Celebrating Diversity in the Twin Cities
The Somali-American community has indelibly shaped Minneapolis-Saint Paul.
By Sarah Friedmann
In 1991, a civil war broke out in the east African country of Somalia. This (still-ongoing) civil war would ultimately leave thousands of Somalis injured, displaced, or deceased due to violence or starvation. From the early ‘90s onward, thousands of Somalis became refugees as they sought to escape the atrocities of warfare. Many of these refugees eventually relocated all over the world, with a significant percentage of them landing in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Now, 30 years after the outbreak of the war, Minneapolis-Saint Paul is home to a vibrant Somali-American community that has become an important part of the cities’ legacy. This is the story of how such a substantial number of Somalis ended up in the Twin Cities, how they shaped the community despite enduring discrimination, and how the cities are evolving to better meet their needs.
Placement, Followed by Choice
The first Somali civil war refugees came to Minnesota in 1993 via U.S. State Department placements, WCCO Minnesota, a CBS affiliate, reported in 2011. As the network described, initially the State Department assigned many Somali refugees to Minneapolis-Saint Paul because the Twin Cities had a particularly robust network of voluntary agencies, or VOLAGS, that contract with the department to provide refugee services. These services include those that “help the refugees get settled, to learn English, find housing, get health care, and begin a new life,” Jason DeRusha wrote.
The decision may also have been influenced by the Twin Cities' long history of providing strong support services for refugees. Beginning in 1975, many Hmong refugees from Laos were similarly placed in the Twin Cities because of the strength of local VOLAGS, WCCO noted. As the Minnesota Historical Society described, many Hmong – an ethnic group with ancient Chinese origins — fled Laos after warfare destroyed their homes and land. There remain over 66,000 Hmong in the Twin Cities, which represents the highest concentration of Hmong people in the United States.
Dr. Ahmed Samatar, the dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College, told WCCO that, despite having options to re-locate elsewhere, many Somali refugees — similarly to the Hmong — decided to stay in the Minneapolis area. Samatar stressed that the quality and quantity of the VOLAGS in Minnesota, coupled with its strong government services, made it a very appealing place to live for Somali refugees. And, Samatar added, family members and friends soon joined the Somali community in Minnesota. “As Somalis settle down, find a life, the good news spreads: ‘Hey this is a good place, you can find a life here,’” Samatar said to the outlet.
Building a Somali-American Community
Over the next few decades, Somalis in Minneapolis-Saint Paul built a robust life in the Twin Cities while simultaneously integrating into and shaping the cities’ culture. Somali immigrants founded community centers, grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses that met the needs of their community while also allowing non-Somali Americans to partake in new cultural experiences, CNN reported. For example, as Abdirahman Kahin, the founder of Minneapolis’ renowned Afro Deli, described in a 2015 interview with Vice, there are probably around 60 Somali restaurants throughout Minnesota, and over 90 percent of them are in Minneapolis, he estimated.
Moreover, in 2011, the world’s first-ever Somali culture museum opened in Minneapolis. In its mission, the museum emphasizes that it particularly seeks to help first-generation Somali-Americans and non-Somali Minnesotans connect with Somali culture. “The Somali Museum’s mission is to use this collection as a tool for education: making it possible for young Somalis who have grown up in the United States to connect with their culture, as well as Minnesotans of other ethnic heritage to encounter Somali art and traditional culture for the first time,” the Museum’s statement reads.
Indeed, many Somalis and non-Somalis alike view the Minneapolis area as the “cultural hub of the Somali diaspora,” Arthur Nazaryan, a photojournalist, told CNN. In 2016, around 74,000 individuals who speak some Somali lived in Minnesota, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, per the SC Times — and around 80 percent resided in the Minneapolis area. This likely represents the largest concentration of Somalis outside of Somalia in the world, the International Institute of Minnesota noted.
Exercising Political and Economic Influence
In addition to sharing their culture with the Minneapolis-Saint Paul community, Somali immigrants have become a crucial part of the cities’ and state’s economic and political life. Rick Slettehaugh of WellShare International wrote in a blog post on the organization’s website that Somali immigrants have made significant entrepreneurial contributions that have impacted the Twin Cities’ development. “Many Somalis have made an impact by opening barber shops, daycare centers, transportation companies, clothing stores and other businesses,” Slettehaugh noted.
Slettehaugh also added that Somalis are increasingly involved in Minnesota’s politics. “… There are increasing numbers of Somalis working in government offices,” he wrote. “[Moreover], … Abdi Warsame became the first member of the Somali community to become a member of the Minneapolis City Council in 2013, while Ilhan Omar’s 2016 election to the Minnesota Legislature made her the first Somali-American Muslim in the nation to hold that position.” Omar was also elected to serve as the U.S. congressional representative for Minnesota’s 5th district in November 2018, becoming the first-ever Somali-American to serve in Congress.
Notably, Somali immigrants have shaped the politics, culture, and economics of the Twin Cities despite enduring discrimination. “While Somali Americans have planted deep roots in the state, starting thousands of businesses and non-profit organizations, opening schools and mosques around the Twin Cities metro area and beyond, tension between the state’s largest Muslim population and native Minnesotans has risen in recent years,” Christopher Zumski Finke wrote in Yes! Magazine in 2017.
Stefanie Chambers highlighted some of the discrimination-related struggles endured by Somali-Americans in her 2017 publication detailing the Somali immigrant experience in both Columbus, Ohio and the Twin Cities. As Chambers wrote:
Somalis in both cities struggle as ‘outsiders.’ They regularly face discrimination based on their religious traditions, dress, status as refugees, and skin color… As a result, the Somali communities in both … experience challenges in terms of housing opportunities, job prospects, and overall inclusion. This de facto discrimination creates significant barriers for the community in general, and for individuals personally.
Thus, while Somalis have experienced many successes in establishing new lives for themselves and future generations in the United States, some of their successes have unfortunately been limited or inhibited due to discrimination, along with other related factors. According to U.S. Census Bureau data released in December 2017 (per the SC Times), around 80 percent of Somalis residing in Minnesota live at or near the poverty line. Moreover, only 10 percent of Minnesota’s Somalis own their homes – the lowest percentage among the state’s ethnic groups. Comparatively, around 75 percent of white Minnesotans own their homes. As the SC Times described, this low percentage of homeownership also means that Minnesota’s Somalis are less likely to be able to pass wealth on to their children and future generations. Notably, Susan Brower, the Minnesota state demographer, emphasized to the outlet that “… differences in terms of barriers to economic stability” help perpetuate the disparities seen in economic success indicators in the state.
One Way to Diminish Inequities: Address Housing Issues
Ending discrimination-induced economic hurdles for Somalis in Minnesota will require multi-faceted involvement from both the public and private sectors. For example, when it comes to addressing housing discrimination and affordability issues, the real estate industry has played – and will continue to play – a large role in tackling these problems.
In its 2019 Code of Ethics & Standards of Practice, the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) emphasizes its commitment to “the creation of adequate housing, the building of functioning cities, the development of productive industries and farms, and the preservation of a healthful environment,” – a duty that goes well beyond facilitating the buying and selling of homes. In this vein, NAR considers its members key players in ensuring that housing is fair and accessible for everyone. NAR members “ … across the country have the opportunity and responsibility to increase efforts to support diversity and inclusivity in the real estate market,” NAR wrote in a publication commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act in 2018. That same year, NAR held an extensive campaign urging members to raise awareness of fair housing issues, while continuing to advocate for policies that further increase equal access to housing.
Moreover, NAR is also working to consciously engage in culturally sensitive housing practices to better meet the needs of immigrant communities, like the Somali community in the Twin Cities. Notably, a 2017 report from the Minnesota Housing Partnership found that real estate agents and other housing officials should “provide more culturally sensitive housing programs and services, encourage housing authorities and building contractors to build more houses and apartments to accommodate larger household sizes, and invest in community organizations that already offer customized housing services to immigrant communities” to help address the homeownership disparity between minority and non-minority communities in the Twin Cities.
The National Association of REALTORS® has similarly committed to promoting culturally sensitive practices, something which the organization outlined in its Guide to Developing Local Fair Housing Partnerships:
We are a diverse nation and people have many different cultures. The law prohibits us from discriminating on several bases, including race and national origin. Understanding the cultural variables and celebrating our diversity enables us to better serve customers and clients from different cultures. We continue to provide equal professional service, but do so in a way that shows respect for the cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds of all people.
This practice certainly seems to fall in line with those recommended by the Minnesota Housing Partnership as a means of better meeting the needs of immigrant communities in the Twin Cities (and around the country) – something which is increasingly imperative as the Somali community in Minneapolis-Saint Paul continues to grow and become an even bigger part of the cities’ legacy.
Overall, the story of the Somali immigrant community’s role as neighborhood shapers in the Twin Cities sheds light on how cities and the communities within them co-adapt to each other over time, with fruitful results. That being said, it also reveals the ongoing struggles that Somalis – and many immigrant communities – face in the form of discrimination and the related barriers to prosperity that result from it, something which the case of unequal housing access illustrates. As the Twin Cities look toward the future, it’s crucial that both inclusion and celebration of differences are fundamentally and more fully incorporated into all aspects of political, social, and economic life.