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In Minneapolis, Somali-Americans Find Unwelcome Echoes of Strife at Home

Monday June 8, 2020
By Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura

Thousands left political chaos, violence and danger in Somalia. Now, many are surprised and alarmed at the dangers and distress they’re seeing in their new home.

From left, Wali Ibrahim, who is studying to become a commercial pilot; Haji Yussuf, a journalist; and Omar Jamal, who works in a St. Paul sheriff’s office.Credit...Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for The New York Times

MINNEAPOLIS — As a child in Somalia, Ali Yusuf dreamed of joining the United States Air Force.

That dream, nourished by Hollywood movies like “Top Gun,” featuring indomitable American heroes representing freedom and justice, motivated him to flee his home in a tattered, war-torn failed state where violence and abuses of power were part of everyday life.

In 2014, he finally made it to Baltimore, where he worked on a janitorial crew, arriving a few months ahead of the meltdown of race and law enforcement that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a black man close to his age, at the hands of the police. Worn out by his own experiences with the police, he moved again about seven months ago to a place that seemed more peaceful and where he imagined the police to be more restrained — the liberal-leaning city of Minneapolis.

Now, at 33, the America of fighter pilots keeping the world safe for democracy seems long in the past. And like many people he is trying to find his footing in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the searing issues of race, justice and police violence he has seen almost since his arrival in this country.

“See, I love America, but I’m scared” said Mr. Yusuf, who works as an Uber driver. He started to cry. “Being a black man, I feel it’s not only that you have to die, but when you die, you will not get justice unless you have evidence of video. And then you have to take it to the next level, with protests. And then still you have to destroy properties just to get justice.”

Somali refugees like Mr. Yusuf, facing war and conflict at home, have been emigrating to the United States in large numbers since the 1990s and the country is home to about 7 percent of the Somali diaspora. Minnesota is home to more than 57,000 Somalis, the largest concentration in the country.

Somalia collapsed into anarchy after the military regime led by Mohammed Siad Barre was overturned in 1991. Rival warlords vying for power threw the country into a civil war, and a centralized, unified government struggled to form, even with external aid. Since 2012, some stability has been restored because of a new, internationally backed government, but it still faces threats from Al Shabab militants aligned with Al Qaeda. Mogadishu, the capital, suffers from frequent roadside bombings that kill hundreds of civilians each year.

Somali immigrants are dispersed throughout Minnesota, but most live in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In Minneapolis, they are clustered in neighborhoods like Cedar-Riverside, where a large number of them live in high-rises. Last year, a fire in one of the public housing complexes killed five older Somali-Americans. The building’s management was accused of not installing sprinklers, said Suud Olat, 29, who is running for a seat on the Minneapolis City Council, arguing that the city has neglected the needs of its immigrant community.

One area in Cedar-Riverside is known as Little Mogadishu. A small Somali mall, nestled among the more traditional houses of Minneapolis, has a labyrinthine market inside where women wearing thick, colored veils shop for traditional clothes and iPhones. Men sit outside on plastic chairs, sipping tea and eating Somali samosas.

Given the chaos and danger back home, many Somali immigrants in the Minneapolis area said they were grateful to rebuild their lives here in relative peace. Still, the cavalier way that Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes and the aggressive crackdown on protesters are tough to reconcile with the America they had expected. Instead, they are reminders of the incremental abuses of power that eventually led to the breakdown of civil society back home.

Recent warnings by President Trump about shooting looters and bringing in the military to quash protests, they said, had the ominous sound of an authoritarian regime.

“I couldn’t distinguish between being in Somalia and being in St. Paul,” said Omar Jamal, 45, who works in a sheriff’s office in St. Paul and who came to the United States in 1997.

Observing the heavy presence of security forces and armored police, he said, “I realized that the U.S. is not much different from the country I came from.”

“Over there, it’s simple,” he continued. “If you don’t listen, they’ll shoot you. The army was enforcing the law. It’s a very totalitarian system.”

“I couldn’t distinguish between being in Somalia and being in St. Paul.”-OMAR JAMAL

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for The New York Times

Now, “seeing military on the streets, there is only one question that crosses my mind,” he said. “When are they going to start shooting? I’ve seen this before. It’s very scary, and it’s very depressing.”

Mr. Jamal has been working with Somali youths who complain to him about being police targets because of their skin color. “They say that even if the sky falls, nobody listens to them. They feel irrelevant, they feel insignificant, and that’s why they’re in the streets.”

Mr. Olat also senses ominous echoes of home. “In Somalia, what happened was that the government neglected the voice of the people,” he said. “And after years of neglecting them, abusing them, harassing them, torturing them, killing them, do you know what happened? Thirty years of civil war.”

Even before Mr. Floyd’s killing unleashed protests across the nation, Somali men in Minneapolis and elsewhere in Minnesota were part of the population most likely to be in conflict with the police. According to the city’s own figures, about 20 percent of Minneapolis’s population of 430,000 is black. But nearly 60 percent of people who are subjected to police violence — kicks, neck holds, punches, shoves, Mace, Tasers or other forms of force — are black.

Since 2015, the Minneapolis police have documented using force about 11,500 times. For at least 6,650 acts of force, the subject of that force was black. By comparison, the police have used force about 2,750 times against white people, who make up about 60 percent of the population. That means the police used force against black people at a rate at least seven times that of white people in the past five years.

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for The New York Times

“It’s very scary because it could happen to me. The police presence is traumatizing so I just try to avoid them.”-WALI IBRAHIM

Although many Somali immigrants do not consider themselves African-American, they say they have had troubling experiences with the police, sometimes facing greater hurdles for being Muslim. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and attacks by Islamic State militants across the world, many Somalis were targeted by authorities. Mr. Trump has also tightened sanctions on Somalia and criticized the resettlement of Somali refugees in Minneapolis, calling Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who is from Somalia, “a disgrace to our country.”

And tensions — at times fatal — between Somali immigrants and police officers are common. A Somali-American, Isak Abdirahman Aden, 23, was shot to death in July after a standoff with five police officers. Community members questioned whether officers had reason to fire. No charges were filed.

Wali Ibrahim, 23, who is studying to become a commercial pilot, said he was stopped and handcuffed by two police officers when he was 19 after they mistook a burrito he had in his hand for a gun.

The officers, who were on foot patrol, called out to him.

“Before I could explain, I got grabbed by the male officer, pushed to the ground, and they put handcuffs on me,” he said. They released him when they realized their mistake. “They ruined my burrito. No apologies were made. That was a super negative experience.”

He was so upset by Mr. Floyd’s killing that he left town to go camping. “I wasn’t surprised but I’m still very upset,” he said. “It’s very scary because it could happen to me. The police presence is traumatizing, so I just try to avoid them.”

Still, the United States offers hope, said Mr. Olat, who is running for the City Council just eight years after arriving in the country; he had lived all his life in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, one of the largest in the world.

“I am George Floyd. I am here today because of him.”-HAJI YUSSUF

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for The New York Times

“I care about what happens in Minneapolis, as an American,” he said, wearing a scarf evoking the American flag and eating a Somali samosa while taking a break from distributing food to protesters. “As a refugee, I resettled here, and now I see this place is burning. I see the patterns,” he said, quoting a Somali saying that only he who has his fingers burned has the knowledge to talk about pain.

“This is the kind of stories that American people need to hear,” he said. “We need to hold our police accountable. We need to hold our governors, our mayors, our City Council members accountable. As someone who came to this country as a refugee and became a naturalized citizen, I care about the U.S. I care about the future.”

Haji Yussuf, 40, a journalist, said it was because of African-Americans — including civil rights leaders like Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — that black immigrants like himself could find refuge in the United States.

“If it weren’t for African-Americans, I wouldn’t be part of this country,” Mr. Yussuf said. “I need to acknowledge that they put their lives on the line for me. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here,” he added.

“I am George Floyd. I am here today because of him.”


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