell under the brutal occupation of Abyssinia and suffered harsh and continuing repression. They lost their freedoms as well as their right to use their lands, to practice their culture, and to speak their language. Ever since, the Oromo have struggled to regain their freedom. The intensification of this struggle in the 1970s and resulting persecution motivated many Oromos to become refugees and flee to new homes, including Minnesota.

First Arrivals in Minnesota

The first two Oromos to settle in Minnesota arrived in the early 1970s. Tasissa Moti came as a student with his American wife, Geri (a nurse who had been a missionary in Ethiopia) towards the end of August 1972. Teferi Fufa, the author of this article, came by himself to attend college in early September of the same year. Tasissa Moti studied at a community college in Minneapolis before transferring to the University of Minnesota; Fufa enrolled in Bethel College in Arden Hills and later transferred to the University of Minnesota.

In 1974, a military coup d’etat dubbed the “creeping coup” deposed the government of Emperor Haile Selassie. Afterward, the political environment in Ethiopia went from bad to worse as warring parties multiplied. The monarchists sought to regain power. The different nationalist movements wanted freedom for their respective nationalities, and the new military rulers, known as the Dergue, aimed to consolidate power.

Amid this chaotic and dangerous time, three more Oromos arrived in Minnesota, each with their own story of escape from the dangers in Ethiopia. All three used their ties with Christian missions in Oromo areas of Ethiopia to escape from varying degrees of political persecution. Although they were students, they did not follow the normal route of Ethiopian students coming to the US. At the time, Haile Selassie’s official government policy limited both the number of Oromos who could be educated and the amount of education they received. Therefore, it was nearly impossible for an Oromo student to get the paperwork necessary to leave the country for the purpose of education.

People often ask Oromo refugees, “Why Minnesota? Why not a warmer state?” The truth is, none of these early arrivals had a choice. They were provided an opportunity and they jumped on it. Their missionary contacts—Lutherans in particular—are responsible for drawing them to the North Star state.

First Wave of Refugees

The fall of Selassie’s government brought a new wave of political violence, and thousands of refugees fled Ethiopia for the neighboring countries of Somalia, Djibouti, and Sudan. By 1980, this new group had begun to flow into the US. Oromos already in Minnesota observed their struggle and organized to help them escape from the horrors of the camps. In 1981 they founded the Oromo Relief Association of North America (ORANA) in the Twin Cities to serve a dual purpose: to help refugees living in the camps and to find American families who could sponsor and resettle as many of them as possible. Refugee resettlement agencies like Lutheran Social Service, Lutheran World Relief, and the International Institute of Minnesota then facilitated their transfer from camps to the homes of sponsor families in the Twin Cities.

The cooperation of resettlement agencies opened a more or less direct link between refugee camps in Africa and ORANA in Minnesota. Through this channel, more refugees received sponsors and resettled in the Twin Cities. The harsher political persecution became in Ethiopia, the more refugees fled into the refugee camps, and the worse living conditions became. By 1984, the refugee situation in the Horn of Africa had become a major international humanitarian crisis, and Somalia, Djibouti, and Sudan were all hosting Ethiopian refugees, mostly Oromos.

As the 1980s progressed, more Oromo refugees found their way to Minnesota not only from Somalia and Djibouti but also from Sudan. By the middle of the decade there were over 200 Oromos living in the Twin Cities, and more continued to come—some from Africa and others from other American cities. ORANA continued its work by organizing public fundraising events that featured Oromo food, cultural shows, and presentations about Oromo history and the Oromo diaspora.

Second Wave of Refugees

The socialist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam collapsed in May 1991 when a coalition of guerilla groups (the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, or EPLF; the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF; and the Oromo Liberation Front, or OLF) forced their way into the Ethiopian capital at Addis Ababa. With the mediation of the US government, the EPLF agreed to lead Eritrea into independence from Ethiopia while the TPLF and the OLF formed a transitional government in Ethiopia. Oromo people began to hope that life would return to normal and the years of strife would subside.

In 1992, the TPLF forced the OLF out of the government. As OLF leaders left the country, members and supporters faced severe political persecution, including arrest, imprisonment, and mass killings. The unrest led another wave of political refugees to flee Ethiopia, this time mainly for Kenya. By and by, many of them found their way to Minnesota, and by the mid-1990s, the number of Oromos in the Twin Cities had grown exponentially over the previous decade. While there is no census that gives us an accurate figure, an estimate of tens of thousands would not be far from the mark.


In addition to ORANA, which concentrated on providing humanitarian assistance to Oromo refugees, Minneapolis and St. Paul in the 1980s needed an organization that would look after the well being of the local Oromo community. In response to this need, a group called Oromo Community of Minnesota began meeting in the early 1980s in a small building in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. As the community grew, the organization strengthened, and today (2020) it manages a center in a former church in St. Paul that provides services to Oromo youth and the elderly.

Oromo Minnesotans supporting the arrival of new refugees discovered that Americans knew little about Ethiopia and nothing about the Oromo. To find support, they needed to explain what it meant to be an Oromo in Ethiopia and explain the problems the Oromos faced there. In response, they held public conferences and invited speakers—mainly sympathetic scholars and former missionaries—to speak on Oromo topics. They put on cultural demonstrations and made presentations in churches around the state. In Minneapolis in 1982 they formed the Oromo Support Committee, composed of Oromos and concerned Minnesotans. Some of the members visited refugee camps in Djibouti and Sudan. Through this work, Oromos formed close and lasting friendships with their American neighbors.

The activism of the first Oromos in Minnesota became a way of life and contributed to ongoing community activities. As the community grew, it became imperative for Oromos to organize socially and politically—not only to survive and thrive in their adopted homeland, but also to influence what was happening in Ethiopia. The Union of Oromo in North America, which had a strong chapter in Minnesota, closely followed events in Ethiopia and wrote extensively about them in the 1980s. Papers were presented at its annual meetings, and the proceedings were printed. This effort led to the formation in 1990 of the Oromo Studies Association, an academic group committed to the advancement of Oromo scholarship.

In the beginning, Bethany Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis provided a supportive and welcoming environment for Oromos to come together for spiritual solace. It did not matter that all five of the early arrivals who came as students were Christians, or that the refugees who came from Djibouti and Somalia, eight in all, were Muslims. At Bethany, they all felt at home. By the 1990s, however, the growing Oromo population needed its own places of worship. Christian Oromos formed a Bible study group in the 1980s that blossomed in 1993 into Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church (OROEC) in Minneapolis. When Muslim Oromos opened Masjid Tawfiq (later renamed the Tawfiq Islamic Center) in Minneapolis in 2004, it was the first Oromo mosque in North America.

Integration and Influence

The early Oromo refugees and immigrants faced a two-fold challenge of integrating into Minnesota society. On the one hand, they needed to get used to a new environment and thrive. On the other hand, they needed to use their new-found freedom to define themselves as Oromos, fending off the old pejorative term “Galla.” Achieving both of these objectives required them to work closely with established Minnesotans.

As stated above, Minnesota churches, particularly Lutheran ones, played an important part in Oromo integration. As the Christian Oromo told their stories, missionary-minded members listened with sympathy. Those who were familiar with Ethiopia tried to reconcile their image of a beautiful nation, with its dignified Emperor, with that of a torturous and repressive empire, and their impression of the “savage” and “heathen” Galla with that of the colonized and oppressed Oromo. After listening to presentations about Oromo people, some Minnesotans responded, “That is what we used to call the Galla.”

While older sympathizers helped by sponsoring Oromo refugees, younger activists joined the Oromos in doing advocacy work. They got involved through the Third World Institute, a social justice organization operating out of the Christ Church Newman Center on the campus of the University of Minnesota, and Bread for the World, a Christian group campaigning to end world hunger. The two groups hosted joint presentations that highlighted the plight of the Oromo.

In 1982, ORANA applied to participate in the International Institute’s Festival of Nations and was admitted. All participating groups were required to take part in at least three events that ran concurrently throughout the festival’s four-day run. Oromos set up a cultural exhibit booth, served food at the International Café, and performed in a cultural show. With scant manpower, minimal resources, and sheer determination, they stood out as one of the festival’s major attractions. The secret to their success was the full commitment of non-Oromo members of the Oromo Support Committee, who donned Oromo clothes, worked the booths, and answered questions on all four days. While the representatives of other nationalities used the event for fundraising, the Oromo group used it mainly for publicizing the Oromo. After seeing the Oromo cultural show at the event, Maryjane Sounder Samples of Twin Cities Black Journalists (TCBJ) reached out to ORANA and invited its members to appear on the NAACP Forum, a weekly KSTP-TV show. By appearing on this program three times, Oromos further publicized their cause.

Oromos extended their campaign to publicize the plight of Oromo refugees beyond public events and raising funds. They approached elected officials and informed them of the political problems in Ethiopia causing the refugees to flee their homes. By doing this, they hoped to encourage US policies toward Ethiopia that would curb political repression and reduce human suffering. Over the decades, Rudy Boschwitz, David Durenberger, Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, and Tina Smith spoke in the state senate about the situation of Oromos of Minnesota. The highlight of the effort was a hearing on H.R. 128 (a US House resolution calling on Ethiopia to respect human rights) held by Minnesota congressman (later state attorney general) Keith Ellison. Over a thousand Oromos from the Twin Cities converged with hundreds more from across the United States and Canada to observe the hearing on April 19, 2016. The event contributed to the resignation of Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn and his replacement by Abiy Ahmed, who promised reform.

In the twenty-first century, two annual events bring together Oromo Minnesotans for fun and festivities. First, the Oromo Sports Federation in North America (OSFANA) holds its annual tournament in the Twin Cities every summer. Oromo youths from Toronto, Washington DC, Seattle, Los Angeles, and other North American cities come together for the one-week event in late July or early August. Like any other sports event, the tournament brings economic benefits to its host cities. In recognition of that contribution, the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul both declared the week of the tournament “Oromo Week.” St. Paul was the first to host the tournament, in 2011.

The other big event is Irreecha, an old Oromo festival that marks the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the harvesting season. It is often described to Americans as Oromo Thanksgiving. Ethiopia prohibited Oromos from celebrating Irreecha for over a hundred years, but through a long struggle, they regained the right to hold the festival. Violence instigated by government security forces at the October 2016 Irreecha celebration in Ethiopia claimed the lives of scores of people (fifty-five as reported by government officials and 700 as claimed by others). Once a year, during the month of September, Oromos of the Twin Cities gather at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis to sing, dance, eat, and offer praise and thanks to Waaqaa (God). Participants decked out in their traditional garb attract the attention of passersby.

The contribution of Oromos to the Minnesota economy is unquantified but significant. Oromo weddings, graduations, and other social gatherings attract hundreds of participants who spend money inside the state. As shopkeepers and restaurateurs, Oromo business owners create jobs. As the owners of law firms, medical clinics, and transportation companies, they provide essential social services. And as taxi drivers and the employees of diverse private and public institutions, they bolster the labor force. In this economic and cultural impact, Oromo immigrant communities in Minnesota contribute to the well being of their adopted home.

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  • Bibliography
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Baxter, P. T. W., Jan Hultin, and Alessandro Triulzi, eds. Being and Becoming Oromo: Historical and Anthropological Enquiries. Uppsala, Sweden: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 1996.

Bulcha, Mekuria. Flight and Integration: Causes of Mass Exodus from Ethiopia and Problems of Integration in the Sudan. Uppsala, Sweden: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1988.

Keller, Edmond J. “The Ethnogenesis of the Oromo Nation and Its Implications for Politics in Ethiopia.” Journal of Modern African Studies 33, no. 4 (December 1995): 621–634.

Legesse, Asmarom. Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 2006.

Lewis, Herbert S. “The Origins of the Galla and Somali.” Journal of African History 7, no. 1 (March 1966): 27–46.

Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church. About Oromo Evangelical Church.

Schwab, Peter. Ethiopia: Politics, Economics, and Society. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1985.

Tawfiq Islamic Center.

Wolde Giorgis, Dawit. Red Tears: War, Famine, and Revolution in Ethiopia. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1989.

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Women at the March for Oromia in St. Paul, 2007
Women at the March for Oromia in St. Paul, 2007
Flag of the Oromo Liberation Front
Flag of the Oromo Liberation Front
Oromo cultural show
Oromo cultural show
Oromos in Minnesota meet informally
Oromos in Minnesota meet informally
Oromo immigrants and refugees at a social gathering
Oromo immigrants and refugees at a social gathering
Oromo immigrants and refugees at a social gathering
Oromo immigrants and refugees at a social gathering
Performance by the Union of Oromo Students in North America (UOSNA)
Performance by the Union of Oromo Students in North America (UOSNA)
Oromo booth at the Festival of Nations
Oromo booth at the Festival of Nations
Oromo booth at the Festival of Nations
Oromo booth at the Festival of Nations
Award presented to the designers of a Oromo cultural exhibit at the Festival of Nations
Award presented to the designers of a Oromo cultural exhibit at the Festival of Nations
Demonstrators at the March for Oromia, 2007
Demonstrators at the March for Oromia, 2007
Oromo youth at the March for Oromia, 2007
Oromo youth at the March for Oromia, 2007


The first Oromos to settle in Minnesota came as students in the 1970s to get the education they were denied in their homeland.

As political conditions in Ethiopia worsened in the 1980s, Oromos started to flee their homes as refugees. Oromos already in Minnesota collaborated with resettlement agencies to help some of them move to the North Star State.

Oromos in Minnesota have worked continuously to improve conditions for Oromos still in Ethiopia.

Recognizing the power of Oromos in Minnesota, the Ethiopian government opened a consulate in St. Paul in 2019.

Excepting Kenya, the Twin Cities have the largest number of Oromos outside of Oromia/Ethiopia. As a result, the Twin Cities are known as Little Oromia.

The Oromos of Minnesota have contributed significantly to the revival of Oromo culture and language.

Oromos contribute positively to Minnesota’s economic and cultural vibrance.

Oromos love their new home, the United States, even as they continue to care about and improve their original homeland in Africa.



Two Oromo immigrants celebrate Christmas together in Minnesota, marking the beginning of the formation of an Oromo community in the state.


Emperor Haile Selassie’s decades-long reign in Ethiopia ends in September. A military junta takes his place, leading to a sixteen-year reign of terror.


Historian Richard Greenfield of Queen’s University (UK) appears as a featured guest speaker at a public forum on the Oromo—the first of its kind held in Minnesota. Ethiopia had banned Greenfield for writing The Political History of Ethiopia.


In April, Oromos participate in the yearly Festival of Nations, held in St. Paul, for the first time. They display the Oromo flag among the flags of over a hundred nations.


A BBC broadcast of a horrific famine in Ethiopia sets off an unprecedented humanitarian response by exposing the suffering of rural farming communities in Ethiopia. According to one report, 1.2 million people perished while 400,000 refugees left Ethiopia.


A group of Christian Oromos, including some attending Luther Seminary and Augsburg College, begin meeting weekly in Minneapolis for prayer and Bible study.


In May, Ethiopian military dictator Mengistu Hale Mariam leaves power. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) forms.


The Bible study and prayer group incorporates as Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church (OROEC).


Muslim Oromos open Masjid Tawfiq in Minneapolis. It is the first Oromo mosque in North America.


Masjid Tawfiq is renamed the Tawfiq Islamic Center.


On April 19, Minnesota representative Keith Ellison holds a hearing on HR-128 in Washington, DC, surrounded by thousands of Oromos, some of whom testify.


The Oromo Community Center of Minnesota hosts a delegation of Ethiopian officials led by Prime Minister Abyi Ahemed and Oromoia Regional Government President Lema Megersa. Thousands of people—half cheering, half jeering—greet them at Target Center.


An Ethiopian consular office opens in St. Paul—ostensibly to serve the thousands of Ethiopians living in the diaspora but more likely to keep an eye on Oromos, whom Ethiopia perceives as troublemaking.