Somalis in Minnesota react to barrage of bad news

Friends Abdirizak Yusuf and Jeylani Mohamed
Longtime friends Abdirizak Yusuf and Jeylani Mohamed, both from Minneapolis, shop for CDs at a music shop at the Village Market mall in Minneapolis. Employee Dahir Mohamed works behind the counter.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Sometimes Dahir Mohamed, who works behind the counter at a music shop at a Minneapolis Somali mall, winces when he turns on the news.

First he was hearing about the alleged suicide bomber from Minneapolis. Then it was this week's raids of three money-wiring services. And now, nonstop coverage of Somali pirates holding an American hostage.

U of M student Ruqia Mohamed
Ruqia Mohamed, a student at the University of Minnesota, says many young Somali-Americans are feeling a backlash from the broader community because of negative news about her community.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"We wished it was someone else, like another community besides the Somalians. We don't want to be in the front of the news for negative things," said Mohamed. "If it was for the first Somali-American who won the Olympics, yeah, I could be proud of it. But not for somebody who is creating violence for others and making a mess."

At Mohamed's shop, CDs of Somali hip-hop artists and Ethiopian balladeers blanket his walls.

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But pirates are the talk of the day. One Somali-born customer, Jeylani Mohamed, says many Americans seem suddenly fascinated with his homeland.

"The world is giving them attention right now ... and the only reason is because of the pirates," Mohamed said.

On the flip side, he says at least Somalia's tragic story is finally being told. The country hasn't had a working government for nearly two decades.

"We've been living with this problem for the past 18 years. We have family, we have brothers, we have sisters, mothers, fathers, back home," said Jeylani Mohamed said. "And they're going through the same problem every day, with the militias, with the warlords, with the interim government, and the Ethiopian government invading Somalia."

"It's called guilt by association. And that's what's happening to the rest of us."

Here in Minnesota, Mohamed says he hasn't experienced any backlash stemming from the high-profile drama of his homeland.

Ruqia Mohamed wishes she could say the same.

"It's called guilt by association. And that's what's happening to the rest of us," she said.

Ruqia Mohamed says a federal investigation into whether a number of young men from Minnesota went to fight for a terrorist group in Somalia has fueled suspicions about all Somali-Americans.

A student at the University of Minnesota, Ruqia Mohamed is wearing tangerine-colored sandals under a billowing black skirt and hijab. She says the climate for Somali-American women like her feels worse than it did right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Just a couple of weeks ago, she and some friends were filling up at a gas station in the hip Uptown neighborhood in Minneapolis. While they were there, she says two young white men sitting in a car hurled a comment at her and her girlfriends.

"They turned around to be right next to the car we were driving and said, 'Go back to where you came from, you dumb terrorists.' I was angry -- ignorant people," said Raqia Mohamed. "But then you see stuff happening in the media. I'm sure these boys would not have said that if they didn't read or hear about all these crazy things that are happening, and the way they're been reported."

Music-store employee Dahir Mohamed
Music store employee Dahir Mohamed plays solitaire on his computer while waiting for customers. The shop sells CDs by African artists.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Mohamed says stories about pirates and terrorists eclipse the dominant narrative of most Somalis living in U.S.

The real story Mohamed sees every day is one of people from a failed state who are going to school, working hard and planting roots in this country. She thinks most Minnesotans grasp that.

"Minnesota is, I believe, actually a very diverse state. People are very tolerant, very understanding. I've never had anyone call me a terrorist or anything like that," said Ruqia Mohamed. "So to experience that here in Uptown, Minneapolis, it means that people's perceptions of the Somali immigrants have changed, even in the past few months, dramatically."

The FBI, which is leading the investigation into the missing men, says it's focusing on individuals who may have committed a crime -- not all people of Somali descent.

Some Somali-Americans in Minnesota have faith that the authorities are narrowing in on their suspects and will be making arrests soon.

But back in the CD shop, store clerk Dahir Mohamed says his community's reputation is still getting a black eye, "simply because the name of the Somali community's being dragged into it."

That's why Mohamed, and many others, say the expected charges can't come soon enough.