Comparing the Somali experience in Minnesota to other immigrant groups

Hodan and Ayan Ali
Hodan Ali, 12, left, and her sister Ayan Ali, 13, scan an iPod for music in the bedroom of their Minneapolis home December 30, 2010.
MPR photo /Jeffrey Thompson

Immigrants have been coming to Minnesota for hundreds of years in search of a new life far away from war and persecution.

Some were sent here because of a strong refugee support network, ample job opportunities and a native population that was perhaps more tolerant of newcomers than in other areas of the country. Others followed family and friends who were already established here.

Since the early 1990s, thousands of Somalis fleeing civil war have settled in Minnesota. Official estimates put the state's current Somali population at about 30,000, while community leaders believe it could be as high as 80,000.


But Somalis weren't the first refugee group to land here, and they aren't the last, either. The first major immigration wave took place in the mid-1800s when thousands of people from Germany, Sweden, Norway and other European countries moved to Minnesota. The state's foreign-born population had nearly tripled by 1870.

Some early immigrants were hoping for a new start, others were fleeing poverty or religious discrimination. They established a path to Minnesota that other family members followed in the following decades.

Latinos, mostly Mexican, started coming after the turn of the 20th century to help harvest the state's sugar beet crop. Latinos have continued to establish themselves in Minnesota in recent decades.

In late 1975, the first Hmong refugees fleeing Laos started arriving in the U.S. Thousands of them continued to settle in Minnesota over the next 20 years.

Minnesota's foreign-born population doubled from 1990 to 2000, thanks in part to the influx of Somali refugees. Russian immigrants leaving after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Liberia and Ethiopia also helped boost that number. More recently, Karenni refugees from Myanmar have made Minnesota their home.

Most refugees have faced some common challenges as they adapt to Minnesota life, such as learning English, finding jobs and surviving harsh winters. Adapting can be even harder for them because so many are recovering from traumatic experiences such as losing their homes and loved ones to war, being separated from family members, or witnessing and experiencing violent acts.

Those who have worked with and studied refugee populations have also observed some unique challenges among specific refugee groups. For Somalis living in a post-Sept. 11 world, that includes being strict Muslims in a society where many associate such beliefs with extremism and terrorism.

Many of the first Hmong refugees who arrived in Minnesota had lower education levels than other groups, and many had to rely on their children or other family members to navigate a new country.

On the other hand, some groups had unique advantages. For example, Liberians who came to Minnesota already knew English and were able to find jobs and access educational opportunities more easily. The Hmong, who fought alongside the U.S. military fight in the Vietnam War, were embraced by Americans who felt the U.S. had an obligation to help them.

And as relative newcomers, Somalis have had less time than some to integrate and overcome common struggles.


Somalis may be able to practice their religion freely in this country, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Women wearing head scarves draw stares, daily prayer rituals often conflict with established American routines and schedules, and food choices are limited because meat and other food must be prepared according to the laws of Islam.

"The meat that we eat isn't slaughtered the way it is in Islamic tradition, so they won't buy food from the grocery store if it's meat. They won't eat pork," said Kebba Darboe, a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at Minnesota State University in Mankato who has researched the Somali refugee resettlement. "It makes it very difficult for them to assimilate."

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, carried out by Islamic extremists, led many Americans to become suspicious of Muslims living in the U.S., including Somalis.

"They show up, and a few years later, Muslims attacked the United States. They get looped in with the xenophobia," said Dan Detzner, a professor in the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development.

"When you get attacked or criticized from outside of your own population, then the tendency is to turn inward," said Detzner, who has studied immigrant and refugee populations in Minnesota.

Somalis are also isolated from other Muslim Americans, who tend to be better educated and more financially stable. Unlike Somalis who were forced to leave, many Muslim Americans came here as immigrants seeking economic and educational opportunities. A 2007 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research shows 12 percent of foreign-born Muslim Americans came from Pakistan, and another 12 percent from Iran. The others came from 66 other countries. The vast majority of Muslims who moved to the U.S. did so after 1980, according to the Pew study.

The Pew study also shows Muslim Americans match up to the rest of Americans in terms of education and income. But Somalis in Minnesota are far behind, according to 2008 numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

The survey found that about 82 percent of Somalis in Minnesota live near or below the poverty line. And 68 percent of Somalis in Minnesota 25 and older do not have a high school diploma, compared to 8.4 percent of non-Somali Minnesotans.

When compared to English-speaking Liberians, another large African refugee population in Minnesota, Darboe said Somalis have had a harder time getting access to education because they must first learn English.

While Southeast Asian refugees arrived in Minnesota with very low education levels, Detzner said they have placed a higher value on education for their children than other groups. "They became known as the model minority," he said.


Even if the numbers show Somalis are struggling more that other minority groups, it's important to recognize that they've been in the U.S. for a relatively short amount of time.

After 30 years of helping thousands of immigrants and refugees find their way, John Borden of the International Institute of Minnesota said the longer any group has been coming here, the easier it gets for the most recent arrivals of that group to adapt.

"Time is probably the single biggest factor," said Borden, the institute's executive director.

Everything from signing up for English classes to starting a business eventually becomes a matter of following in others' footsteps.

"They can talk with six of their brothers and cousins who have already done it," Borden said.

Cawo Abdi, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, believes Somalis aren't necessarily having a harder time integrating than most other groups.

"A lot of what we are seeing with the Somali community," she said, "is very much what we have seen for other refugees and migrants in the history of migration to the U.S."

While their children or grandchildren will likely have an easier time integrating, members of the refugee group's first generation still don't feel like the U.S. is their home, Abdi said.

"Refugees oftentimes maintain that sense of displacement, that sense of still not having settled, because there is always the hope that conflict will recede, that peace will be achieved and that they will be able to go home," she said.


A small number of young Somalis from Minnesota have decided they'd rather not watch and wait for peace to return to Somalia. They've returned on their own, sometimes without telling their families, to join in the civil war fighting.

The desire to return to one's homeland to fight is shared by some refugee men, and not just Somalis. A group of Hmong refugees in the U.S. who fought in Laos wanted to go back to reclaim their homeland. A group of them, led by a former general of the Royal Lao Army, at one point were even accused of plotting to overthrow the communist government in Laos.

But the major difference with the young Somalis is that the U.S. government believes they are aiding a militant group linked to Al Qaeda, the group blamed for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Detzner said that belief contrasts with the explanation given in early reports about what was happening to some Somali youth.

"They didn't say that they were going to go fight Americans or going to do jihad," Detzner said. "They were going back to fight for their country, so this was a different thing."

Since then, Detzner said he suspects some of the young Somalis who have left have been "lumped together with other kinds of people who may have had that intention." The youth themselves might even be confused, he said.

Whatever happens with the current situation involving a small number of young Somalis, it's clear that it hasn't helped Somalis' integration process in Minnesota.

"There's even more pulling within and being self-protective, and it's understandable," Detzner said.

(MPR reporter Laura Yuen contributed to this report.)