This week, Rural Minnesota: A Generation at the Crossroads will focus on young immigrants in several rural areas of the state, from Pelican Rapids to Chisago County.
PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. — Abdirashid Nuur was lucky he arrived in Minnesota during the month of August.
He had enough adjustments confronting him without the daunting distraction of a Northern Minnesota winter.
Abdi (as his friends call him) had boarded a plane in Kenya’s Nairobi – a sprawling metropolis of more than 3 million people. It’s a subtropical city teeming to the pulse of hip-hop and Benga music, where glittering malls and gritty street hustlers operate side by side, thousands fill the stands for major league soccer and the cops never seem to get ahead of the robbers.
His destination was Pelican Rapids, a two-stoplight town of 2,500 people where farm fields roll right up to the commercial district. The culture throbs here, too, but with a far different rhythm and flavor, reflecting civic interests of Northern European immigrant settlers: quilt shows, library projects, festivals in the parks and high school sports. The police department’s website lists seven officers on the force.
“I couldn’t believe this was such a small city,” Abdi said.
This is where we live
It was not the America he had seen in movies, which typically were set in New York, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles. But it was the place where a brother had landed when he made it to the United States ahead of the rest of the family.
“My brother said, ‘This is where we are going to live for the rest of our lives,’ ” Abdi recalled.
One of the first “American” foods Abdi tasted was pizza. What else?
“I didn’t like it,” he said.
But that was nearly four years ago. Now, he has acquired a taste for pizza – and, more profoundly, an appreciation for peaceful Pelican Rapids.
“I live freely, here,” he said. “Life is much better. … I like small cities. There is less trouble.”
From Mogadishu to uffda
His then-now comparisons reach beyond Nairobi to Somalia, where Abdi was born in Mogadishu, the capital city, and spent the first year of his life. His family fled the violence of that failed state and lived in refugee camps in Kenya before making it to Nairobi.
Abdi had learned English in the refugee camps. But it was British English spoken with a Somali accent, and he initially struggled to make himself understood in Minnesota.
“I could understand what people were saying, but they could not determine what I was saying,” he said.
That has changed in four years so that he sounds very much like other Minnesotans. Indeed, he’s learned the word uffda – although he doesn’t use it on a regular basis.
“I always heard people saying that word,” he said. “I think it is from Norwegian or something.”
From Somalia to Minnesota: Abdirashid Nuur shares his impressions in a video by Sharon Schmickle.
What stood out about Abdi during our interview was not his accent. It was his politeness and formality. He wore a crisp dress shirt and a tie to our interview at the Lutheran Social Services Refugee Center. His dark eyes focused intensely while I asked questions, and he carefully thought through his answers before uttering a word.
Basketball? Hunting? Fishing?
Another standout feature is his height. Abdi is 6 feet, 5 inches tall. People who welcomed him to the local high school urged him to try out for basketball.
But the game was strange to him. His real passion was soccer. (He no longer calls it football.). So he co-founded a team called Somali United, which plays other Somali teams in North Central Minnesota.
Fishing? “No, a lot of people here like fishing. I don’t have the background for it.”
Hunting? Same answer. And ditto for snowmobiling.
Still, at age 21 Abdi has found his niche. One reason is that Pelican Rapids is unusually diverse for a small Midwestern town.
The immigrant experience is mixed across Minnesota and the United States.
The 2010 Census lent numbers to the trend that many Minnesotans had seen unfolding during the previous decade. The ranks of ethnic minorities were increasing sharply.
For Minnesota as a whole, the numbers of Hispanic or Latino residents were up 75 percent during the decade, blacks or African-Americans were up 60 percent, Asians up 51 percent.
The change swept through towns near Pelican Rapids, places that previously had been largely white. In Perham, Hispanics suddenly made up nearly 5 percent of the population. Further south, Morris counted nearly 7 percent of its residents as Asian, Hispanic or black.
And many of those newcomers were young immigrants or the children of recent immigrants.
Some found themselves struggling to punch through barriers of prejudice and poverty. It helped if they settled in towns where former waves of immigrants had weakened the barriers, towns like Willmar and Worthington.
That was the case in Pelican Rapids, too. Hundreds of immigrants from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa had come to town before Abdi, most of them seeking jobs at the local turkey processing plant. Pelican Rapids had registered as nearly 20 percent Hispanic in the 2000 Census.
The big change by 2010 was an influx of blacks and Africans like Abdi who now make up nearly 6 percent of the town’s population.
Gradually, these immigrants have carved their own cultural grooves.
Abdi can find meat that is appropriate for Muslims and the ingredients for flavorful African stews at the Dawo Halal Market on West Mill Street. He can worship at a small mosque that opened in the shadow of the local grain elevator.
At Pelican Rapids High School, he found other Somalis who share his memories, history and language. The Somali students tended to hang out together, he said, but there wasn’t hard and fast segregation – even in an unofficial sense.
More generally, he found some respect for his culture and religion.
“The school was working with Muslim students,” Abdi said. “They knew we don’t eat pork, so at lunchtime we always got something else.”
Taking America as it is
In turn, Abdi is determined to respect the culture he found in his new home – even when it doesn’t square with Muslim values. I pressed him to react to elements of American culture that even many non-Muslims find to be decadent: the casual portrayals of sex and violence in movies and TV shows, the ubiquitous alcohol, the fast food and the obsession with material stuff.
He was unshakeable in his polite determination to accept America for what it is.
“I like people here to respect my culture, so I have to respect the culture and traditions here,” he said.
Beyond high school, Abdi joined a youth program that placed him for work at the Lutheran Social Services Refugee Center. The program has ended, but Abdi continues to volunteer at the center, helping new refugee families translate documents, fill out immigration paperwork and meet benchmarks such as applying for citizenship tests.
“A lot of refugees don’t know English when they come here, and they need help,” he said. “I always do interpreting and translating.”
As an established Minnesotan who has learned the ropes of immigration, he also has an unofficial duty to help newcomers in town.
“In the Somali community, we help each other,” he said. “I always like to help the community with anything they need help with.”
That involves taking newcomers to local stores and helping them with shopping, giving rides to medical appointments and scouting for housing, which is in tight supply for large families.
‘Nobody wants to see this continue’
Because they are official refugees, the Somali immigrants are not plagued with questions of their legal right to live and work in the United States.
Still, Abdi said he is mindful of the obligation to stay on the right side of the law in every respect. And so he worries about reports of young Somalis in the Twin Cities who engage in gangs and violence.
He worries especially about the reports of Somali men his age who were recruited to return to their homeland and fight with radical militant groups.
“The Somalis always feel bad if there is negative stuff regarding the community,” he said. “They did not like at all this youth going back home and trying to fight. … Nobody wants to see this to continue.”
Yearning for home
Of course, Africa still has its pull, as does any immigrant’s homeland. (My most poignant childhood memory is of my father and his brother, Swedish immigrants, tuning up the violin and banjo and then singing out their homesickness in melancholy immigrant music.)
“I miss my friends in Africa,” Abdi said. “I miss the sunshine and the weather that always stays the same. Here it is cold sometimes and hot sometimes, always changing. I miss our traditional food, the fresh food. Here the meat is frozen; back in Africa we bought it fresh. I miss the streets in Kenya. They were so full of life. We used to walk place to place. Here on a daily basis I am riding in my car.”
That is not to say he wants to return to Africa anytime soon.
“Right now, I am not thinking of going back home because there is fighting going on,” he said. “I would like to go back one day when it is safe and see where I came from.”
‘I would prefer to stay here’
Beyond his volunteer duties, Abdi said he also works as a medical interpreter at a clinic in Pelican Rapids. And he takes classes in business administration at the Fergus Falls campus of the Minnesota State Community and Technical College.
What would he like to be doing five years from now?
“I would like to be doing something in business,” he said.
“If I can get a decent job in Pelican Rapids, I would prefer to stay here,” he said.
Sharon Schmickle covers economics, Greater Minnesota, international affairs and other subjects for MinnPost.
Tuesday: Meet a Hmong family at their Chisago County farm.