Posted on June 8, 2020

In Minneapolis, Somali-Americans Find Unwelcome Echoes of Strife at Home

Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, New York Times, June 7, 2020

As a child in Somalia, Ali Yusuf dreamed of joining the United States Air Force.

That dream, nourished by Hollywood movies like “Top Gun,” featuring indomitable American heroes representing freedom and justice, motivated him to flee his home in a tattered, war-torn failed state where violence and abuses of power were part of everyday life.

In 2014, he finally made it to Baltimore, where he worked on a janitorial crew, arriving a few months ahead of the meltdown of race and law enforcement that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a black man close to his age, at the hands of the police. Worn out by his own experiences with the police, he moved again about seven months ago to a place that seemed more peaceful and where he imagined the police to be more restrained — the liberal-leaning city of Minneapolis.

Now, at 33, the America of fighter pilots keeping the world safe for democracy seems long in the past. And like many people he is trying to find his footing in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the searing issues of race, justice and police violence he has seen almost since his arrival in this country.

“See, I love America, but I’m scared” said Mr. Yusuf, who works as an Uber driver. He started to cry. “Being a black man, I feel it’s not only that you have to die, but when you die, you will not get justice unless you have evidence of video. And then you have to take it to the next level, with protests. And then still you have to destroy properties just to get justice.”

Somali refugees like Mr. Yusuf, facing war and conflict at home, have been emigrating to the United States in large numbers since the 1990s and the country is home to about 7 percent of the Somali diaspora. Minnesota is home to more than 57,000 Somalis, the largest concentration in the country.

Somalia collapsed into anarchy after the military regime led by Mohammed Siad Barre was overturned in 1991. Rival warlords vying for power threw the country into a civil war, and a centralized, unified government struggled to form, even with external aid. {snip}


One area in Cedar-Riverside is known as Little Mogadishu. A small Somali mall, nestled among the more traditional houses of Minneapolis, has a labyrinthine market inside where women wearing thick, colored veils shop for traditional clothes and iPhones. Men sit outside on plastic chairs, sipping tea and eating Somali samosas.

Given the chaos and danger back home, many Somali immigrants in the Minneapolis area said they were grateful to rebuild their lives here in relative peace. Still, the cavalier way that Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes and the aggressive crackdown on protesters are tough to reconcile with the America they had expected. Instead, they are reminders of the incremental abuses of power that eventually led to the breakdown of civil society back home.

Recent warnings by President Trump about shooting looters and bringing in the military to quash protests, they said, had the ominous sound of an authoritarian regime.

“I couldn’t distinguish between being in Somalia and being in St. Paul,” said Omar Jamal, 45, who works in a sheriff’s office in St. Paul and who came to the United States in 1997.

Observing the heavy presence of security forces and armored police, he said, “I realized that the U.S. is not much different from the country I came from.”

“Over there, it’s simple,” he continued. “If you don’t listen, they’ll shoot you. The army was enforcing the law. It’s a very totalitarian system.”

Now, “seeing military on the streets, there is only one question that crosses my mind,” he said. “When are they going to start shooting? I’ve seen this before. It’s very scary, and it’s very depressing.”

Mr. Jamal has been working with Somali youths who complain to him about being police targets because of their skin color. “They say that even if the sky falls, nobody listens to them. They feel irrelevant, they feel insignificant, and that’s why they’re in the streets.”

Mr. Olat also senses ominous echoes of home. “In Somalia, what happened was that the government neglected the voice of the people,” he said. “And after years of neglecting them, abusing them, harassing them, torturing them, killing them, do you know what happened? Thirty years of civil war.”