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Writer Ahmed Ismail Yusuf tells the story of Minnesota, Somali-style

His early impressions here: “I saw a sign in Somali that said, ‘Welcome.’ And another. … I felt like I was in Mogadishu — in Minnesota, of all places.”

Ahmed Ismail Yusuf did not speak English when he came to the U.S. from Somalia in the late 1980s. He was a high-school dropout. He did not know his age. But today, he has two degrees and is one of the Somali community’s most eloquent writers and representatives.

“I did not know that I was a writer,” said Yusuf, whose book, “Somalis in Minnesota,” has been published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press as part of “The People of Minnesota” series.

“When I arrived in this country, I loved English but had no ability in it at all. I settled on the East Coast, where my nephew was attending graduate school. And one day he gave me some books and said, ‘It seems like you have time on your hands. Why don’t you do some reading?’ And I had never had a book!

“So from the pile I picked up Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’ I think it took me two weeks to read the book, looking at the [Somali-English] dictionary, back to the book, then back to the dictionary to look up the next word. But I was utterly moved. It was an absolute revolution to me.”

Angelou’s book inspired him to keep reading and to continue his education. He received a creative writing degree from Trinity College in Connecticut and found his voice writing essays and short stories about Somali people.

But on the East Coast, Somalis were few and far between.

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“I said, ‘The people you are trying to write about? You don’t know them anymore. Where are they?’ And I was shocked to find out they were in Minnesota.

“So when I first came here [in 1997], one day I was stopped at red light around Franklin and Bloomington Avenue, and I realized that the car in front of me was a Somali driver. And the car behind me, too, was blasting Somali music. And then I saw a sign in Somali that said, ‘Welcome.’ And another. I just could not believe it! I felt like I was in Mogadishu — in Minnesota, of all places.”

Ahmed Ismail Yusuf
Courtesy of Ahmed Ismail Yusuf
Ahmed Ismail Yusuf

As Yusuf built a new life here as a translator and writer, he was impressed by the way the state welcomed new immigrants, and how immigrant communities quickly moved from receiving help to creating their own support networks to help newcomers become successful.

In “Somalis in Minnesota,” he chronicles the history of the Somali people in Africa, from their Arab-African roots to the devastating war that led thousands of Somalis to flee their homes. And then the book turns to the ways the Somali have successfully integrated themselves into Minnesotan culture and become a normal part of the state’s landscape of diverse populations.

“Minnesota is unique, because we have successful concentrations of so many immigrant groups, the Oromo, Hmong, Liberians, the southern Sudanese Arawak. Part of that comes from Minnesota’s political traditions,” he says.

“All Somalis are political animals. We want to be informed, and be included. We pay attention to politicians. In particular, Paul Wellstone was a member of Somali community. I have never seen anyone who was paying that much attention to immigrants. He took it to be his responsibility to welcome people and show them they were not from nowhere.”

Yusuf now works for the University of Minnesota and has a 6-year-old son. In his book, he describes how the first generation of Somali immigrants have changed, and how the youngest generation are absolutely Minnesotan.

“Every ounce of them. They may dress a little different, but yes, they are Minnesotan. Every step my son takes is that of a typical American child. He loves winter. Me, I am a bit apprehensive when I see the snow. I would rather live without it. But he is so excited about snow! He cannot wait for it. I think, ‘Don’t you know your identity?’ But his identity is Minnesotan.”

This, ultimately, has become the Somali story. Earlier this month, when photos of a St. Paul police officer dressed as a female Target employee surfaced, conversation turned to cultural differences. But Yusuf saw mainly cultural acceptance.

“It doesn’t really matter what he was wearing. There was not malice intended at the beginning; he apologized,” says Yusuf.

He is most intrigued not by any gender or religious issues the incident brought up, but by the Target name tag on the outfit. “What could be more Minnesotan than Target? To me that says, ‘Listen, I am part and parcel of this community. I am exactly indigenous to this community. Tag me with a Target logo, yes. I am Minnesota, thank you very much.”