Somali and American: Portrait of a Minnesota Community

12:32 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

Refugees often say that war feels like a wave of violence washing over them, leaving behind death and destruction. The feeling was no different for Katra Ali Hethar, who fled war-torn Somalia in 1991 with her nine small children.

Being responsible for so many lives was a logistical nightmare. But even in moments of emergency, when given the opportunity to hop on a truck or car, she refused to leave a single one behind. She decided that they would either all survive or all perish together, choosing to take turns carrying them on her back. Eventually they made it across the Shebelle River, to the safety of a refugee camp in Kenya.

Two years later, the entire family, including her husband, who had a minor stroke that required immediate medical attention and left Somalia separately, found refuge in America. After living briefly in New York, then some years in Atlanta, the family settled in central Minnesota in 2006. In the nearly three decades since, the mother who survived war and that perilous journey has supported all her children, including three more born since her arrival, into adulthood. The United States offered them a home and security.

Like most migration stories, hers is full of both sadness and hope. Adjusting to life in a new country had its share of struggles. Moving first to St. Cloud, and later to Waite Park, a small town that is virtually a suburb of its larger neighbor, has been another kind of journey for a woman who never worked outside the house but dedicated her life to her children and to her community.
On one of the first warm evenings of this year’s belated spring, I found myself in Ali Hethar’s apartment for a very special event. She had invited a group of people she met at a senior center in St. Cloud, a town where about 80 percent of the population is white and non-Muslim, to share a meal to break the fast during Ramadan and get to know people from different communities better. Most of the guests at her Iftar were her typical neighbors—older white Americans.

The women and men took their shoes off and sat on the floor on a pleasantly soft blue carpet, wearing name tags and exchanging small talk. They conversed with their Somali hosts as, on a muted TV, the Milwaukee Bucks faced the Toronto Raptors in the NBA playoffs. At sunset, they ate dates, drank water, and then enjoyed a Somali meal of meat sambusas, baked goat and rice, with malawax (sweet pancakes) for dessert.

Born in Djibouti, a small East African country on Somalia’s northern border, Ali Hethar is not sure how old she is. Her passport says she was born in 1946, but she believes she was born much later, in 1958—on the last day of Ramadan, in fact. She has never learned English, but as I watched, she greeted, hugged, and smiled at her guests, communicating verbally with translation from of one of her daughters.

There was more to this social gathering than met the eye, for all its easy-going atmosphere. Minnesota, a blue-leaning state, is by many standards exceptionally welcoming of immigrants; it has the country’s second-largest population of Vietnamese Hmong people and is home to more Somalis than any other state in the country. But central Minnesota, where St. Cloud is, about an hour west of Minneapolis, is not such an easy place for outsiders to settle in. It has a strong Catholic tradition and a good many single-issue voters—that issue being abortion. Over 60 percent of voters there went for Trump in 2016.

That year also, though, a young Somali-American named Ilhan Omar beat a longtime Democratic incumbent for a seat in the State House; two years later, she was elected to the US Congress to represent Minnesota’s fifth district (which is centered on Minneapolis). Her election was a testament to how politically engaged the Somali community is. While Omar has gained a high profile on the national stage—both as one of 2018’s intake of Democrats on the strongly progressive wing of the party, and for controversy of over certain of her more combative statements—two other Somali-Americans sit in the Minnesota legislature, with more on the city councils of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Distinct and notable about St. Cloud’s Somali-American community is that its leaders, elders, and activists have a battle-hardened quality that makes them very effective representatives. So many of them are, in fact, survivors of civil war and brutal dictatorship, that they have become adept at organizing and mobilizing—both in strengthening their own community and in reaching out to other people beyond it.

Established by European settlers in the nineteenth century, it was once referred to as “White Cloud.” But today, this town of 68,000 inhabitants has seen a growing number of Somali refugees arrive in the last two decades to work in meat factories or to attend the local campus of the state university. The presence of these new Muslim residents has created tensions ranging from verbal attacks to school bullying. A walkout by Somali-American high school students in 2015 made national headlines. As did a mall stabbing that year by a Somali immigrant who targeted non-Muslims, an attack that then-candidate Donald Trump exploited in the weeks running up to the presidential election. Within weeks of his election, the Trump administration issued its first Muslim travel ban, which included citizens of Somalia.

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