The warm atmosphere of the African Development Center in Minneapolis made, if only for the evening of Jan. 24, the hard chill of a winter’s night an afterthought. Inside, members of the Somali diaspora met to discuss how a thriving community came about so far, both geographically and climactically, from their homeland on the Horn of Africa.
The meeting centered upon the release and author discussion of a new book from the Minnesota Historical Society Press, “Somalis in Minnesota,” by Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, a writer and translator who works as a case manager at the Community University Health Care Center.
“Somalis in Minnesota” is a part of the Historical Society’s “People of Minnesota” series, which centers on the different ethnic groups that make up the state’s population. Previous books in the series covered Swedes, Irish, Ojibwe and Hmong people in Minnesota, among others.
Alison Aten, a publicist for the Minnesota Historical Society Press, said there was a demand for the series’ newest release.
“Quite a few educators were asking for a book about the Somalis in Minnesota,” she said. “We’re really excited that the teachers wanted it.”
Most everyone seemed to know someone else in attendance. Many caught up and chatted over coffee and sambusas, a Somali deep fried pastry, supplied by Afro Deli & Coffee, which shares the building with the African Development Center.
Abdirahman Issa Kahin is the owner of Afro Deli & Coffee. He came to Minnesota by way of Georgia in 1997 and as a business owner for the past two years, said he has enjoyed the relative ease with which he was able to set up shop.
“My goal is to develop this business into a franchise that is in league with Chipotle and the like,” he was quoted as having said in “Somalis in Minnesota.” “I will have 50 restaurants in 10 years.”
No one seemed to mind that the night’s remarks began about 15 minutes late, Yusuf included, who worked the room prior to taking the podium.
Hussein Samatar, the executive director of the African Development Center, introduced Yusuf. Samatar is a part of the first generation of Somalis to come to Minnesota, having arrived in 1993.
“When I graduated [from school] a war began,” he said, “and I ran away.”
He stressed the diversity of the Somali community in Minnesota and said it has “never [been] monolithic.”
“There are some [Somali Americans] who do ice fishing and some who do not,” Samatar said, while the crowd laughed.
Yusuf began his remarks and said he would skip over what “most Somalis already know,” that being the events that lead up to so many of them fleeing Somalia as refugees in the early 1990s.
In short, as described in the book, following independence and the creation of the Republic of Somalia in 1960, the country existed as a nascent democracy. Regarding a bloodless exchange of power in 1967, political scientist Theodore Vestal was quoted in the book as having said, “Somalia had been the first country in Africa to peacefully replace a government in power through the ballot.”
However, assassinations, regional instability and coup d’états occurred throughout the following two decades.
“From 1990 on, what we used to call a government just collapsed,” Yusuf said.
Many of the first Somali refugees who sought asylum in America settled in San Diego, Calif., because of its pre-existing Somali community. The recession of the early 1990s, though, and the difficulty with which immigrants can have finding work, lead to a scarcity of jobs in San Diego.
Yusuf attributes the arrival of many Somalis to Minnesota, from San Diego and elsewhere, to the Heartland Food Company meat processing plant in Marshall. There was ample work to be found there; the kicker was that the plant processed “poultry and not pork,” he said.
Somalis continued to come to Minnesota and soon found jobs in different industries and in different cities around the state, with more and more people settling in Minneapolis, developing the Somali community that is here today.
On his own prior knowledge of Minnesota, Yusuf said he knew “it’s the state that produced Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale.” He also said he knew it was one of the coldest states in the Union, while a small gesture in Minneapolis convinced him the cold might not be that bad.
“I came to a sign that said ‘welcome’ in Somali,” he said, “and I thought that I was home.”
There have been, as noted in the book, difficulties for Somalis in Minnesota. These include conflicts between Somali students and African American students in schools as well as scrutiny from the Federal Bureau of Investigation following 9/11, though Yusuf said the idea of “Minnesota Nice” is a real thing in terms of how the Somali community is treated.
“’Minnesota Nice’ means that acceptance here is better than anywhere else,” he said. “There’s a hospitality here that knows that we want to be a part of the community.”