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Norway, Minneapolis swap ideas on how to aid Somali refugees

"People think of Minneapolis as the heart of the Somali diaspora."

"People think of Minneapolis as the heart of the Somali diaspora."

In Norway, Somali immigrants who fled civil war in the 1990s and 2000s comprise the largest black community as well as the second largest Muslim community, and are elected to public office at a greater rate than any other country in the western world.

Still, Norwegian delegates are looking to Abdirashid Ahmed, Minneapolis' East African specialist, on how to replicate the success of the Twin Cities' Somali immigrants.

Last year Norwegian delegates met Ahmed in Minneapolis to tour local mosques and malls. Then they invited him to Norway. Ahmed has just returned from a nine-day sojourn to the small Scandinavian country, where he met with government officials and Somali leaders.

They identified barriers to Somali economic advancement that don't exist in America. Norway has a strong tradition of welfare and universal healthcare, but lacks job opportunities that allow recipients to graduate from government assistance, Ahmed says. Meanwhile, though American welfare is barely adequate to support new refugee settlement, opportunities to work and establish small businesses abound.

But Minneapolis' exceptionalism lies in the everyday, innocuous ways in which the East African community is invited to participate in government, he believes.

The city's little-known Language Access Plan mandates that translation and interpretation services are provided at every event. The Neighborhood and Community Relations department encourages Somalis to join neighborhood associations, and invites them to serve on the city's boards and commissions. Every major initiative, including the police body camera policy and Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan, is shopped to diverse communities for their input.

"I can confidently say that we uniquely engage the East African community better than any other city in the West," Ahmed says.

"Whether it is how we empower them so they can join neighborhood boards at the neighborhood level, or city commissions at the city level, or how we are soliciting their input on every single major policy, you cannot find another city in the United States that engages the East African community like that."

Ahmed also absorbed some lessons from Norway during his visit, particularly the ways in which Norwegian police have successfully convinced Somalis to trust them.

In high schools, Norwegian police work with teachers, administrators, and parents to counsel troubled students over time, Ahmed observed. And police chiefs make a point to employ and consult advisory committees from various ethnic communities.

Ahmed has visited Kenya, Sweden, and Washington D.C. in his official role as Minneapolis' Somali specialist. 

"People think of Minneapolis as the heart of the Somali diaspora."