Ann Freeman: I don’t know the Somalians next door

I live in the Twin Cities, home to the largest Somali population in North America. Specifically, I live in the Seward neighborhood of south Minneapolis, a place many Somali families call home, and next to the West Bank, a neighborhood that is sometimes called, usually in a  disparaging way, “Little Somalia.” The majority of black children attending our neighborhood elementary schools are Somali.

But I don’t know my neighbors. I know next to nothing about Somali-American culture, the intersections of being Muslim and African, or what it is like to be a Somali immigrant or child of immigrants in this state and country.

I am around enough Somali/East African people to observe some differences in custom and dress but I don’t know what the differences mean or why. What determines if one woman dresses American style, wearing whatever’s hip with her head uncovered, while another woman wears a hijab and traditional clothing? Is it religious, personal preference, family values, or a combination of each? And what is the difference between public presentation and home life?

I worked at Minneapolis Community and Technical College for a couple of years and had the chance to observe and sometimes connect with the large number of East African-immigrant students who attended school there. I noticed many variations in what the young women wore. Some rocked designer t-shirts, shoes, and scarfs, integrating western fashion into traditional Muslim dress. I saw many young Somali women who were proud Muslims and outspoken leaders, respected by their male peers, shattering my stereotypes of oppressed Muslim women. But mostly I saw hard working students with big plans for their futures.

I’ve kept in touch with one of those young women, mostly though Facebook. She is currently applying for grad school, wants to go to Japan, but plans to live in her mother’s house until she is married as that is their custom and she would not want to disrespect her mother or family by doing otherwise. That is about the most in-depth relationship I have with someone who is Somali.

The Starbucks near my house is a gathering place for Somali men. I have no idea what they talk about in their loud, intense conversational groups. A Somali cab driver in San Diego told me he had been to that Starbucks and that it’s a place where people who hale from various tribes in Somalia get together to talk about the news back home, and to debate different issues. That could be true – or not – I have no idea. They could be talking about the upcoming football season for all I know, or whether or not to replace the storm windows on their homes. Or all of the above.

Last January, a neighborhood grocery store that caters to Somali and other East African neighbors was the scene of a robbery gone horribly bad, resulting in the murders of three innocent people – all East African, as were the shooters. It was all over the news. I soon got a few phone calls from family members and friends who live outside of Minneapolis wondering if my neighborhood was going downhill, if I was safe. Me?! What about the people who were victims of this crime – law abiding, contributing East African immigrants who represent the majority of families living here.

I also know too many people who are afraid to go to the West Bank because of all the “African gangs and crime” there. Yet those same people have little fear of walking downtown late at night, or in neighborhoods with just as much if not more crime than is happening on the West Bank. 

I’m sure you’ve heard about the young Somali men in Minneapolis that were recruited to go back to Somalia to be part of radical, terrorist organizations. The focus of stories in the media and in some conversations seemed to be more about fear of “home grown” terrorism rather than fear for vulnerable young men at risk to be exploited by a radical fringe. 

This is a new turn on an old song – fear of the other. Racism in a new form. Anti-Muslim furor. Anti-immigrant sentiment. The ugly crap that the conservative right is capitalizing on right now to try and win elections.

I feel complicit with my ignorance. If we don’t really know our neighbors, how do we stand as one, united in our commonalities? We don’t. We stay divided and fearful – and vulnerable to propaganda and fear mongering from either side of the chasm.

A shining light of exception burned brightly in the aftermath of the Seward grocery store robbery and murders. As neighbors we came together in outrage and concern. We lit candles and held a vigil. We held up signs that said, “Seward Stands Together. No More Violence.” Shopkeepers put those signs in windows all over the neighborhood. Some signs are still there.

But what did we do with that opportunity to step toward really becoming neighbors? I personally vowed to regularly shop in that grocery store. I’ve bought one can of pop there. So much for neighborly progress, at least on my part.

I remember when Somalis and other East Africans first came to Minneapolis in the nineties. Suddenly our public schools had a whole new culture of students to deal with, and it didn’t take long until my children were coming home saying “I don’t like those Somalis. They smell.” 
This from children who were raised to have a broad and open view of the world, who as multiracial African American young people understood their own sense of otherness, and also had an uncanny ability to cross cultural boundaries and play well with others. How was this particular bigotry and hatred infused so easily into them and their peers that they would dare say such racist nonsense, openly, to me?

A generation later my granddaughter just started kindergarten at one of those neighborhood schools where most of the black kids are Somali. As an African American child she is a minority within a minority. Yet the world is different for her than it was for her mother. Somali and other East African people have been her teachers, classmates, neighbors, and 
playground friends all of her life. She is less ignorant than me and her worldview is already broader than mine or her mom’s. She knows more. But there are no guarantees her generation will bridge this gap. Or if they do, that there won’t be a new one to divide us in ways we can’t even imagine today.

This post was written by Ann Freeman and originally published on Upside My Head (Pay Attention Now).

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Nancy Hokkanen on 09/17/2010 - 11:18 pm.

    The common issue of autism connected me with members of the Twin Cities Somali community. Our children have suffered similarly so we’ve necessarily shared advice on therapies and biomedical treatments.

    The Somali parents I’ve met have been educated, articulate, compassionate and dedicated to improving the lives of their families. I admire their ability to learn multiple languages, negotiate multiple cultures, and simply endure under so many adverse conditions.

    If you want to get to know your Somali neighbors, schedule a play date or picnic. And ask them what “waan búuranahay” means. It’s an amusing icebreaker.

  2. Submitted by Ann Freeman on 09/18/2010 - 08:26 am.


    Thanks so much for this comment. You point out the best way we all can make genuine connections across our differences — which is through our commonalities.

    And I’ll follow your suggestions!


  3. Submitted by Pearl Vork-Zambory on 09/19/2010 - 04:34 pm.

    I live in Northeast Minneapolis, home, also, to a number of Somalis, and the only ones I’ve met are the cab drivers.

    What do I know about Somali cab drivers? They also speak fluent Italian.

    Pretty sad, huh? That’s the extent of my knowledge.


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