Sunday January 3, 2016
By Sam Louwagie
Around 70 people gathered at the St. Cloud Public Library on Saturday morning for a warm, wide-ranging panel discussion on Somali-American engagement.A seven-person panel spoke about issues facing the Somali community, and answered audience questions about St. Cloud's immigrant population. Abdi Daisane, the moderator of the event, said afterward it was "great" how civil the discussion remained. He had attended an event at the library in October when Gov. Mark Dayton spoke about racial tensions in St. Cloud, and described the conversation that day as "very confrontational."
"This was perfect. It exceeded my expectations," Daisane said. "I think it helped some people understand us better."
Audience reaction to the event was positive: A woman acknowledged that she was "on the fence" about immigration and sometimes uncomfortable living near a mosque, but said she felt better after listening to the panel speakers on Saturday. At the end of the event, a man yelled that he wanted to see similar discussions happen regularly in St. Cloud.
Mayor Dave Kleis attended the event, and at one point an audience member directed a comment to him. The man said he didn't feel Kleis was strong enough in his public support of immigrants in the city. Kleis responded that his job is to ensure all groups of people are treated with respect, and that community has to come from people in the city, not just the mayor's office.
The speakers touched on several issues facing St. Cloud's Somali community, especially employment and education.
Daisane, a recent graduate of St. Cloud State University, said many Somali college graduates have difficulty finding jobs in the city, and many have left for jobs in the Twin Cities. Ahmed Said, a medical interpreter and former city council candidate, said striving for employment is extremely important in Somali culture, which features the phrase, "He who does not have a job cannot buy a cup of tea."
Hudda Ibrahim, an instructor at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, discussed challenges Somali children can face in schools. St. Cloud school board member Bruce Mohs asked the panel what the district could do better for the community, and panel member Hassan Yussuf said there needed to be more conversation between teachers and students in order to help close the achievement gap in St. Cloud.
But most of all, the meeting was about encouragements from panel members and the audience alike to come together and find understanding. Panel members assured the audience they could freely ask questions, even possibly offensive ones, if their intentions were good.
"That's very important," Daisane said. "The only way you can understand is if you ask."
"The only division in this community is Division Street," said Abdul Kulane, manager of an interpreting company and a former city council candidate, drawing laughs from the audience.
"We want to tell you we love you, and we are in the same city," Yussuf said. "Nobody is going anywhere, so we better come together."