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Across generations, Minnesota’s Somali-Americans try to balance old and new

How Somali-Americans in Minnesota who don’t remember Somalia — or have never been there — strike a balance between preserving their native culture and embracing their American identity.

In Minnesota, home to the largest Somali-American community in the U.S., Somalis who don’t remember Somalia — or have never been there — strike a balance between old and new.
Photo by Brittany Greeson/The GroundTruth Project

A hijab topped with a backwards baseball cap is not a combination you often see in most places in Minnesota, though it’s not unheard of in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, a place where cultures meld and the immigrants who move here struggle with their American identities — going back long before Somalis arrived here. 

In Minnesota, Somali-Americans who don’t remember Somalia (or have never been there) strike a balance between old and new, between preserving their native culture and embracing their American identity, while those who remember Somalia’s sun and sands — and civil war —  contend with the culture of generations that were born and raised here. 

The residents of Cedar-Riverside have established some parameters for what they will tolerate from people outside of their community. Last April, community leaders called police attention to a “sharia vigilante” who moved here from Georgia. Then, in September, HBO decided to halt the production of a show called “Mogadishu, Minnesota” after protesters shut down the show creator’s block party in Cedar-Riverside, citing concerns that the show would stereotype Somalis as potential terrorists.

In a more private way, Somali-Americans today are also navigating what is culturally acceptable within the community. “What we adopt at home is to keep our tradition and our way of life, which stems from our beliefs, culture and habits,” said Abdulkadir Said,  a 68-year-old oud player who is known by his stage name, Argos. “But when we go out, we have to adjust ourselves … we have to conform to certain levels by remembering what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”

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Unlike Argos, whose art form is traditional, his 31-year-old daughter, Ifrah Mansour, is a multimedia and performance artist. She is known among older women in the community as “the nice and the naked” because of the way she dresses. 

Both father and daughter create works for children, but their approaches are different. The oud that Argos plays is a short-neck lute commonly used in Somalia, and he uses it to perform traditional Somali songs, stopping to translate as he sings. Mansour, whose work is currently part of an exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, says her intended audience is generally children who don’t understand the Somali language and who are navigating their complex identities.

“Unless you’re here, where there’s a noticeable Somali community, you don’t have an option to say, ‘I am Somali,’ ” Mansour said. “You just have black or African. Prior to that, it was just African-American.”

Having to ‘prove their Somali-ness’

The music Argos plays has stayed the same since coming to the U.S., but little else in his life has. “Tradition is the rules and ways that someone should conform to in order not to conflict with others,” Argos said about tradition in both countries. “Now, we are in America, and we are considered American.”

While her father strives to conform more to America, Mansour, who grew up in the United States, strives to stay connected to her Somali identity. “I’m a big supporter of people who don’t look traditional, like me, but they still have deep roots to their community,” Mansour said. “I’m always amazed with what people do to keep their culture. I feel like I do that with my art, because that’s really important for me. In my art, I try to reclaim my story in the way that I want to tell it.”

Local artist and community leader Ifrah Mansour
Photo by Brittany Greeson/The GroundTruth Project
Local artist and community leader Ifrah Mansour, 30, looking over a basket she created for an interactive art piece in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood.

Art, in varied forms, is a foundation of Somali culture. Stemming from the country’s history of nomadic pastoralism, oral tradition became the way to relate genealogy, culture and identity, as elders educated and entertained younger generations around a fire while tired livestock rested. 

“There’s this beautiful thing that Somali elders do to teach, and everybody is expected to learn,” Mansour said. “Your dad would have memorized his entire lineage, and then he would teach you, as a kid, and then you would teach your kids. Your parents would also tell you your family’s history, all the way to the nomadic time.”

As generations of Somali kids grow up in Minnesota, however, differences in language impede those lessons. Mansour explained that after moving to the United States at the age of 10, she lost her native language from lack of practice. Since then, by teaching English to Somali elders in Cedar-Riverside’s Brian Coyle Center, she’s regained the ability to speak the language. 

Now, elders tell her she is finally Somali. “They always say, ‘Remember when you came to us? Zero culture. Zero language. And now look at you!’” Mansour said. “The elders would often ask me, ‘Are you really Somali?’ I would say ‘yes,’ and they would say ‘can you speak Somali?’ I’d try to speak Somali and they’d say ‘you learned it later. Are you sure?’ It’s so scary for me to realize that the younger generation has to prove its Somali-ness.” 

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Elders have also questioned young people’s interpretation of other art forms. On the stage of Cedar-Riverside’s Mixed Blood Theatre, Abdurazak Omar — a 20-year-old poet and hip-hop artist better known by his stage name Sisco — performs poetry. Though he considers his work a continuation of Somali tradition, elders sometimes tell him otherwise. As he was growing up, adults in the community would advise his guardians to tell him to dress differently or to stop performing as a hip-hop artist.

“There isn’t a difference if I’m doing a poem in Somali or in English,” Sisco said. “My music is poetry also. What I do is storytelling. The misunderstandings are with the elders who haven’t adapted to an American or Western lifestyle, and the language plays a role in it.”

Abduzarak Omar, aka Sisco, at the Mixed Blood Theatre
Photo by Brittany Greeson/The GroundTruth Project
Abduzarak Omar, aka Sisco, at the Mixed Blood Theatre in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood.

Sisco’s wife, Hani Ali, said she was originally attracted to him because of his rapping, and got to know him through his songs. But the couple had to keep his career secret from her Somali  parents until they were officially married. Otherwise, the wedding may have been called off, she said. 

Both generations need support

Beyond differences in language and culture, the older population that grew up in Somalia does not think of governance in the same way as their children or grandchildren, who only know Western culture.  

“I remember one day the elders were concerned, because young people started to get in trouble,” said Abdirizak Bihi, 52, director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center in Cedar-Riverside. “When you hear someone is in jail, at that time in the Somali mind, it’s like torture.”

In fact, when the now-older generations first arrived, they feared government and police, based on their experiences in Somalia. “One thing that I really remember is that, to break the fear of government and to educate people that here people are free, was to hold assemblies and sometimes criticize local governments and the police departments,” he said. “People would be shocked.”

The older generation would rather engage in dialogue than take to the streets, Bihi says, as they’ve seen with recent Black Lives Matter protests in the Twin Cities. But older generations also didn’t experience the racism that young Somali-Americans face in the current climate of prominent anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments, Bihi said.

Ifrah Mansour, the 31-year-old artist, echoed Bihi’s observations. “I have a vivid memory of being in a society where everyone spoke the same language, everyone looked like me and everyone was Muslim,” Mansour said. “I feel like kids here don’t have that. These kids have America, racism and terrorism to deal with on top of [pressure from elders]. So, [elders] need to be in their support system. And as much as [they] want to beat them with a lesson, it’s not going to work.”

But elders also need a support network, Mansour says. Older Somalis, many of whom don’t have strong English skills, are limited in where they can live, even as younger family members move away. “The older generation usually is limited in terms of residential areas,” Bihi said. “They usually live in complexes, like in this neighborhood, where they have their own mosques, grocery stores and all of their business are here.”

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Abdirizak Bihi
Photo by Brittany Greeson/The GroundTruth Project
Abdirizak Bihi, nearby the community center where he works in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood.

Bihi came to Minneapolis in 1996 to work as a cultural counselor and interpreter. He has served as a member of the Somali-American task force, a U.S. Attorney’s Office program aimed at combating terror recruiting in the state, after his nephew was recruited and killed by al-Shabab.

“I volunteered for an agency that works in processing refugees,” Bihi said. “I got to know the community before they got here. Things were different. … Most of them were not from main cities. This is where everyone started. It’s still a gateway, and whatever we do here, whether it’s combating radicalization, starting sports leagues or celebrating Somali Day, it actually impacts every other state where the community lives.”

Now, as multiple generations of Somali-Americans work and live in Minnesota, Bihi notices the differences between them. “Somalis really take a lot of pride in their culture and in their history,” Bihi said. “They hang onto their Somali identity. That’s the older folks. But, they don’t consider the younger generation. Identity crisis is a big issue, because they’re still struggling to define their identities. Are they black? Are they African-American? Are they Somali-American? Are they Muslim or Muslim-American? They have all of those identities pushed on them.”

Bihi believes that often contrasts dramatically with members of older generations, people whose identity is already formed and who hope to someday return to Somalia. “They have a bigger issue,” Bihi said. “We are having difficulties getting them to focus here. They’re looking back to Somalia on a daily basis, hoping that Somalia becomes peaceful.”

Through her experience teaching, Ifrah Mansour has come to a different conclusion from  Bihi’s about the older generation. “The elders that I work with, I feel like they are isolated, but I’m always amazed by how much they are interested in the American culture,” she said. “They’re interested, and they want to participate. They want to go and vote and make informed decisions, and sometimes that means just knowing a little more English. Or asking people who are not Somali like them their opinions.”

This story is part of Crossing the Divide, a cross-country reporting road trip from WGBH and The GroundTruth Project. Eric Bosco is part of a team of five reporters exploring issues that divide us and stories that unite us.