Better Days

They went through hell in Mogadishu. But for 17-year-old Mohamed Abdullahi and other Somali immigrants, in Minneapolis it's still an uphill climb.

Spokesmen for the latter offer two explanations for why Somalis are grossly undercounted. First, in accord with tradition, extended Somali families tend to live together under one roof. Fearing eviction, they underreport their numbers when census takers and social workers come calling. This also helps to obscure the phenomenon known as "secondary migration": Even by conservative estimates, roughly three out of every four Somalis in Minnesota relocated here after having been placed in one of 23 other U.S. states from the camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Why would so many people who were reared near the Equator voluntarily flock to the frozen prairie? Local Somalis are apt to answer with a smile and one of two pithy phrases: "To be near family," or, "More opportunities here" (or both).

"The services were here long before the Somalis came," notes Abdi Husen, a mental-health staffer at the Community University Health Care Center, which is located in the middle of a Somali enclave at the corner of Bloomington and Franklin avenues in Minneapolis. "In San Diego, where I was before, the [government] programs have been cut back, and there is less help from the nonprofits. People would go to a single doctor's office in a corner of the neighborhood for a ten-minute visit. In Minnesota it is much more comprehensive. We have a clinic that also contains mental-health and dental services. When doctors make a referral, it's a one-stop shop. It is so much better, especially for the poor."

Fred Petters

In the mental-health area alone, the center has an active client base of more than 100 Somalis, many of whom are being treated for depression and/or posttraumatic stress. The diagnosis and treatment of such disorders often conflicts with cultural and religious resistance: Nearly all the Somalis here are Muslims, and many of them believe that God's will must be accepted. There's also a general belief that a person is either crazy or normal, with no gradations of sanity. To counter this, Husen says, the center's staff has worked through elders in the community, whose endorsement--be it explicit or tacit--of mental-health therapy carries significant weight.

That kind of cultural astuteness is not uncommon among Minnesota's social-service providers. It's largely a product of their dealings with the influx of Hmong immigrants during the 1980s and is especially evident within the Minneapolis Public Schools, whose English Language Learners program allows students to learn English while doing coursework in their native language and also provides liaisons to families to bridge cultural differences. By the end of last year, ELL served nearly 2,000 Somalis--as well as more than 3,500 Hmong, 2,500 native Spanish speakers, and six other groups of at least 40 students who spoke something other than English.

"The bilingual program in Minneapolis is the best of any city throughout the United States. I can tell you that many Somalis come here from other states just to get this kind of educational support," says Mohamed Osman, a teacher at Roosevelt High. Somalis make up one-third of Roosevelt's student body. Announcements are printed and read over the PA system in Somali and English, and administrators have set aside an area to accommodate Muslim prayer. Osman proudly notes that during the past five years, more Somali students have gone on to college from Roosevelt than from any other school in the world. (Still, fewer than half of the Somali seniors who were enrolled in the ELL program last year graduated.) "The students are very lucky to be here. I was a Somali teacher and I was in the civil war, and remembering back home and seeing what it is like here, I don't need to say anything bad about this country," Osman asserts. "America and the people of Minnesota have been very kind, and I say that wholeheartedly."

Still, says Abdi Husen, "We're just touching the corners of this. I'm not sure most of the real needs are being addressed. We serve a number of Somalis, but if there are 50,000 of them here, how much service is enough?" Adds Husen's supervisor, David Schuchman: "We got our first Somali staff member three years ago, a second one a year ago, and two more about a month ago. And all of them are already too busy. There is still more out there than we can deal with, and one of the biggest gaps is for Somali children."

Most Somalis don't expect social services to address their problems; when they refer to "opportunity," they generally mean employment. And after what they have endured at home, almost any job looks like a good one. "The first Somalis who came to Minnesota from the camps came to Willmar to work in the turkey-processing factory," says Mohamed Hassan, the crime-prevention coordinator for the Minneapolis-based Somali Community of Minnesota. "After that, the word spread out that there was a place called Minnesota where there were jobs that could bring better conditions of life. And people said, 'That's where we will move.'"

Over the past five years, Somali immigrants have eagerly taken jobs as taxi drivers, parking attendants, and hotel housekeepers. Entrepreneurs have established Somali restaurants and coffee shops, as well as grocery stores and other retailers. And both here and outstate, they have provided a steady source of factory labor. "People talk about the services they use, but you don't hear as much about what they contribute, like the 300 Somalis working in the meat factory in Faribault," notes Abdi Husen. "They want the work. They obviously aren't moving from San Diego because of the climate or the culture."

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