Swedish delegation seeks answers to Somali success

Visiting Karmel Mall
From left, Bo Sundin, Madeleine Ahlqvist and Rahma Dirie joke together as they tour Karmel Square in Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, Oct. 18, 2010. Sunin, Ahlqvist and Dirie were part of a delegation from Sweden that was learning how Somalian people live and work in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The entrepreneurial success of the Somali-American community might be taken for granted in the Twin Cities, but not in Sweden.

In the past five years alone, Somali Minnesotans have established about 1,500 businesses, according to local estimates. That figure is nearly incomprehensible in Sweden, where the Somali community is largely struggling and out of work.

The tale of these two communities raises an obvious question: Why do so many Somalis in the United States seem to be thriving, while their counterparts in Sweden continue to languish?

This week, a Swedish delegation of government officials and scholars is touring Minneapolis to find the answer.

Fresh off their charter bus, a couple dozen Swedes gather in the parking lot of Karmel Plaza, one of several malls in Minneapolis where most of the customers and shopkeepers are Somali.

With cameras in hand, the visitors huddle around Jamal Hashi, the owner of the nearby Safari Express restaurant and creator of the camel-on-a-stick concoction at this year's Minnesota State Fair. Hashi, who is 28, is sporting oversized sunglasses and a Ralph Lauren puffy vest. The sun is pouring down on him. But the almost scientific curiosity from his Swedish visitors is just as intense.

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One man from the city of Gothenburg is clearly impressed with all the businesses in Minneapolis, and a bit envious.

"So why can't we do that in Gothenburg? So yes, tell me why," he says.

Talking with delegation
Minneapolis business owner Jamal Hashi speaks with a delegation from Sweden at Karmel Square in Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, Oct. 18, 2010. Hashi owns Safari Express in Midtown Global Market.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Hashi tells the Swedes that he's been to their country to visit family. Some of his most educated relatives are on welfare.

"And what they tell me is that it's hard for them to begin. Just getting a drivers license was a process," Hashi says.

Then a Somali-Swedish woman pipes up from the crowd. "What was your impression when you met us Somali people in Sweden? Be honest."

Hashi hesitated, choosing his words carefully. "I had some family members who were living there for 20 years, and I asked them, 'Why is it that you can't build your own business?' I see them hanging out at the cafes. And one cousin of mine said to me that he felt like his dreams were impossible to reach, like a fly trapped in a wine glass turned upside down. So you can only see it, but you can't reach it."

Heads in the crowd begin to nod.

Swedish economists are concerned that if Somali refugees fail to integrate, they may become a permanent underclass in that country. The delegates say they traveled all the way to Minnesota to see for themselves that it doesn't have to be that way.

Visiting Karmel Mall
Lars Holmquist of Stockholm, Sweden documented his visit to Karmel Square in Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, Oct. 18, 2010. Holmquist and dozens of other Swedes were in town visiting with local Somali residents.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Their hosts are with the African Development Center, a Minneapolis lender that trains refugees how to run small business.

Inside Karmel Mall, the storekeepers are a fascinating case study. Stall after stall, Somali women are the ones selling scarves and perfumes. In Sweden, about 80 percent of Somali women aren't working.

One of the visitors, Stockholm city councilor Rahma Dirie, said she is taking in the success stories with an amount of pride. Dirie is Somali herself, and she says many Swedes are puzzled by the Somali community because they don't have as long of a history with immigrants.

"It's difficult for them. They think they're different people, they don't know how to act, they don't know how to integrate," she said.

But she said Swedish government officials and others who work with refugee resettlement are willing to learn. "The fact that they are here, to see what you have done, is a big step," she said.

Somalis in the United States are believed to be employed at twice the rate of those in Sweden. Although the Scandinavian country has long prided itself on having a generous welfare system, many believe that safety net isn't helping Somalis become self-sufficient.

"The people are stuck," said Hussein Samatar, who heads the African Development Center. "If you've been told to sit around, after a while you get used to it. And there's no incentive to participate."

Delegate Benny Carlson, an economic history professor at Lund University, was so intrigued by the successes of Somali Minnesotans that he came here in 2005 and wrote a book about it. He said the Somalis who settled Sweden have similar educational levels to those in the United States, but it's tougher for them to land jobs in his country because of stiff regulations. Carlson said even a janitor must be able to write reports in Swedish.

"So if you're more or less illiterate, it's completely hopeless to get into the labor market," Carlson said. And, he says, Sweden offers fewer jobs in the service industry.

"It's a very common saying among politicians: 'We don't want McDonald's jobs here in this country.' So that's the price you have to pay to have only good jobs," he said. "You have some people never having any job."

The delegation will stay in Minneapolis until Friday. They're also exploring the deep roots planted here by Scandinavians more than 100 years ago.

They've walked through the bustling area once called Snus Boulevard, named after the tobacco snuff favored by Swedish immigrants. Today, it's known as Cedar-Riverside, believed to be the largest Somali-American neighborhood in the country.