Project aims to help African immigrants in rural Minnesota

Though urbanites may tend to think of rural Minnesota as being overwhelmingly white, the fact is, a growing number of African immigrants are settling outside the Twin Cities.

“People have moved into small towns for employment opportunities,” said Garat Ibrahim, a Somali immigrant who recently joined the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in the new position of rural African organizer. “And people with children think small towns are safer and more affordable.”

Minnesota has the nation’s largest Somali population and the ninth-largest African population, according to an institute report on African immigrants in Minnesota.

There are no exact figures on how many newcomers from Africa are living in and around places like Faribault, Owatonna, Pelican Rapids, Rochester and Willmar, but Ibrahim said he’d put the number at about 20,000.

The institute hired Ibrahim earlier this year to survey the needs of these immigrants, who often face cultural isolation and language barriers. The project is still in the early stages; IATP held its first Rural African Summit in October.

“One hundred and fifty or so people came from across the entire state and North Dakota,” Ibrahim said. “We’re bringing everyone together, so we can learn from each other and see what has worked well in other communities.”

In response to growing numbers of Muslims, some towns have built mosques and even opened up restaurants serving meat that is Halal — slaughtered in the manner required by Islam. One immigrant community in Wisconsin bought a couple of vans to set up a transportation cooperative.

Ibrahim is trying to increase collaboration between towns, as well as improve awareness and communication among immigrant communities and local government officials, service providers, religious leaders and business people.

Rural Minnesota’s biggest draw is its meat-packing plants, which employ thousands of workers, a growing number of them immigrants. St. Cloud’s Gold’n Plump Poultry was one of the first to allow its Muslim workers to take regular prayer breaks and to abstain from handling pork.

Ibrahim says food-processing companies recruit in the Twin Cities, often through temp agencies, which means workers don’t receive health insurance. “People are not getting health care unless they work for a year.”

There are also some housing issues, especially for those who traditionally have large families. “A family might have seven or eight kids, but the highest they can get is three bedrooms,” Ibrahim said.

For the moment, Ibrahim doesn’t have the solutions to problems like these; that isn’t his job.”The only thing that we’re trying to do is empower people to find the solutions collectively.”

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