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World Refugee Day event to honor new Minnesotans’ tenacity, generosity

In 2003, Abdurashid Ali was a part-time student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College with a full-time job when he first got the idea to build a library in his hometown of Garowe, Somalia. He felt that it was a way to remain connected to all that he was forced to leave behind when he fled his country in 1991. Though Minnesota became his adoptive home when he was granted asylum, his family and the life he knew remained in Somalia.

In the five years since he had that first idea, Ali has established Somali Family Services, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to serving as a bridge between Minnesota and the Somali community through civic- engagement initiatives, establishing a sister-school relationship between MCTC and Puntland State University in Garowe and hosting an annual conference to promote intercultural communication. And earlier this year, Ali realized his dream and traveled back to Somalia for a ribbon-cutting ceremony inaugurating the first-of-its-kind Puntland Library and Resource Center.

What began as a project for Somalia has blossomed into a transatlantic partnership between Minnesota institutions and Somalis living globally. The Puntland Library and Resource Center has gained support from Somali individuals living in the United States and Europe, as well as international organizations such as the United Nations Development Program, Counterpart International, Books for Africa and Diakonia of Sweden.

A story of struggle and survival
Behind the activist spirit Ali shares with his community and the world lies a deeper story of struggle and survival shared by some 40 million refugees across the globe, more than 80,000 of them in Minnesota. They carry with them the drive and ability that a person can only learn when confronted by the choice to stay and possibly die or flee and live.

Today’s refugees are forced to leave their homes for a diverse set of reasons, including ethnic strife, civil war and other political upheavals; natural disasters; and famine and economic desperation. Often these phenomena are interconnected.

Refugees come from all walks of life. From the uneducated delta farmer to wealthy doctors and other professionals, events from politics to tsunamis can change lives in an instant, causing upheavals unimaginable to most Americans. Their plight is the focus of World Refugee Day, sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. It will be observed on Friday at Minnehaha Park. (The day’s free, public events will begin at 2 p.m. and proceed through the evening; they will include cultural performances, speakers, food and an immigrant resource fair.)

Over the next year the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Global Studies (IGS) is sponsoring a series of events that will illuminate the experience of Muslims in Minnesota. In collaboration with KFAI radio and MinnPost.com, IGS will be meeting Minnesota’s newest refugees on Friday in Minnehaha Park to conduct oral interviews as the first installment of our project, Meeting Minnesota’s Muslims. These interviews will be available via the KFAI and IGS websites, and will serve as an important resource on the experiences of today’s refugees living in Minnesota.

As the year progresses, our programming will examine the experiences of not just refugee Muslims in Minnesota, but also those who have lived here their entire lives or immigrated through more peaceful channels.

A safe haven for the displaced
Minnesotans need to care about the fate of refugees. With the highest percentage of refugees among its immigrant population of any state in the nation, Minnesota has become a safe haven for thousands of refugees over the last few decades — most notably the Hmong, who began arriving from Laos in the 1970s; and Somalis, such as Ali, who fled civil war at home beginning in the late 1980s.

In their time here, these communities have confronted major psychological and economic obstacles to reclaiming their lives, becoming valuable members of our society in diverse spheres of life; their ranks boast elected officials, business owners, nurses, and PhDs.

Refugees not only have the potential to enrich the communities they left behind, but have great potential to enhance our own community’s vitality and diversity. World Refugee Day is an opportunity for us to get to know these new Minnesotans; we can all benefit from the tenacity and generosity they bring to their new home.

We hope you will show your support for this event and widen your horizons while still remaining within the borders of Minnesota.

Helga Leitner is a professor of geography and global studies at the University of Minnesota, with research interests in international migration/immigration, urban development, urban landscapes, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and society. Cawo Abdi is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota whose work focuses on transnational migration, particularly in East Africa.


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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hoxworth on 06/19/2008 - 11:53 am.

    As the authors point out, Minnesotans have been on the cutting edge of welcoming refugees since the end of the Vietnam War. We host wonderful organizations like the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), the American Refugee Committee and the Advocates for Human Rights who have assisted refugees both at home in Minnesota and abroad.

    Unfortunately, we, Americans, have failed to recognize our leading role in creating refugees and in taking our share as a nation given our role. This week it was reported by the New York Times that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ensure the care of 11.4 million refugees in 2007, compared to 9.9 million people in 2006.

    According to the Commission, more than half of the world’s refugees in 2007 stem from our actions in bringing war to Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the neighboring countries of Syria and Jordan were inundated with more than two million Iraqis seeking refuge. Likewise, Pakistan and Iran received more than three million Afghans.

    The tied is certainly not turning for Iraqis. Over 885,000 left the country in 2007 while only 45,000 went home. Reasons for leaving cited were violence, sectarian conflict and economic difficulty.

    On the other hand, considerable improvement has occurred in Afghanistan. Over four million Afghans have returned home voluntarily in the past five years. However, the rate of return is diminishing as only 374,000 this past year. The escalating conflict in Afghanistan and the images of fleeing Afghans from the areas of Kandahar do not bode well for 2008.

    As Americans whose country initiated these wars, we must review and assess our role and our responsibility to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and particularly to the refugees. Minnesota provides a wonderful example for our nation to reach out and welcome refugees from these two nations–Refugees, for whom, we bear the brunt of responsibility. Will we as a nation choose to step forward and take accountability and responsibility for our actions? If so, it will take an investment of our resources and a receptivity that is contrary to the mood of our time. The choice is ours and the world is watching.

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