Mankato adjusts to growing diversity

Lul Omar and her daughter
Lul Omar, 32, her 3-year-old daughter Sarah, and the rest of their family moved to the Mankato suburb of Eagle Lake after living in Atlanta for nearly 20 years. Omar says the family is here to stay. And so are many others. In 2009, her 7-year-old daughter Sumia was the first Somali -- and first Muslim -- student at her school. This year, she's one of five.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

On a typical weekday morning at the Sabrie household, Lul Omar, 32, scrambles eggs and pours cereal into little plastic bowls.

Her three Somali-American daughters -- all under the age of 7 -- are in the living room watching cartoons. Three older children have already left for high school. As Omar rushes the little ones to the table, a battle over breakfast begins.

"I don't want to eat," one of the girls said in English.

Her mother replied, in Somali, that she must eat.

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The bilingual exchange likely will become more common in Mankato, a south central Minnesota community that is adapting to a rapid population change.

The greater Mankato area has long hosted international residents, mainly students studying at the Minnesota State University campus. But in the last decade, the area has attracted thousands of East African refugees and Latin American immigrants who are putting down roots and calling Mankato home.

Omar's family moved to the Mankato suburb of Eagle Lake two years ago, after living in Atlanta for nearly 20 years.

As she drove the family's minivan to the elementary school, Omar said she's in southern Minnesota to stay. So are many others. Last year, her 7-year-old daughter Sumia was the first Somali, and first Muslim, student at the school. This year, she's one of five.

AmeriPride in Mankato
AmeriPride was the first company in Mankato to work with the county's Refugee Employment Services. Now, about half of its 40 employees are refugees or immigrants.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

They came to Mankato for small-town living.

"I like it a lot; so quiet," Omar said. "Big playground for play [in] the summertime [for] the children. A lot of fun."

In the last decade, young East African families like Omar's have moved to this area in unprecedented numbers.

Many have lived in other parts of the United States, often big cities such as New York, St. Louis and Atlanta, which made their transition to Mankato easier.

Others are relatively recent arrivals who struggle to understand life in their new home -- just as longtime residents can have difficulty understanding them.

"When you are looking at a community that's growing, and you have maybe people that are from different cultures, you're going to have misunderstandings," said Jessica O'Brien, a refugee employment coordinator with Blue Earth County. "You're going to have a lot of uncertainty about what that means and how that's going to change the community. We work on that."

Since 2000, the non-white population in Blue Earth and Nicollet counties has increased by nearly 50 percent.

O'Brien, who works with some of the city's newest residents, said many of the families she meets want to make Mankato home. But they grapple for years trying to understand the nuances of everyday life.

"We spend a lot of time explaining why you do this and you don't do this," she said. "They're probably feeing a bit overwhelmed because of all the information ... that they're bombarded with when they get here -- getting their children signed up for school, and expectations with everything you do here."

The change has come fast for the area. Since 2000, the non-white population in Blue Earth County and neighboring Nicollet County has increased by nearly 50 percent, from 3,186 to 4,770. Most of the growth has come from refugee and immigrant families. Officials estimate Blue Earth County alone is now home to as many as 500 refugee families.

At the Lincoln Community Center, new residents can learn to speak English, take civics classes and meet other immigrants. The first Somali woman walked into the center about 12 years ago. Today, several hundred adults attend classes each year.

Among the students is Agwiyo Okal, 31, who travelled more than 7,000 miles from her native Sudan to a new home in rural Minnesota. Like so many refugees who call Mankato home, she's determined to learn English, go to college and find a job as a home care provider.

"I need to take my GED," she said. "I need to go to college when I'm done. If I go to college, I want to study [to] take care of people."

Helping new residents like Okal is a priority for the local school system.

International student
Ojoye Akane arrived in the U.S. in 2004 from Ethiopia, and earned his bachelor's degree in 2009. He's now a graduate student at MSU Mankato, studying urban planning.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Mankato Area Public Schools Superintendent Sherri Allen acknowledged the district needs to accommodate an increasingly diverse population. More than 17 percent of the district's students in kindergarten through 12th grade are non-white, and many are immigrants or refugees.

Students in the Mankato school district speak 31 foreign languages, the most common of which are Somali, Spanish, and Nuer, a language spoken in Sudan and Ethiopia.

Allen hired three school liaisons to work with immigrant children and adults. She said they have become a link between the new families and the greater Mankato community.

Many longtime residents still pepper the superintendent with questions about their new neighbors. Most want to know how long it takes immigrants to learn the language, what they want from the school system, and how long it will take for them to become contributing members of the community.

Allen said part of her job involves helping native Mankato residents understand that it takes years for immigrants and refugees to learn English and understand the American way of life.

"That is a learning curve for all of us," she said. "I think that's going to be a continued opportunity for all of us to educate."

For Allen, part of the challenge is to help longtime Mankato residents understand the difference between refugees and immigrants. She said people often don't know that refugees are in the United States legally and have the right to work. Although many immigrants also are legally in the country, some are not.

Business owners who made that distinction early on benefit from the new workforce.

A decade ago, AmeriPride, a uniform and linen laundry company, was the first company in town to work with the county's Refugee Employment Services. Today, about half of its 40 employees are refugees or immigrants.

Production Supervisor JoAnn Hall, who has worked at AmeriPride for 23 years, said working with the newcomers hasn't always been easy, especially for women who supervise Muslim men.

"They don't want women supervisors. So there has been some friction with that, but we kind of got it all under control," Hall said. "I said, 'I am your boss because I am a production supervisor.' And I said, 'I'll work with you. You work with me. You might not like me, and I might not like you, but we have to work together because we're all one team.'"

Production manager Tom Blaido admits that working with a workforce that includes different nationalities and religions has come with its share of growing pains.

To accommodate the Muslim call to prayer five times a day, he set up a prayer rug in his office. When he learned that Muslim women wear head scarves, he worked with them to find shorter ones that would be unlikely to be caught in machines.

Somali community leaders also have helped the company adjust to its new workforce, by speaking to the workers of their own efforts to adapt to a new home.

For some, like Ojoye Akane, that transition has meant pursuing professional careers. Akane, 35, arrived in the United States in 2004 from Ethiopia. He earned his bachelor's degree in 2009, and is now a graduate student at MSU Mankato studying urban planning.

"Most people, they think because you can get a job after high school they think that's OK," Akane said. "But we tell them it's not OK."

Akane wants to encourage other refugees and their children, to go to college, and think long term about their lives in Mankato.

"It breaks my heart when I see our young people in St. Cloud, [at] meat processing companies, doing things in Worthington and other places," said Akane.

Akane said maybe there's a day when he can put his U.S. education to use in his native Ethiopia. But for now, Mankato is a long-term choice and the place he calls home.