St. Paul, Minn. — Ayub Limat often sees the challenges some African immigrants in Minnesota have communicating with their loved ones in Africa. They show up to the Cedar-Riverside tobacco shop where he works to complain about phone cards they’ve bought from him. “People complain that it used up all their money, but it’s the network (in Africa) not the card,” Limat said.
Many countries in Africa have struggled to establish reliable, inexpensive phone, wireless phone and Internet service over the years, so many are celebrating a new undersea fiber-optic cable along the coast of East Africa that could improve communication between that region and the rest of the world. The East African Submarine System cable, which went live last month, is expected to improve Internet access and voice and data phone service to 21 countries from South Africa to Sudan.
Two of those countries — Somalia and Ethiopia — have large immigrant and refugee populations in Minnesota. Right now the two countries differ greatly in terms of the quality and cost of communicating by phone. Somalis in Minnesota often receive calls from loved ones in Somalia because it’s cheaper than for Somalis in Minnesota to call there. Somali immigrants in Minnesota said it’s also reliable. “It’s like talking to St. Paul,” said Dahir Jibreel, who directs the Somali Justice Advocacy Center and was chief of staff under former Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.
But that isn’t the case for members of Minnesota’s Oromo community who try to keep in touch with loved ones in Ethiopia. There, the telecommunications system is controlled by the government, and people whose families live in the U.S. must often wait until their loved ones call. “It’s expensive. They don’t call and talk, they usually just call and leave a message and I call them back,” said Mubarek Lolo, an employment counselor at the Oromo Community of Minnesota who often calls his parents and brother. People living in Ethiopia might spend the equivalent of $10 just to talk for six minutes, Lolo said. In contrast, he can call his brother and parents in Ethiopia with a $5 phone card that lasts about 20 minutes, assuming the network doesn’t cut him off.
Limat said most of the customers who report problems with the phone cards had called Ethiopia. But he and Lolo agreed that the new fiber-optic cable might not help people living in their home country communicate with those in other countries because they believe the government will continue to monopolize telecommunications. “There’s no freedom to choose a different provider,” Lolo said. “Unless they get the private sectors involved, it won’t develop as fast as it should.”
But the private sector economy is one area in which immigrant community leaders in Minnesota think the fiber-optic cable could play a positive role.