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.

One positive aspect of the booming employment situation has been a relative lack of tension between transplanted clan members. Although a transitional government was finally established in Somalia last August, it has yet to impose order or effectively quell the bloodshed. In its latest (1999) annual report on Somalia, Amnesty International left little doubt that violence continued to grip the nation: "Human-rights abuses by faction militias were committed with impunity. There were hundreds of killings of unarmed civilians."

Within the past decade, the civil war and a manmade famine have killed nearly half a million people and displaced hundreds of thousands of others. To some degree, every Somali immigrant has had his life shattered and his memories permanently stained by the actions of his countrymen. Yet in Minnesota, and elsewhere in America, Somalis have done an admirable job of reducing interclan conflict. Police blotters across the nation contain almost no reports of clan-based violence.

"There's not much clan friction because the American way of life doesn't allow that," Husen says. "People have to go to work, and the time they have is very little. Many are pressured by the desire to send money and help out family members who are still in the camps or living with the results of the war back home. A lot of the clan things happen because the economy is tough. When you have no money, you have to depend on your clan. But here you can support yourself. Here you go to work with people from other clans."

Fred Petters

Last month the Star Tribune published a front-page story about an ongoing federal probe into whether a portion of the money local Somalis are sending back home is funding warlords rather than feeding families. Not surprisingly, the story struck a nerve. Many Twin Cities Somalis felt the piece sensationalized the situation, and that at most a minuscule fraction of the many millions that are being sent back might be used to fund continued warfare. But the harsh reaction was an indirect acknowledgment that dormant hard feelings within the community cannot be taken for granted.

Efforts to reconcile Somali clans in Minnesota were begun as far back as 1994, when the first wave of immigrants arrived. A group of people from some of the more established professions--teachers, doctors, lawyers--discussed forming an umbrella organization that would comprise a cross-section of clan members. In consultation with clan elders, they founded the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota. Funded by a variety of nonprofit and government entities, the organization, based at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis's Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, has created a variety of advocacy programs for housing, employment, mental health, and youth mentorship.

But what really distinguishes the confederation is its effectiveness in promoting a spirit of interclan cooperation. "The civil war is fresh in the minds of people here. Clan differences were declared, and it takes time for that to go away," sums up the group's executive director, Saeed Fahia. To heal these wounds, Somali immigrants must negotiate a perilous course between denial and bitterness.

Ahmed Warsame is the confederation's elder liaison. He notes that centuries of European colonization, along with territorial disputes with neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya, long ago divided the Somalis' land and loyalty and set them against one another despite their common culture and language. A prominent businessman in Mogadishu, Warsame lost his home and his properties in the civil war, as well as his son and two brothers, who were gunned down at one of his warehouses by neighbors he knew personally. "Of course I was angry at the time; it is human to be emotional," he says in Somali, as Fahia translates. "But what I knew then and now was they didn't hate me as a group or a person. They made a political calculation. They thought they would have more stability if just one group in the area was in power. Even now I hear from people connected with them who say 'I am sorry' about what happened. Very few people were meaning to perpetrate this conflict--just the warlords and their agitators, looking for power. Most of the Somalis living here now were themselves victims who feared for their lives."

Adds Fahia: "Once the civil war started, for protection you had to choose a side. And even if you had no side, the warlords would choose a side for you."


For the Benadiri the reconciliation process is particularly complex. Unlike most of their countrymen, they were largely left alone during Siad Barre's brutal reign. While other clans had a clear-cut interest in either seizing or retaining political power, the war offered the Benadiri almost nothing to gain and everything to lose. And they lost everything. Mogadishu, which had been their home for more than a thousand years, became a killing field, and they were caught in the middle. Literally: The infamous "Green Line" separating the capital into twin territories controlled by the two most powerful warlords ran right between the city's two oldest Benadiri settlement districts.

The Benadiri remain wary of integrating with their fellow Somali refugees. When countrymen who had earlier looted, raped, and killed members of their clan became refugees themselves and arrived at the camps in Kenya, the Benadiri were permitted to create their own segregated refugee camp. Locally, rather than lend their full support to the broader-based efforts of the Confederation of Somali Community, they established their own group, the Somali Benadiri Community of Minnesota.

« Previous Page
Next Page »