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‘Those people’ are us, and we are you — and as working people, our struggles are linked

It doesn’t take much digging to find news stories about the growing East African community in Minnesota. Whether the good (someone from our community winning elected office for the first time) or the bad (attacks on our places of worship), it seems our small community gets a lot of attention from the Minnesota media. But the stories often focus on the more sensationalistic aspects of our lives.

In reality, our community is not that different from many that have come before us. We moved here to escape a bad situation and have worked hard to be successful and make Minnesota our home. Our kids go to school and we do the same jobs as every other group of Minnesotans. We are doctors, janitors, warehouse workers, office staff, schoolbus drivers and more. Our dreams are just like everyone else’s dreams: the ability to live a happy life and hopefully build a better world for our children.

In my job as executive director of the Awood Center, we have made a lot of news supporting Amazon warehouse workers who have been leaders in the fight to demand better from one of the richest, most powerful corporations in the world. We have heard from workers as far away as California and Germany about our work inspiring them. When workers have picketed and gone on strike, we have seen extensive coverage from local, national and even international press.

We are just the latest wave

They often make particular note of the fact that the workforce standing up to this corporate giant are predominantly East African. But our story isn’t new. We are just the latest wave of new Americans who are standing up to corporate greed to win a better life for working families.


The piece “The Rise of Industrial Labor in Antebellum America” notes “More than five million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1820 and 1860. Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants sought new lives and economic opportunities.” Over time these groups became part of the fabric of America, but at the time, the piece notes, their arrival “triggered a backlash among many native-born Anglo-Protestant Americans.” Our community knows about that. In the minds of some, we are somehow both stealing jobs and also lazy “takers” who won’t work. These contradictory attacks are the same ones groups of new immigrants who came before us have faced. Same story, different actors.

Abdirahman Muse
Met Council
Abdirahman Muse
We know there are some in power, both in big corporations and the politicians who do their bidding, who see the growing East African community in Minnesota as a tool to divide working people. They have a clear plan to separate us from other Minnesotans so we can’t work together to win good jobs, affordable health care and safe housing. They know that their greedy actions are unpopular, so they tell us to be afraid of people different from us – whether it be skin color, religion or where we were born – and that working together isn’t worth it because “those people” would also suddenly have a good life.

We are your neighbors

But “those people” are us, and we are you! We are your neighbors. Our kids play the same sports and our families spend our summers at the same lakes and parks as you. We sled on the same hills in the winter, and every February when we are scraping off our cars, we too, wonder what we are doing here. We lie awake in bed at night worrying about the cost of health care, or hoping that sound our car is making isn’t going to get worse before our next paycheck. We see firsthand the cost of buying in to the divisive scare tactics that are so often used. We know it hurts our community, but it also results in us not unifying to win what we deserve. That means all working people continue to struggle more and more to get ahead, while the wealthy and powerful take even more for themselves.

Someone in rural Minnesota, who is struggling to pay the bills and wishes for health care that not only covers what our families need, but doesn’t send us into bankruptcy, has more in common with a Somali office worker in Minneapolis who has the same hopes and fears than the greedy CEOs who are working to keep us apart.

At the Awood Center, we are working to build power for the East African community, but we are crystal clear that as working people, our struggles are linked, no matter where we were born or what color our skin may be. When we have won changes that help workers at Amazon, they have helped workers from every race, religion and background.

My community knows that this next year could get ugly. We know that there are people in power who will continue to use the East African community as a “wedge” to get people to support issues and candidates who don’t offer them anything besides fear. I believe that Minnesota is better than this.

‘Greater than fear’

There has been an ongoing campaign saying that in Minnesota we are “Greater than fear.” I truly believe that to be the case, and I hope we can see beyond the scare tactics, and find a way to work together across our differences to make sure Minnesota continues to be a wonderful place for all of us to raise our families. Even with the cold.

Abdirahman Muse is the executive director of the Awood Center in Minneapolis. The center’s mission is to build economic and political power among workers in the East African community of Minnesota.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/22/2019 - 05:32 pm.

    I have never voted for a Clinton, but the best thing I ever heard Bill say was at a debate in 1992, in response to the divisive rhetoric of Geo. Bush:

    There is no “them”, Mr. President, there is only “us”, and we’re all Americans.

    A good Irishman never forgets that when we reached these shores, we were not considered white, that many business posted signs declaring N.I.N.A. (no Irish need apply), and that in mid- 19th century Chicago black folks moved of neighborhoods when the Irish moved in. Now that we are in the boat, I’m not pulling up the ladder.

    To my new East African brothers & sister I say let’s stick it to The Man together!

  2. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/22/2019 - 06:49 pm.

    As a white guy born in Central Minnesota 46 years ago, having worked manual labor most of my adult life, I find greater cause reading this than I do with Democrats, Republicans, the Intelligence Community, corporate media, corporations, banks, pirivate equity or billionaires.

  3. Submitted by Barry Peterson on 11/23/2019 - 03:55 pm.

    I am an American born of Scandinavian, French, and Irish roots, as well as Serbian and Slovenian roots. I grew up in both suburban Ramsey County as well as in the wealthy and highly educated Lowry Hill Neighborhood. I currently reside at Riverside Plaza, due, in part, to depression, at times, and anxiety medical conditions. Financially, I am currently not as prosperous as my parents were when they were my age twenty-five years ago.

    I am the son of a distinguished attorney who held the role of president of the Anoka County Bar Association, who practiced corporate, business, and real estate law, and who, like myself, loves to read biographies and autobiographies. Fro twenty years, I was on DFL Senate district 59/60 board of directors; and from 2012-2015 I was an appointed member of the Hennepin County Adult Mental Health Advisory Council, reporting to the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, and secondarily to the Office of the Governor of Minnesota.

    I have lived in Riverside Plaza Apartment Complex, also known of as Little Mogadishu (referring to the capitol city of Somalia), since 1993, coming here when I was a student at University of Minnesota when I was thirty-one years old.

    I have found my East African neighbors, in large part, to be very friendly and considerate. Some of the teens have not had the role models or teaching necessary to keep them out of gangs, but this is a small percentage of the teens in this area. I have long noted a great interest in so many of the kids in this apartment complex of approximately 4,000 residents being interested in scholarship. I routinely ask the kids how they are doing in school and what are their favorite studies. Many are interested in health, sciences and math; others are interested in physical education and art.

    I think what is most important to understand is that before we are “racially different,” we are hearts and minds. Having lived here for so long, I am daily reminded that I am basically “white” by nature of my outward appearance; but I have long believed that I am a product of reading and thinking and associating with people from around the world, regardless of one’s race, and that I have what the Muslim and Judeo-Christian community consider to be a soul or spirit.

    To help little kids feel more comfortable with their “white” neighbor, when we are in the elevator or coming and going from the buildings, when kids ask why I am not like them, I pull up my sleeves and show them my dark-skinned moles, and tell them, as I learned from a National Geographic genome test, that my family once lived in East Africa many more years ago than they can possibly imagine.

    In reading a series of letters written by U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, whose Qua-ran now Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison swore his oath of office over when he became a U.S. Member of Congress, I recall the earlier great politician, a Republican, as saying something to the effect that it is of no concern of his how others worship, peacefully (as true Muslims are devoted to peace, despite the nonsense that the media and others have concocted making us believe that members of ISIS and al-Qaeda are anything other than con artists interested in the vast oil fields around the Middle East and use religion to recruit naive worshippers to their “caliphates”).

    For years, until earlier this year, I tested the moral integrity of my neighbors, most of whom are Muslim, by keeping my door unlocked. It was only after about fourteen years that two young descendants of East African heritage, young men, began to enter my apartment without my prior consent while I was away at work. After I noticed that my credit cards were taken from a counter, and that the same two young men were around and handing me back my credit cards when they were outside of my apartment, that I called the police and internal security, and started locking my door on a daily basis.

    People from “white” families may not be accustomed to “black” people. Like many whites who are criminals, I’m sure that we can find blacks who are criminals.

    However, the greatest thing that I have learned while living, studying, and writing at this apartment complex is that the Somali, and other East African neighbors want to live in peace and be secure from prejudice and violence — which they faced for years during civil wars in their home countries.

    While I did not graduate from Macalester College, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where senator and vice president Walter Mondale, a neighbor of mine when I was a kid, also attended; I studied there for one year and was invited back for meals and classes, and fellowship at the chapel. I learned of multi-culturalism and of tolerance and of the need to take an interest in others who act or appear differently than myself.

    I want to encourage the East Africans to consider Macalester College (www.macalester.edu) as a place to study and call their academic home, as I consider both “Mac” and University of Minnesota my academic homes, as well as my schools in Norway, Denmark, and Costa Rica.

    We have a lot to learn from our East African friends: of hospitality, of strong family relations, and of peace and truth.

    Let us not flounder in bias and stigma: let us learn from those who have endured much and who have settled and given much to our community over the past twenty-five or more years of their presence in our community.

    • Submitted by Barry Peterson on 11/24/2019 - 08:45 am.

      Of my appointment to the Hennepin County Adult Mental Health Advisory Council, and of my work in my senate district, please know that I gained those opportunities based on my own efforts and merits: my family and their status in profession, government, and social life were not a factor. It wasn’t until after my appointment or elected status that my family was aware of my interests in those positions.

      Based on my understanding of wealth, I must say that my neighborhood was a well-to-do middle class neighborhood, as was my family an upper middle-class family with formal education greater than most. I have achieved only a B.A. in history, and my grades were generally average to good. The sheer harassment and number of assaults I received by boorish and out of control young adults led to a great amount of anxiety, which side-tracked me from consistently high grades.

      Law enforcement at the state and federal levels pointedly ignored my pleas for assistance stating that my “mental illness” — depression and anxiety, which many immigrants bring with them who have come from war-torn parts of our planet — figured into their decision to ignore my requests to live peacefully and an without further assault or molestation.

      It is my understanding that University of Minnesota has come a long way in their law enforcement training and discipline, and that folks who have the strength and confidence to note acute or chronic problems with even these common forms of mental illness will be addressed with respect and compassion. The days when ‘mental illness’ was considered as ‘diseases’ which could not be managed are long over. Stigma is old fashioned. Major figure in religion, government and culture, for thousands of years and from all continents, have made a point to teach us the value of compassion and restraint.

      Leaders of all political parties and religions should take note of this and become enlightened as to the value of intelligence and creativity that folks from along the spectrums of health, education, political persuasions, and religious faiths (and without faith) can offer our communities. I am aware, clearly, that some members of our political elite are still encumbered in fears and anti-democratic bias.

      I thank Minnesota Senator Kari Dziedzic for recognizing my advancement from profound depression and anxiety, and for encouraging me to apply and speak before the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners for the further opportunity to serve my community. She approached me at Jax Cafe in Northeast Minneapolis, at a tribute to former Minnesota Senator Larry Pogemiller who was retiring from the senate in Minnesota, and was headed to a position in governance of higher education, in 2011.

      The State of Minnesota regularly posts opportunities for volunteer work.

      Please, if you are a member of a special interest, including professional or ethnic groups, contact your elected state representative or senator, or your county commissioner to learn how you may become involved in the development of understanding and policy to further enhance our state through intelligent and compassionate service.

      If you are not certain who these people are, please contact your county library’s business and government desk. It is very easy to get started, and the work can involved pleasant, challenging, and invigorating opportunities in public service and persona and professional growth.

      At the time of this comment being written, I will say that I recently received word of statewide invitations for a variety of service fields in law, law enforcement, medical fields, and financial areas.

      Thanks to Dr. Richard Adair for his considerate illustrations of the many non-European immigrants who have come to our nation to start a new life and to add to the social and economic vibrancy which our region boasts. Many have experienced great hardship, suffering and loss, and have nonetheless been part of our nation’s success.

      For more on the importance to cultural and economic growth, and how immigrants are an important part of this cycle, please refer to a Harvard economics professor’s article in MarketWatch:

      https://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-immigrants-can-make-the-economy-and-the-nation-stronger-2018-07-18

  4. Submitted by Richard Adair on 11/23/2019 - 10:17 pm.

    As a medical doctor who has practiced in Minneapolis for over 40 years, I’ve cared for many immigrant patients–from Vietnam, Mexico, Laos, Cambodia, East and West Africa. Almost all are grateful to be here.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that Somali people tend to work hard to learn English, and are quick learners. Just this week a 70 year old woman asked my where she could get “easy books” in English. I find this heartwarming.

  5. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 11/25/2019 - 03:49 pm.

    It surely goes without saying, all of us here in America are either refugees or sons and daughter of refugees. It’s why I am proud to be an “American.”

  6. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 11/25/2019 - 04:27 pm.

    Aside from all sentimentality, a fundamentalist Muslim community is very different from other immigrant communities. Very different, indeed.

    • Submitted by Barry Peterson on 11/27/2019 - 05:40 pm.

      As I may have mentioned, above, I have lived in Riverside Plaza for over two decades. I have met many Muslims. I find nothing wrong with my neighbors. I grew up in a wealthy and well educated, predominately white neighborhood in Minneapolis. I had to overcome concerns and biases associated with how I learned about Muslims through the mass media.

      The only thing different about a ‘fundamentalist’ Muslim and other non-fundamentalist people is that they do not drink alcohol and dress in a way which is more covered than most European-Americans find typical.

      From the heart, they are every bit as pleasant as the next person. Their accents and visual appearance may not be what white people from suburban and many urban environments find common, but they are considerate and caring, and have great families.

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