10 Things You Need to Know About Somalis in Minnesota

Minneapolis at night reflected in the Mississippi River. (Photo: Matthew Paulson / Flickr)

Minneapolis at night reflected in the Mississippi River. (Photo: Matthew Paulson / Flickr)

On Wednesday, SAHAN published an article about Abdullahi Ali Anshoor, a longtime Minnesota resident, who was killed in Mogadishu on Nov. 17.  After more than a decade of living in the Twin Cities, Anshoor went to Mogadishu to participate in the rebuilding of Somalia.

But what do you know about the Somali community he left behind in Minnesota?

Minnesota, an extremely cold state during the winter season, has for the past two decades been a home for an estimated 50,000 Somalis (there’s no comprehensive statistics on how many Somalis live in the state). Somalis first came to the state in early 1990s, after a bloody civil war broke out in their country, forcing tens of thousands of citizens to flee to neighboring countries, especially Kenya, where they settled as refugees.

Minnesota has agencies, such as the Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities and World Relief Minnesota, that are active in resettling refugees to the U.S. These agencies brought the first wave of Somalis to Minnesota and helped the refugees learn English, find housing, and get health care so that they can start a new life away from home. Part of the attraction that pulls Somalis to Minnesota is that it has a good economy and low unemployment rates, and is currently one of the few states that provide good welfare programs to low-income residents.

After the first wave of Somalis arrived in the state, many others have followed.  “As Somalis settle down, find a life, the good news spreads: ‘Hey this is a good place, you can find a life here,’” Ahmed Samatar, a professor  at Macalester College, told  WCCO-TV. “The institutions of this state, private or public, have an important place in the mind of Somalis.”

The largest concentration of Somalis live in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) and its suburbs,  and other cities such as Rochester, St. Cloud, Willmar and Faribault. Somalis have firmly planted their roots in these towns by establishing community centers, opening shops, mosques, malls, restaurants and day care centers.

In recent years, Minnesota has became a mecca for Somali leaders and politicians. Since he was elected to president office in 2012, for example, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has visited the state twice.

But what else do you know about this vibrant and growing community in snowy Minnesota? Here’s SAHAN’s list of 10 things – both good and bad – you need to know about this community.

Somali women fill out ballots at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis on Nov. 4 morning. )Photo: Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News)

Somali women fill out ballots at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis on Nov. 4 morning. (Photo: Judy Griesedieck / For MPR News)

1. Rising Political Clout: Minneapolis’ Somali community made a history in 2010 when they elected Hussein Samatar to the Minneapolis School Board. Minnesota Public Radio described Samatar, the first Somali-American to be elected to public office, as a “political pioneer,”  and someone who planted “some of the first seeds of Somali-American politics.” Samatar, 45, died in August 2013 of complications from leukemia.

Ever since Samatar’s election, Somalis have been very active in politics. In November, 2013, they made another major history by electing Abdi Warsame to the Minneapolis City Council, thus showing their growing political power and activism. During this month’s midterm elections, Somalis also played a role in re-electing Minnesota officials like Keith Ellison to the Senate and House of Representatives.

2. Joining Law Enforcement: Kadra Mohamed recently made history when she was hired as St. Paul’s first female Somali police officer. Mohamed, who dons the hijab alongside the full police uniform, was lauded as a perfect example of the Somalis integrating further into their newly-adopted home in Minnesota. The Minneapolis Police Department also has several male Somali officers.

3. Building Mosques: In order to keep their Muslim beliefs and traditions intact, Somalis, who love to preserve their faith, have started building mosques  across the Twin Cities. In the last eight years, Somalis have built at least three mosques in St. Paul, sometimes converting the building of a church into a mosque after buying it. The mosques act as a hub to teach the young children the Qur’an, Islamic knowledge and etiquette.

4. Mastering Entrepreneurship: Despite the hardships of war, Somalis have over the last two decades proved their entrepreneurial ingenuity – whether in their home country or in the diaspora. And Minnesota is no exception. One notable entrepreneur is Korad “Sadia” Abdi, who is the owner of Sadia’s Gourmet Hot Sauce. Sadia says that her sauces’ recipes come from her family and was first made by her grandmother – though she has added her own flavors. While not forgetting her original roots in Somalia, Sadia gives 10 percent of her profits to a charity that helps people back home.

5. Fanning the Fame: When the books of history are written, Somalis in Minnesota will be remembered – and thanked – for producing Somalia’s first famous figure in Hollywood. If you don’t know who that is, he is Barkhad Abdi: the cranky, outlandish pirate in the blockbuster movie Captain Phillips. Abdi, who acted alongside Oscar-winner Tom Hanks, was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in the movie, and won a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor.

6. Rebuilding Somalia: Following the lull in violence in Somalia, many Somalis from Minnesota have recently started going back to help rebuild the country. Some of these returnees have taken up important roles in the government. They include Nadifo Mohamed Osman, who is the minister of public works and reconstruction, and Abdirahman Duale Beyle, the minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation. Others, like late engineer Anshoor, have taken up important positions with both local and international non-governmental organizations and U.N. agencies.

7. Advancing Knowledge: Minnesota’s Somali community has also produced Abdi and Ahmed Ismail Samatar: two academic giants who have done enormous contribution in developing studies on Somalia, its people and the processes of reconstruction and leadership. Abdi chairs the geography department at the University of Minnesota, while his brother Ahmed teaches at the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College. Ahmed, who also ran as a candidate in Somalia’s presidential elections in 2012, edits Bildhaan, an international journal of Somali studies. Both brothers are prolific writers and have taught in prestigious universities in both Europe and the United States.

8. Financing Progress: According to a 2013 study by Oxfam America, Somali-Americans send approximately $215 million to Somalia, a whooping 16 percent of the $1.3 billion that Somali migrants from across the world send to the war-torn country. The money is used by the receivers to access basic commodities such as food and shelter, besides sending children to school and sustaining small businesses, according to the study. These monies are mostly sent through the hawalas, an informal system of money transfer.

(Here’s a SAHAN timeline assessing the rise of hawalas as a preferred system of money transfer among Somalis, while analyzing its positive and negative traits.)

 9. Joining al-Shabaab, ISIS / Sex Trafficking: Since 2007, at least 23 young Somali-American men from the Twin Cities have ditched their education and secretly left for Somalia and joined al-Shabaab. Most of these men left after Ethiopia’s troops invaded Somalia and ousted the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu. The ICU has been credited for bringing a much-needed stability in the capital in 2006 for the first time in more than a decade. “A mix of nationalism and religious extremism motivated the men to join the fighting,” according to MPR News.

Ever since, the Somali community has been under an intense investigation from the FBI coupled with unrelentless media scrutiny. The news only grew worse these past few months when it was reported that more Somali-American youth from Minnesota have left for Syria and joined Islamic State, known as ISIS.

In addition to joining jihadist groups, a few Somali men from the Twin Cities also have been found guilty in a complex child prostitution case, which stretched from Minnesota to Ohio and Tennessee.

 10. Battling Autism: Since 2008, there have been concerns among the Somali community that some of their children in Minneapolis Public Schools had developed a severe form of developmental disorder called autism. In order to address the concerns, the University of Minnesota conducted a research and found that 1 in 32 children in Minneapolis between the ages of 7 to 9 had autism. The research, however, showcased that Somali children specifically suffered from a severe form of autism. “Somali children with autism spectrum disorder were more likely to also have intellectual disability than children with autism spectrum disorder in all other racial and ethnic groups in Minneapolis,” the research showed.

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