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New Somali refugee arrivals in Minnesota are increasing

Recent Somali immigrants Nur Ali, right, and his wife Mahado Mohamed, left, sit with their six children Shukri Shukri, from left, 9, one-week-old Ifrah Shukri, in her mother's arms, Ugbad Shukri, 7, Hafifa Shukri, 4, Antar Shukri, 10, and one-year-old Ikra Shukri in their apartment at Mary's Place transitional apartments in downtown Minneapolis. The family arrived in the United States four months ago, first landing in Connecticut before coming to Minnesota.  Photo: LEILA NAVIDI

By Mila Koumpilova
Sunday, November 2, 2014

After a dip in 2008, a second wave of Somali refugees is arriving in the state. But with fewer family ties, this group faces a new set of challenges.

A week af­ter the Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment re­set­tled them in Con­nec­ti­cut this sum­mer, Nur Ali and his wife, Mahado Mo­ha­med, had de­cid­ed: They were mov­ing to Minnesota.

Tales of the state’s large So­ma­li com­muni­ty had in­trigued them back in the Ken­yan ref­u­gee camp where they had mar­ried and had five chil­dren. Now, a So­ma­li man they met in Hartford told them all re­cent ar­ri­vals head to Minnesota, home of “Little Moga­dis­hu.”

After a major dip in 2008, the year­ly num­bers of new So­ma­li refu­gees in Minnesota have re­bounded stead­i­ly. The num­ber of So­malis re­set­tled in the state has more than trip­led in four years. As resettlements nationally have picked up, more So­malis are also arriving here after brief stints in other states — often trading early support from resettlement agencies for the company of more fellow Somalis.

“You tend to go some­where you can con­nect,” said Mo­ha­mud Noor, the head of the Con­fed­er­a­tion of So­ma­li Community in Minnesota. “Be­fore peo­ple even ar­rive from Af­ri­ca, they know they are com­ing to Minnesota.”

But without the Twin Cities family ties of earlier arrivals, these newcomers often can’t lean as heavily on longer-term Somali residents. Mary’s Place, a Minneapolis home­less shel­ter, has be­come ground zero for fami­lies like Ali and Mo­ha­med’s. Somali participation in the state’s public food assistance program doubled in the past five years. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis School District, its So­ma­li stu­dent en­roll­ment up 70 percent since 2011, launched eight class­rooms with in­struc­tion in both Eng­lish and So­ma­li to help new­comers catch up.

In some ways, Ali and Mo­ha­med have had a steep­er learn­ing curve than So­malis who set­tled in Minnesota in the 1990s and early 2000s. The cou­ple spent their en­tire a­dult lives in tents at Ken­ya’s sprawl­ing, over­crowd­ed Hagadera ref­u­gee camp. They didn’t have fam­i­ly or close friends who re­set­tled in America be­fore them, and their no­tion of life in the Unit­ed States was forged out of camp leg­end.

“We al­ways used to think when you come to America, you have a lot of mon­ey and life is re­al­ly easy,” Ali said through a trans­la­tor. “We have been sur­prised.”

Ali and Mohamed are part of a new wave of Somali refugees. Until 2008, the state resettled only refugees reuniting with family here.

But that year, DNA tests showed only about 20 percent of ap­pli­cants in a ref­u­gee fam­i­ly re­u­ni­fi­ca­tion program, most of them from Af­ri­ca, were ac­tu­al­ly re­lated to their stateside sponsors. The program was sus­pend­ed, even as So­malis ar­gued a broad­er defi­ni­tion of fam­i­ly was as much a factor as fraud. The num­ber of new So­ma­li ar­ri­vals plum­met­ed, from a high of more than 3,200 in 2006 to 180 in 2009.

Mean­while, more strin­gent back­ground checks for refu­gees in 2010 snarled the ap­pli­ca­tion proc­ess. Lar­ry Bart­lett, the U.S. Ref­u­gee Ad­mis­sions program di­rec­tor, says the stream­lin­ing of se­curi­ty checks since and the re­sump­tion of the fam­i­ly re­u­ni­fi­ca­tion program in 2012 led to the re­cent in­crease in So­ma­li ar­ri­vals — a trend he ex­pects to con­tin­ue in the next few years.

In the fis­cal year that end­ed in Sep­tem­ber, Minnesota wel­comed al­most 1,050 So­ma­li refu­gees ar­riv­ing di­rect­ly from Af­ri­ca, most of them with­out fam­i­ly ties to the state. Na­tion­al­ly, 9,000 So­malis were re­set­tled, up from about 2,500 in 2008.

No ‘out-migration’

The ex­act num­bers of So­malis moving to Minnesota from oth­er states are hard to track. But there’s little doubt their ranks have swelled, too. The federal Office of Ref­u­gee Resettlement com­piles partial numbers showing about 2,620 total ref­u­gee ar­ri­vals from oth­er states in 2013, up from 1,835 two years earli­er — making Minnesota the state with the high­est in-mi­gra­tion by far.

“This has al­ways been an is­sue for Minnesota,” said Kim Dettmer of Lutheran So­cial Service, one of the ag­en­cies that helps re­set­tle refu­gees who come di­rect­ly to Minnesota. “We have in-mi­gra­tion. We don’t re­al­ly have out-migration.”

Af­ter ar­riv­ing from Kampala, U­gan­da, Ayan Ahmed and her nine chil­dren, ages 4 to 18, spent six months in Phoe­nix. There, Catholic Charities had lined up a fur­nished four-bed­room home for the fam­i­ly and a neu­rol­o­gist for Ahmed’s eld­est son, who is blind.

But then, some fi­nan­cial sup­port Ahmed re­ceived as a ref­u­gee was about to dry up, and she wor­ried about cov­er­ing her $1,200 rent. Most So­ma­li fami­lies she met in Phoe­nix were longtime resi­dents, the strug­gles of ad­just­ing to a new coun­try long behind them. They urged her to go to Minnesota and raised mon­ey for the plane tick­ets.

Ahmed, who is staying at Mary’s Place, says local Somalis have picked up groceries and takeout food for her, and lent a compassionate ear: “Some days, I feel I stayed in Mogadishu.”

Challenges for newcomers

Ali, a five-month preg­nant Mo­ha­med and their kids ar­rived in Minneapolis four months ago with­out a de­tailed plan. They had used up most of their ref­u­gee cash pay­ments for the plane tick­ets.

At the air­port, they met a So­ma­li cabdriver who of­fered to drive them to Village Market, a So­ma­li mall in south Minneapolis. The fam­i­ly went to the mosque in­side the mall, prayed and asked for help. A So­ma­li fam­i­ly agreed to put them up for the night and took them to Mary’s Place the next day. There, the couple, their five older children and new­born daugh­ter sleep on three bunk beds in their tidy a­part­ment.

In some ways, things are look­ing up: Ali is tak­ing Eng­lish class­es and re­cent­ly found a full-time job as a butch­er in a ha­lal mar­ket. They have health in­sur­ance and food stamps. But they have found they can rely only so much on local So­malis, who are busy with their own lives. And saving up en­ough mon­ey to move into their own place is an elu­sive goal that weighs heav­i­ly on Ali.

With lim­it­ed ties to the local So­ma­li com­muni­ty, re­cent So­ma­li ar­ri­vals face a new set of chal­len­ges. Community lead­ers say it used to be un­think­a­ble that a So­ma­li fam­i­ly should land in a home­less shel­ter: New­comers could in­voke the most tenu­ous fam­i­ly con­nec­tion to move into famously hospitable So­ma­li homes in­def­i­nite­ly.

But these days long­er-term resi­dents re­cov­er­ing from the re­ces­sion might balk at put­ting up com­plete strang­ers. Mean­while, af­ford­a­ble hous­ing for large fami­lies is scarce, es­pe­cial­ly in Hennepin County.

Ironically, community activists such as Abdirizak Bihi say, these newcomers might need more support than earlier arrivals. Many have spent most of their lives in makeshift camps such as Qabri Bayah in Ethiopia, with basic amenities and limited access to formal education.

When these refugees move too soon after arriving in a different state, they get cut off from resettlement agencies there responsible for finding homes and jobs for them. Noor, whose group tries to assist newcomers with navigating the transition, says the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment needs to do more to dis­cour­age this early migration. At the U.S. State Department, Bart­lett says staff members strive to honor refu­gees’ host city pref­er­ence. Some refu­gees even sign a docu­ment af­firm­ing they are going to the city where they want to stay.

“The prob­lem with mov­ing quick­ly is that the bene­fits don’t al­ways fol­low you,” Bart­lett said. “We re­al­ly try to im­press that upon them.”

Adjusting to the influx

Mary Jo Cope­land, the found­er of Mary’s Place, says as many as 60 of the shel­ter’s rough­ly 90 units are oc­cu­pied by So­ma­li fami­lies, gen­er­al­ly re­cent ar­ri­vals from Af­ri­ca by way of an­oth­er state. Cope­land, who hired two So­ma­li-speak­ing ad­vo­cates to help the fami­lies with job- and a­part­ment-hunt­ing and more, says these resi­dents have im­pressed her: They take Eng­lish class­es, keep their apart­ments im­mac­u­late and save up ev­er­y­thing they earn work­ing at day cares, gro­cer­ies and cab com­panies.

“You name the state, they are from all over,” she said. “As soon as they move out, oth­ers move in.”

The num­ber of So­ma­li adults and children who participated in the state’s fam­i­ly cash as­sist­ance program jumped 34 percent from 2008 to 2013, to 5,950. At the same time, food as­sist­ance participation increased 98 percent, to 17,300 adults and children, which does not include U.S.-born Somalis. Census numbers place the Minnesota Somali community at more than 33,000, a count Somali leaders say underestimates its size by tens of thousands.

The Minneapolis School District responded to a ma­jor up­tick in new So­ma­li stu­dents by launching the NABAD program, an ac­ro­nym that’s also a greet­ing in So­ma­li. The dis­trict is al­most 10 percent So­ma­li this fall. The new class­rooms — two last year, eight this fall af­ter prom­is­ing early re­sults — fea­ture an English language learn­er teach­er and a So­ma­li-speak­ing aide. Students spend a school year there be­fore join­ing the main­stream.

At Andersen United Community School, teach­er Stephany Jallo and her third- through fifth-graders re­cent­ly went over a pic­ture book called “Nabeel’s New Pants,” about a group of kids who re­ceive clothes as gifts to wear for the Is­lam­ic hol­i­day Eid. At each of Jallo’s ques­tions, hands shot up. Oth­er stu­dents looked to Ham­di Ahmed, a visit­ing co-teach­er, who trans­lat­ed into So­ma­li.

Jallo says four of her 20 stu­dents came with no for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, but most are mak­ing rapid prog­ress: “I have no doubt I have fu­ture doc­tors, law­yers, teach­ers and sci­en­tists in my class.”

Ali and Mo­ha­med’s kids also have ac­a­dem­ic catch­ing up to do. These days, the par­ents wor­ry about af­ford­ing win­ter coats, an a­part­ment and fur­ni­ture. But when they see their kids crack­ing open their home­work min­utes af­ter get­ting home — the glass facade of Tar­get Field gleam­ing be­yond the kitch­en win­dow — Ali and Mo­ha­med’s faces fill with hope.

Photo gallery: Somali arrivals on the rise in Minnesota


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