With winter temperatures as low as minus 50°C, Minnesota may not seem to be the most obvious destination for Somali immigrants to the United States. Yet the city of Minneapolis now vies with London and Toronto to be the leading location for the world’s Somali diaspora. After the first groups of Somali refugees were sent to this state by the US government in the 1990s, newer arrivals have joined them. Today it is estimated that there are some 100,000 Somalis here. Many have arrived in the last 15 years. America knows how to integrate newcomers. The rules are simple enough: swear allegiance to the country and work hard. In return you get a chance to make it.
And there are examples of American Somalis successfully embracing the American dream. Having arrived in the US 20 years ago at the age of 21, Abdirahman Kahin now runs two restaurants and has plans to expand the Afro Café and Deli brand to London. Kahin was helped in getting his business off the ground by a state-provided loan scheme for business people from minority communities. He was lent $75,000 at just two per cent interest. But some American Somalis of Minnesota are finding the process of integration more difficult.
The authorities believe that between 2007 and 2010, some 25 young Somali Americans travelled to Mogadishu to join Al Shabab. One of them — a Minnesotan high school graduate, Shirwa Ahmed — blew himself up in northern Somalia in 2009. More recently, some Somali Americans wanted to fight for the militant Islamic State group. And in the most recent iteration of Minnesotan violent jihadism, a second-generation, self-radicalised Somali American ran amok in a shopping mall last September. Twenty-year-old Dahir Adan shouted the words: “Are you a Muslim?” as he stabbed 10 people with kitchen knives before an off-duty police officer shot him dead.
Special Agent in Charge Richard Thornton, the most senior FBI officer in Minneapolis, thinks the sheer size of the community means that some of its members don’t need to assimilate. “You can cradle to grave here as a Somali immigrant into this country with no need to learn the language, learn the culture or participate in the broader American experience if you choose not to,” he said. The police are trying to build bridges with Somali Americans. For example, Richard Stanek, the sheriff of Hennepin County which includes Minneapolis, now speaks the language of outreach. “Our prevention efforts centre around community engagement and using that as frontline strategy for the resiliency against countering violent extremism,” he said, referring to a federal scheme to prevent radicalisation.
But there is push back from some Muslim community leaders who say that any funds coming under the Countering Violent Extremism programme should be rejected and who complain that the community is being stigmatised, demonised and misrepresented. “That we are even talking about this subject is a clear indication that we are not moving forward,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). Many Somali American children, such as 14-year-old Hodan, complain that misperceptions about the community mean they are bullied at school. “Some people say: ‘She is a terrorist because she is wearing a hjiab’. But I wear a hijab because I am a Muslim,” Hodan said as she walked from her bright yellow school bus towards her low-rent housing in the city St Cloud near Minneapolis. Experiences like that lead many in the Somali American community to talk about a culture clash.
Two days before the election last November, Donald Trump speaking in Minnesota denounced the state’s refugee policy on Somali Americans. “With some of them joining ISIS [sic] and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world, its been a disaster,” he said. For officials, satisfying all sides of the debate in Minnesota isn’t easy. In February Sheriff Stanek, the man who has championed building trust with Somali Americans, was among a dozen sheriffs who met President Trump at the White House. An exchange between Stanek and Trump was filmed. “Do you have a big problem with the refugees pouring in?” Trump asked. “Yes, we do, sir.”
After the conversation was broadcast on Minnesota news programmes, Sheriff Stanek suggested the broadcast comments were not representative and that he had been very candid with President Trump. “He has got his ideas but I am living it and working it every day,” he said. “My job is to help educate him about the Somalis who are really good and thriving and learning and want to be engaged.” But for many in the Somali American community in Minnesota, the exchange suggested that behind all the talk of community outreach there is a hidden agenda. “What he said to the President is all that matters because that it what they had on tape,” said Somali American activist Haji Yusuf, who runs an advertising agency in St Cloud. “He may have said many good things. But what matters is what he said to the president at that moment.”