Staying Wired to Home: Web Portals Target Immigrant Groups

Article excerpt

Saidi Cadi Nesreddine is educated, craves information and feels compelled to maintain her connection to the Arab world.

She's just the kind of person Startec Global Communications Corp. hopes to attract. The Bethesda-based company last week introduced its first Web portal aimed at immigrants in major U.S. cities.

The site for Arab-Americans is the first of nine ethnic sites Startec plans to open during the next year for groups that have a combined population of about 31 million people.

Miss Nesreddine has been using Startec's to find out what's going on in Morocco, the northwest African nation she left in 1989 to pursue a career here. "Spending 23 years of my life in Morocco, it is my life, even though I'm a U.S. citizen. I'm still tied to my background," Miss Nesreddine said.

But she gets information about her native country from the Moroccan Embassy and through e-mails and phone calls to people back home.

"Most Web sites target the Western world," she said.

In addition to the Arab site, Startec Chief Executive Ram Mukunda, 41, plans to start Web sites for Turkish, Iranian, Russian, Central European, Israeli, South Asian, East Asian and Chinese immigrant groups in the United States.

Targeting services at ethnic groups has worked for Startec before.

Mr. Mukunda got Startec going in 1989 by offering long-distance calling to Indians in the District. Mr. Mukunda had the idea after hearing his parents complain about phone calls to relatives in India costing $2.49 a minute. The company initially offered long-distance service from Washington to India for $1.49.

Ten years later, Startec has 256,000 long-distance customers. Now it's using its reach as a long-distance carrier to market Internet service to people who live in the United States, but may have deeper roots elsewhere.

The sites are heavy on news - current affairs, culture, social events and sports.

Much of the information at Startec's new site can be read at Web sites of Arabic newspapers, said Dr. Hala Maksoud, president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, in the District.

"They are checked avidly every day," she said.

But Startec wants to distinguish itself with chat rooms, where it asks people to comment on specific issues posed by Startec employees, such as whether sanctions on Iraq should be lifted.

Computers with appropriate software can provide content in English or in Arabic. …