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After four months, the new Ethiopian consulate in St. Paul finally has a bank account

Ewnetu Bilata Debela, Consul General of the Federal and Democratic Republic of Ethiopia to Minnesota and the Midwest, is pictured at the consolated in St. Paul, Friday, April 17. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL -- For nearly four months, the new Ethiopian consulate on St. Paul’s University Avenue has issued travel visas to clients from 10 Midwestern states, among other business. And it’s had to do so without a bank account.

Consular General Ewnetu Bilata Debela opened the consulate — the first fully functioning African consulate in Minnesota — in March, borrowing money from the Ethiopian embassy in Washington to pay his dozen staff members.

Basic purchases such as stationery, furniture and even local travel were put on hold while Debela struggled to persuade officials from Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and other financial institutions to let them establish an account.

As weeks stretched into months, and with no way to access his $2 million annual budget, he debated closing.

“Many of the banks say they are not allowed to open a bank account for a foreign entity — and this is a full-fledged diplomatic mission, which has the full backing of the United States government,” said Debela, interviewed in April.

Debela, who had expected to purchase two cars for the consulate when he arrived in Minnesota, said he and his staff have until now relied on Uber, public transit and car rides from community members.

The U.S. has maintained diplomatic relations with Ethiopia since 1903, and the Ethiopian embassy in D.C. and consulates in New York and Los Angeles have not run into the same problem, Debela said.

Little more than a week ago, the sun began shining a little brighter. A letter from the U.S. State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions in Chicago did the trick with BMO Harris Bank, which has its headquarters in Chicago.

The bank allowed the consulate to open an account, from which it can pay staffers and deposit funds from transactions such as visa applications.

“We were on the verge of closing the mission totally,” Debela said Thursday, May 16. “It impacted all the staff members, and the service we give to the people. … It is totally unacceptable what has happened.”

He’s still sorting out other complications, such as how to recoup money his office has lost as a result of no longer being in sync with the federal budget schedule in Ethiopia.

After four wintry months in Minnesota, Debela said with a chuckle that he’s looking forward to summer. “I’ve heard it’s beautiful,” he said.

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