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Somalis in America: opportunity in the trepidation

Somali-Americans have a chance to refocus on economic and political integration to mainstream Minnesota, and by extension to America, while maintaining the community’s unique culture.

We have an incredible opportunity to refocus on economic and political integration to mainstream Minnesota, and by extension to America, while maintaining the Somali community’s unique culture.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

The Somali community in Minnesota is very saddened by the loss of innocent lives in the Nairobi mall terror attack. The pain inflicted on the injured and the grief by family members of the deceased is something Somalis experience daily. It was heinous and barbaric violence perpetrated by extremists with a political objective but no regard for means or methods.

Jamal Abdulahi
Jamal Abdulahi

There is a sense of anxiety about the situation in Nairobi since unproved Internet reports emerged suggesting that among the assailants were individual(s) with links to Minnesota. The community is nervous of transient security activities by law-enforcement agencies leading to disruption of daily life.

The community is also very concerned about a likely backlash against Somali refugees in Kenya. Many Somalis immigrated through Kenya and have less than fond memories of that country’s security forces’ conduct. Excesses — including extrajudicial killing, looting and rape — typically follow a terror attack like this.

Almost everyone in the Somali community has a relative in Kenya. The vast majority of them were pushed out their native country by violence. Refugee camps and cities throughout Kenya are filled with some of the world’s most vulnerable people. The community is very concerned for their safety.

A chance to refocus

In the midst of this trepidation, there is an extraordinary opportunity to evaluate, analyze and charter a new future. It’s an incredible opportunity to refocus on economic and political integration to mainstream Minnesota, and by extension to America, while maintaining the community’s unique culture.

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It has been five years since the story of young men traveling back to Somalia to allegedly fight for a terrorist organization led to a havoc atmosphere in Minnesota after federal security personnel descended on neighborhoods with a large Somali population. That narrative sparked anxiety again upon the convergence of national press prompted by an unconfirmed terror link.

Leaders and members of the community are very leery of negative press coverage. Some scrambled for what to say. Some gave an old story a new lease by rehashing what happened. Others added to the speculation by claiming knowledge of the recent departure of young men to Somalia with the intension of joining terrorists.

The root cause of this disjointed and sometimes confusing message is our involvement in Somalia politics. Somalia politics is violent and divisive. Leaders of the community’s comments in the press reflected on political perspectives of Somalia.

A replica of divisions in Somalia

Political divisions in Minnesota are a replica of the ongoing divisions in Somalia. They are drawn on tribal lines. They have been imported to Minnesota and are completely handicapping the community’s ability to move forward. The quicker the community sheds this kind of thinking and adapts to the new political atmosphere, the quicker forward progress will solidify.

Clinging to false hope of re-instituting the republic of Somalia in the near future and Somalis returning en masse will only delay the opportunity if not squandered altogether. 

More than two decades have passed since chaos engulfed Somalia. The nation disintegrated into small fiefdoms controlled by warring tribes. Millions died in the conflict or the droughts that followed, and millions more were displaced. Infinite public resources were destroyed.

The first 10 years of Somalia’s brutal conflict, as unfortunate it was, retrospectively makes sense. A period of military leadership followed by strong men duking it out for power is common in the civil-war literature.

A process that makes no sense

What makes no sense is the pattern of prolonged gatherings of selecting individuals under the auspices of parliament appointing a president. The president then appoints a prime minister, who in return appoints individuals with cabinet titles even though there is nothing to fill each of their portfolios. Appointments always conform to the idiosyncratic formula of 4.5 as though there were four complete tribes and fifth one with half worth. This certainly implies members of the 0.5 tribe are not worth full citizenship, leading to a direct parallel to the dark days of American racial politics captured in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).

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Currently every Somali is supposed to be linked to one tribe or another. Children are taught a sequence of tribe lineage that is supposed to establish undisputed ancestry yet no connection to Somalia. To make matters worse, some of them start to sound like a fairytale after approximately 700 years. Some start to morph into mythical stories full of characters with supernatural powers. Evidently a society based on these types of myths succumbs to manipulation, exploitation and backwardness.

Yes, there are entities in Somalia and abroad organized based on tribal lineage. Tribal affiliations are utilized to organize everything from building armed militia in the name of defending the entire tribe to carving a geographical area and calling it an administration or a nation. Tribal affinities are also used to mobilize in the diaspora to drive support for certain activities in Somalia. This leads to negative impact, draining energy and resources such that the community is incapacitated during a crisis like the one created by premature reports of terror ties.

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There haven’t been any meaningful economic activities in Somalia. The only way for Somalis to survive has been to look outside for help. Stability and rule of law are prerequisite to organizing a nation, both of which Somalia lacked in more than two decades. News reports of one more big bank closing money transfer accounts lead to mayday predictions by humanitarian organizations because remittances from Somalis overseas have become a lifeline.

Humanitarian support is imperative, but there is a correct and incorrect way of going about it. The correct way is the way the majority of Americans approach it. That’s to give to a cause without operational attachment. Ordinary Americans gave more than $300 billion in 2012. The involvement for most of these philanthropists is an annual thank-you letter. The incorrect approach is one that Somalis have adopted, which is to become personally invested. Once someone becomes personally invested it’s no longer just a humanitarian effort. The urge for self-preservation consumes the cause.

Two critical steps

So what are some steps that the Somali community in Minnesota could take to capitalize on the opportunity brought by the crisis created by unconfirmed reports of possible terror link? Two critical steps come to the forefront. They can be taken serially or in parallel.

The first one is to categorically reject political and economic involvement by members in the diaspora in Somalia affairs. I know this isn’t popular. I also recognize the interconnections. But the alternative is worse.

Furthermore, the common explanation by those inextricably involved in Somalia politics and economics is that if only we managed to get the right leadership in place in Somalia the chaos would come to an end. Hence, it’s a natural duty for Somalis to return and help install the right leadership. The unusually long duration of the conflict proves this thinking a fantasy, but it’s understandable.

It’s understandable that the loss of something as precious as an entire nation brings deep humiliation and shame. It’s also equally understandable to search for an easy solution for an enormously complex problem. In truth there is a different explanation from the altruistic one provided.

Searching for self-esteem

It’s human nature endowed by their creator to have physiological and emotional needs such as food and water at the very basic level. Once these basics are met, individuals long for safety. Upon assurance of food, water and safety, individuals yearn for intimacy. The fourth tier in the progression of needs is self-esteem or belonging, with the respect and the admiration of others. These were first documented by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” It’s referred to as Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.

These are innate to humankind regardless of creed, gender, culture or economic condition. Maslow observed and documented. Somalis remaining deeply involved in the Somalia affairs are searching for self-esteem or belonging with the respect and the admiration of others. 

Some argue the community should be able to engage in both Somalia and America simultaneously. This is an admirable but a fallacious assertion considering current limitations in resources and access. A more pragmatic approach is to adopt new citizenship and reform the fundamental meaning of what it is to be a Somali.

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This brings about the second step, which is to work on developing a viable community with a solid understanding of American institutions. One of the most important American institutions is the press.

Take a lesson from politicians when dealing with the press

The press consists of several different types. Broadcast media typically carry short content and print has the option of producing longer content. The press promotes not only products and services but mood, attitudes and a sense of what’s important and what’s not important.

But society also impacts the press. One of the inventive ways of impacting the press utilized by political campaigns is to control what’s important and what’s not important by driving cogent and consistent messages. American politicians often answer the question they want to answer, not the one being asked.

The Somali community in Minnesota could learn a lesson from this and get its own story to the American society upon departing the politics of Somalia: an American immigration story filled with extraordinary efforts to triumph and overcome extreme hardship. It’s this opportunity that shall be capitalized in the midst of the current trepidation.

Jamal Abdulahi is a state director with Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) and chairs the Somali Caucus of the DFL. He is currently a Policy Fellow at Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. He focuses on political development of New Americans. He can be reached at He can also be followed @fuguni.


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