Desta immigrated to the U.S. two years ago with her family and joined the large number of other East Africans residing in Riverside Plaza, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) facility. Most of the immigrant and refugee families in the neighborhood live in Riverside Plaza. Often referred to as the Ellis Island of Minnesota, these six high-rise apartment buildings house approximately 3,500-4,000 residents within one square block just east of downtown Minneapolis.
In 1995, the housing project was home mostly to Asian immigrants, some Americans, and a small number of East African immigrants. Today, 70 percent are immigrants and refugees from East Africa; most are from Somalia. In fact, Minneapolis has the largest Somali population in the U.S. The other 30 percent of residents are mainly of Asian descent, with a small percentage of African Americans. Seventy percent of the residents are living at or below federal poverty levels. The average number of children per family is between four and seven. Some residents are employed and others receive public assistance. Many help support families in refugee camps in their countries of origin.
For many, Cedar Riverside Plaza is their first home in America. Most come from refugee camps, and they generally stay only two to three years before they move to other residences. When they first arrive, they usually stay with a relative until they have enough money to move into their own apartment. Many have not had much formal schooling and cannot read or write in their native languages of Somali, Oromo, and Amharic.