Saturday June 13, 2020
By Adolfo Flores
Many young Somalis have come out to protest the police killing of George Floyd, but some of their immigrant parents just don't understand why their children see it as their battle.
Samia Osman / Handout
Samia Osman's parents fled Somalia in 2004, hoping that in the United States, their then-8-year-old daughter would never have to worry about violently dying.
Yet today, Osman is one of many young Somalis fighting for the lives of Black people in America, joining thousands nationwide to protest racism and police brutality. But doing so has exposed a generational divide at home: some of their parents just don't understand why their children see it as their battle.
"It's a weird place to be in, trying to convince my parents America is not the safe haven they were sold on, while also trying to figure out how the Black Lives Matter movement, being visibly African American, connects to me,” Osman told BuzzFeed News.
Minnesota is home to the largest concentration of Somalis in the US, after large numbers of refugees fleeing a brutal civil war in the East African country started immigrating to the state in the 1990s . Many of them moved to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul to start their new lives.
Osman’s parents are still trying to figure out the new world they're living in now, grappling with the intensity that's overtaken Minneapolis and other cities in recent weeks. Many young people like Osman also identify as Black, she said, unlike some of their parents who may only identify as Somali.
"Even though they tell me it's not my fight when I come home, they're having these conversations about what the police officer did and I can see my parents, my aunts, look at my siblings and cousins wondering if they're going to come home," Osman said. "I think it scares them, the fact that it really is not just somebody else's problem anymore."
Abdimalik Ahmed, 18, and also of Minneapolis said he broke down and cried for the first time in years as his mom struggled to understand why Floyd’s death affected him so much.
"My mom came over to hug and cradle me, still not fully understanding why I was crying, but my tears obviously saying enough,” Abdimalik wrote in a Medium post.
Abdimalik, who is president of the Muslim Student Association at the University of Minnesota, believes the disconnect between his generation and that of his mother's is because his parents grew up in a homogenous society in East Africa where almost everyone around them was Black and they didn't have to think about how their skin tone affected their daily lives.
Abdimalik Ahmed at a protest. Abdimalik Ahmed / Handout
"One thing people fail to understand is that our blackness is as much a part of our identity as Islam is, as being Muslim is, and we will fight for our blackness every day of the week," Ahmed told BuzzFeed News. "We Somalis are not allies, we are Black and this is who we are and it is a primary identity that we carry with us."
Salma Ahmed, a 23-year-old Minneapolis resident who identifies as a Black woman, said she is met with resistance when she tries to talk to her parents about systemic racism. Her parents, who left East Africa because of the Somali civil war, argued that they came to the US with nothing and were able to build a life just fine.
Older Somalis learned about African Americans the same way white people did, through negative stereotypes in the media or word of mouth, Salma said. She believes that's why people like her parents have tried so hard to distinguish themselves from African Americans.
"Yet my dad has had these experiences of being pulled over and treated like absolute garbage, like he's subhuman, because of the color of his skin, so I know he understands what I'm saying," Salma told BuzzFeed News. "There's a little bit of this idea that we're different, and better in a way and that we didn't have to struggle the way African Americans have."
Salma reminds her parents that even though they aren’t descendants of slaves and can never claim the African American experience, they have benefited from many rights they fought for in the US. Salma also tells her parents that the police will not see her as a Somali American, they will just see the color of her skin.
"I've had a lot of conversations with my 15-year-old little brother about how to make it out of a police interaction alive, how he needs to keep his hands in plain sight and audibly tell them what he is doing next," Salma said. "Sometimes even if you do that it doesn't matter, but I feel like that's the best thing I can do for him right now."
The crowd at a Muslims for George Floyd rally at the intersection where he was killed. Abdimalik Ahmed / Handout
Abdullahi Farah, executive director of Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis, said he identifies as Black and that other Somali parents do as well. He believes the difference between how the younger generation identifies versus their elders comes from the experience of having grown up in the US.
"They have experienced a struggle that we haven't experienced back in Somalia, we never had anyone discriminate against us because of our skin," Farah said. "Our kids who were born here right away picked up the struggle of African Americans, who were here before us."
Their children experienced discrimination in schools and by police when they were out with their friends, Farah said. The police and the systems in the US don't care whether you're African American, Somali, or from West Africa, as long as you’re Black you face discrimination and young people are more quick to see that versus their parents, he added.
Still, it's not a foreign concept to older Somalis, Farah said — they face discrimination for being Black, as well being immigrants or Muslim. The latter type of discrimination are what Somali parents and grandparents will more readily admit to.
"It is time the younger generation takes the lead because with the older generation it is very hard for them to even admit there's a problem," Farah said. "The younger generation is the reason you're seeing more Somalis participate in protests, they're the ones pulling their parents in to join and having these conversations at home. They're also the reason we have hope."