In Mpls., a push to curb Somali-Indian tensions

Farcia, Dirir, Berg Thompson
Mike Forcia, left, and Khadar Dirir, right, listen as Kristin Berg Thompson, a Minneapolis Public Schools Liaison, addresses the Native American Somali Friendship Committee at the Minneapolis American Indian Center in Minneapolis, Minn. on Monday, March 21, 2011. The group formed about a year ago after an email circulated about an attack on a Native American woman by Somali youths.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

In a patch of south Minneapolis, longtime American Indian residents and some of their newest neighbors from Somalia are struggling to get along.

The two communities are clustered in and around the Phillips neighborhood, one of the poorest areas in the city. A handful of alleged attacks against women and elders by young men from both communities have only escalated the hostilities.

But some residents, both American Indian and Somali, are trying their best to tamp down the violence and learn to live with one another.

Franklin Avenue has long been the cultural spine of Indian Country, here in the heart of Minneapolis.

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But in the early 1990s, Somali refugees became the latest wave of immigrants drawn to the Phillips neighborhood in search of cheap rent. Now you see Somali Americans filling up apartments, waiting at the bus stops, and opening corner stores and halal meat shops.

Wade Keezer, an Ojibwe band member with a long black ponytail, grew up in the neighborhood. Keezer remembers the first time he saw these new African arrivals, in their long headscarves and dresses, he assumed they were Catholic nuns.

"My sister says, 'No, you dummy, those are Somalis,'" Keezer remembered. "I heard they'd been here, but I didn't know who they were or what they looked like."

Cultures come together
The Almadina Halal Market is located just a block from the Ancient Traders Market and one of the most dense urban concentrations of Native Americans along Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Keezer's Somali friends chuckle about it now. But a year ago, the misunderstandings were no laughing matter, and many feared the tensions were coming to a head.

Some community members say in a few cases, young Somali gang members assaulted American Indian women. And Somalis say young American Indian men have attacked Somali women. Police say they know of at least some of the incidents, but caution that many of the alleged crimes were never reported to authorities.

Just last winter, an American Indian woman was killed by a Somali driver while she was walking across Franklin Avenue.

Another Ojibwe man, Mike Forcia, said that fatal accident infuriated some of his American Indian friends.

"It was such a shock, and still is," Forcia said. "We had such an outcry from the Native community: 'Now look what happened, now they actually killed one of ours.'"

Mike Forcia
Mike Forcia shares his ideas with the Native American Somali Friendship Committee at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. Forcia says he had to confront his own prejudices about Somali Americans when he joined the group.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

About a year ago, community advocates including Amina Saleh of The Family Partnership and Wade Keezer, a longtime area resident, started the Native American Somali Friendship Committee, after an email circulated reporting that an American Indian woman claimed three Somali boys attacked her with a bottle. Saleh and Keezer each organized a group of elders and then brought the two communities together.

At monthly meetings, community members air their problems, and even their prejudices.

And though Forcia was an early member, even he had to confront his bigotry about Somalis.

"I was on the side that, there's nothing we can do," Forcia said. "They're arrogant, they don't know how to drive, you just can't talk to these people."

But he also knew the Somalis were here to stay, and he agreed to the concept more out of practical reasons than a desire for racial harmony.

And at meetings, Somalis confessed to harboring their own stereotypes — including their belief that all American Indians were alcoholics.

Terri Yellowhammer, Khadra Abdi
Terri Yellowhammer listens to Khadra Abdi at a meeting of the Native American Somali Friendship Committee at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

One Somali-American woman who helped Forcia see the softer side of her culture is 29-year-old Khadra Abdi. She moved to Minnesota as a teen and said she loves her new country. But at a recent gathering, she told the other committee members she wished they could walk a day in her shoes.

Abdi said a man recently cut in front of her while she was waiting in line at a clinic.

"I said, 'Hey, I was ahead of you. Buddy, get in line.' He says, 'Well, I'm paying money.' I wish sometimes that I had a country to go back to, because every day you constantly hear, 'You're Somali, you don't know how to speak English, you don't know how to drive, you take welfare.' I mean, it's really, really hard," Abdi said.

The friendship committee has gotten the attention of an initiative of the Bush Foundation called InCommons. Last year, the group was one of three finalists out of more than 200 applicants competing for a grant rewarding groups solving local problems. InCommons created a video explaining the friendship committee during the grant-awarding process.

Although the friendship committee didn't win the grant, InCommons is trying to find ways to support the group and connect it with other resources.

Cultures come together
The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe building on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, Minn. The Native American Somali Friendship Committee was formed about a year ago after tensions grew between the Native American and Somali populations in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Some of the rift between the American Indian and Somali populations is rooted in the simple fact that the neighborhood is changing. Census data suggest that over the past decade, the American Indian population is declining, while the African community is growing. Just next to Phillips is the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, home to thousands of Somali immigrants.

Keezer said some of the American Indians in the neighborhood are quick to lay blame on their Somali neighbors for violence, without confronting it in their own community.

"They're pointing their finger, and it's just like, 'Wait a minute. You just beat up your old lady, and your kids are in foster care, and you're pointing at these people, like they've done something bad to you. But they haven't done anything to you. So what's the problem here? Are you just saying what everybody else is saying just to be hateful?'" Keezer said.

Keezer says he won't stand for that.

There's also an interest in bridging the divide among the younger generation. Keezer has heard that some of the Native American and Somali students have been fighting each other on school buses.

And with the weather warming up, youth leaders predict more fighting over basketball courts in the area. The committee is planning some pick-up games so that kids can learn how to play together, just as this small group of adults has gradually learned to do.