Somali Minnesotans, through the eyes of three generations

10:19 AM, May 3, 2013   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS - Somali Minnesotans: they are the people of Minnesota most Minnesotans hardly know.

KARE 11 set out to help the greater Minnesota community understand better the Somalis within, most of whom started arriving in this state just a couple decades ago.

Why they came

At this point, it is difficult to determine the exact number of Somalis who call Minnesota "home." Official estimates range from 35,000 to well over 100,000 people.

"The census says one thing, and we Somalis say something else. The number is at least 60,000," said Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, author of Somalis in Minnesota, the latest book in "The People of Minnesota" series published by the Minnesota Historical Society.

While the population number may seem elusive, there's no question why Somalis immigrated. They sought to escape their war-torn country in East Africa, and according to both community leaders and historians Minnesota opened its door.

"What brought them here first was jobs, actually, that were not available anywhere else," Yusuf said, adding that a poultry plant in Marshall, Minn. was among the first companies to hire Somalis.

"When the first group was hired, and they cashed their checks and just realized it was money, they were intoxicated with that itself. Then the word got out," Yusuf said.

Before long, droves of Somalis came to Minnesota for jobs, a strong non-profit network that helped the new arrivals settle in the state and the opportunity to unite with relatives who had already made the trip.

Life Today, according to three generations

Saida Mahamud, 18

Two decades after the first Somalis arrived, some of the younger Somalis consider themselves true Minnesotans.

"I would say I am more Minnesotan, because it's what I've been accustomed to, because I've been living here all my life," said Saida Mahamud.

Saida was born in Canada before immigrating with her family when she was just months-old. Her parents are from Somalia.

Today, the senior at South High School proudly wears her hijab while asserting herself as a leader among her peers.

"My parents really emphasized that they came here to have a better life for me and my siblings, and so our culture is something that we try to be very proud of," Saida said.

Saida has enjoyed her life as a leader both in and out of the classroom, participating in an organization that promotes inter-racial dialogue. But she acknowledges the riots that broke out at South High School in February, believed to be over race, were both an anomaly and troubling.

"I felt like it was almost my brothers and sisters being hurt at that moment," she said.

So Saida commits herself to trying to make a difference for both her home country and the country she now calls home. Next year, she'll attend the University of Minnesota, where she'll pursue a degree in either pre-medicine or political science.

"I'm really grateful for all the things that have come to me and all the opportunities I've been given to be called leader," she said.

Ahmed Jama, 36

It needs neither plane ticket nor passport, but a trip to the Karmel Mall in south Minneapolis all but transports a person to East Africa.

Amid the stalls of Somali goods and entertainment stands an example of Somali entrepreneurship. Ahmed Jama owns two halals, or markets, even though he arrived in Minnesota just six years ago.

Jama says his success is due to a strong work ethic and Somali traditions.

"I was telling you, Somalis, they stick together, they help each other. If I need money, $10,000, $20,000 I know Ahmed he has the money. And my good friend with me, I would borrow from him," Jama said.

Jama, a father of four, hopes to open more markets, believing it's his version of the American dream.

"If you work in Minnesota hard, you know... you will get somewhere. You will reach whatever your dream is," Jama said.

Helga Barre, 70s

A mother of five, grandmother of more than 20, Helga Barre moved to Minnesota on the word of those who'd gone before.

"A lot of Somali people here. Family. That's why she chose Minnesota," Barre said through an interpreter at the Somali Senior Center on Cedar Avenue.

Barre enjoys her life in Minnesota but sometimes misses all that she left behind.

"The difference, when I was in my country, I used to have everything. I was a businesswoman," she said, adding, "That's the difference. I used to be the head of the house, not anymore, not here."

Today, Barre joins other older Somali women doing American aerobics at the senior center. She also shares her wisdom with her children, grandchildren and others like them.

"To be a good kid. Go to study well. Stay out of trouble," she said.

Challenges and hope

Somali leaders acknowledge Somali Minnesotans have gone through some challenges, including the highly publicized recruitment of Somali young men to fight for the terrorist group al-Shabab and crimes related to Somali gangs.  But leaders also hold out hope for better times.

"It looks like all those things are behind us. In the sense that you see less of those now," said Saeed Fahia, the executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community Minnesota.

Fahia and others point out to the significant progress Somalis are making: they continue to hold visible jobs as cab drivers, in retail and at meat processing plants; but Somalis are also attending graduate, medical and law schools and pursuing prominent careers in business or politics.

"There are a lot of good people who are making change there or here. Many people don't understand the vitality of this community -- how strong it is," Fahia said.

Cultural understanding

In the meantime, Somali Minnesotans of all ages remain united in hoping for a better understanding of their Muslim faith and Somali culture. It's the key, they say, to making them a people of Minnesota, more Minnesotans understand.

"The idea of an immigrant who just arrived in the United States [to] make himself or herself something, lives on, just I think the color of their skin has just changed a bit," Yusuf said.

To learn more about Somali Minnesotans, please check out the Minnesota Historical Society website, at: 

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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