Somalis Spread Hate Messages On Facebook
On Sunday morning, Sahan Journal shared a story on Facebook about Hani Jacobson, a Somali-American nurse who was thriving in her local community in the Minnesota town of St. Cloud.
The article, published by the St. Cloud Times, was your usual immigrant success story: a refugee arrives in the U.S. from Somalia, struggles to adjust, grabs every opportunity that comes her way, works hard at every turn, and finally settles down to make a family and live the American dream.
Within hours of posting the article on Sahan’s Facebook page, the post received hundreds of likes and comments and had reached nearly 100,000 people as of publication. But the twist in the story came in the comments section, where readers, mostly Somalis, took to question Hani’s name and religion, criticize her marriage to a white American man, and argue about the significance of the story or its intended target audience.
It was, to say the least, like opening a Pandora’s box. Reading through the more than 200 comments and the replies within the comments was like watching a clamorous, jostling mob approach you. Readers called Hani “shameless as well aimless,” referred to her embrace of American “Western” values as “cursed,” and one reader decided to “put it bluntly” by writing that Hani “isn’t the Somali dream that I have in mind.” Some comments also bordered on criminality, with one commenter posting an image that read: “Some people are alive ONLY because it is illegal to kill them.”
The negative reactions were mostly attributed to Hani’s use of her husband Nathan Jacobson’s last name. Even though Nathan is a Muslim, and the couple has three children with Muslim names – Gabriel, Leyla and Elijah, – the readers immediately assumed that they were both “infidels.” Some of the comments also protested the reason she was not wearing the hijab, as the article showcased a photo of Hani in her nurse scrubs with no head cover. (Sahan also used that photo prominently in its Facebook post.)
However, what is missing in this hullabaloo is the context in which the St. Cloud times published the story. The Facebook comments robbed the article of its intended goal. Of course, there are numerous success stories from the Somali diaspora in the U.S. and across the world. But Hani’s story from St. Cloud, a city with nearly 10,000 Somalis where the Somali community has faced racism and backlash over the years, is unique in its dispensation.
Hani, who wrote to us on Monday, even acknowledges this as the reason why the paper published her story: “They are just trying to write something positive about our people. It definitely was not meant to go viral like this,” she wrote in an email to Sahan. “I am certainly not worthy of the praise, but we don’t deserve to be attacked like that.”
Just before the publication of the article featuring Hani, the city experienced an anti-racism march condemning racial slurs and cultural misunderstandings directed towards the Somali and Muslim population in general. This also links up to an incident back in 2010, when a Facebook group called “I hate the Somalians at Tech High” was used among high school students in the St. Cloud area to direct hatred towards Somali students. At the time, the Minnesota Public Radio published a story about how white students directed derogatory comments about “how they perceive their Muslim classmates to dress, speak and smell.” MPR also reported back in 2004 that Somalis in St. Cloud were being denied taxi driving jobs because of a 30-year ordinance that “forbid immigrants” from driving taxis.
Amidst all this, Hani’s story stands out as a true testament of the grit and courage of the Somali people to forge ahead and integrate in their newly adopted communities. Even in a city with a majority white people – the 2010 census show that whites make up 84.6 percent of the population, with blacks and African Americans making up 7.8 percent – the Somalis are proving themselves indispensable even though they are cast aside as foreign interlopers.
Besides, her story is not unique if you look at the progress the Somalis – and especially the women – are making in Minnesota, where a large Somali population has resided over the last two decades. A case in point is Kadra Mohamed, who recently became a sensation in the Twin Cities after she was profiled in the Los Angeles Times for being the first female Somali police officer in St. Paul. The L.A. Times reported that Mohamed, who dons the hijab, was also criticized for “wearing pants and short-sleeve shirts and working closely among men in public.”
Of course, Sahan did not publish the story about Hani Jacobson. The St. Cloud Times did and we linked it back to the newspaper’s webpage. But, as a website dedicated to reporting about the Somali-speaking people in East and Horn of Africa and across the globe, sharing her story on our social media accounts was not unconventional.
Sahan celebrates the success of the Somali people wherever they are. For example, on Saturday Nov. 1, we shared the story of Mukhtar Ali, a 17-year-old in the U.K. who signed his first professional contract with Chelsea. The Facebook post reached over 300,000 readers, was liked over 5,000 times, shared over 300 times and re-tweeted over 500 times.
The journalism we practice at Sahan is a bulwark against the breakdown of the Somali society. Of course, we value freedom of expression and we definitely love it when our readers voice their opinions about the stories we write, and those we share. But those same opinions can sometimes be egregious and can harm somebody – whether intentionally or not. Some – if not most – of the comments we read in Hani’s story were very damaging, and evoked an image of villagers carrying pitchforks and torches to kill a Frankenstein-like monster. Yet, the person in question here was an educated, upright, Somali-American who shared her story to project a better image of her community.
To make slurring comments about this hardworking nurse, a mother of three, and a sister is just revulsive and unfair. As one of the commenters said: “Why all this hate? She is a[n] educated Muslim sister married to a Muslim man! What’s the problem?”
Exactly, I ask. “What’s the problem?”
Next time, please make love not war.
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Abdi Latif Dahir is co-founding editor of Sahan Journal. Follow him on Twitter @Lattif