Willmar showing the way to a more diverse Minnesota

Tutoring immigrants
Bev Skare, 81, assists Safio Ahmed with a citizenship practice quiz as Hamdi Ali looks on at the Willmar Public Library in Willmar, Minn. Feb. 28, 2012. Skare and two other women have been voluntarily tutoring immigrants in the Willmar area for years about everything from reading to sewing.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Every afternoon, after workers finish their shifts at Jennie-O turkey processing plants, downtown streets come alive as Somali women meander to shops in their flowing skirts, and men bark to one another in their native tongue.

Somali entrepreneurs have opened 15 businesses downtown, most of them clustered in a little mall, where shoppers can buy anything from goat meat to fried sambusa dumplings.

Even though there are fewer Somalis in west-central Minnesota than in Minneapolis, some find Willmar's small-town charm much more appealing than the hustle and bustle of the big city.

"Here, it's easy to come to Jennie-O, come to the stores," Ridgewater College student Fatuma Mohamed said recently, as she waited for her lunch at the Somali Star restaurant. It was her day off from her job at Jennie-O.

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"It's a simple life," Mohamed said. "We love Willmar."

The newcomers from Somalia are changing the social fabric of Willmar, a community with strong Scandinavian roots, now home to about 20,000 people.

From an elderly man to a teen who is on the Willmar High School basketball team, Somalis say the city has embraced them.

But when the East African refugees planned to move their mosque into an old school building last year, it forced an overdue conversation with longtime white residents.


Willmar is still grappling with the uncertainty that comes with immigration. More than 20 years after migrant farmers from Mexico and the southern United States began to make Willmar home, a flood of new arrivals from Somalia has introduced new frictions. It has also compelled people to move beyond their comfort zones and talk to their neighbors.

Last summer, the local Islamic society made an offer to buy the old red-brick Garfield Elementary School building that was for sale. The Somali immigrants wanted to turn it into a mosque to better serve their growing numbers.

Diverse downtown
Downtown Willmar, Minn. has developed into a melting pot of Latino, Mexican and East African businesses.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Schools superintendent Jerry Kjergaard started negotiating with the potential buyers. But he said the location -- in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood -- stirred Willmar's melting pot.

"There were some people that were really, really not happy with me," he said.

Kjergaard is a towering man from South Dakota, with a thick gray mustache. He said some older white residents in Willmar felt the neighborhood wasn't appropriate for a busy mosque -- even though Kjergaard worships at a nearby Lutheran church.

Neighbors wondered if their homes' property values would slide, Kjergaard said. Others said they were simply caught off guard, and pushed back against the school board's closed-door negotiations. The superintendent, whose ancestors came from Norway and Sweden, recalls one of the most common questions people asked him: "Can't you just sell the building to someone else?"

"It's a business deal. My job is to get the most money of the district I can out of a building," he said. "I don't care who buys it. And to be honest, I can't care who buys it. Am I not going to sell it to Scandinavians?"

The Islamic society eventually withdrew its offer after learning how much it would cost to refurbish the school building. The group is now pursuing a new site in the city. But Kjergaard said the plan nonetheless exposed divisions that were dormant for years. He said he hears older residents long for "the way Willmar used to be."

Playing a game together
From left, siblings Yusef, 8, Abdishakur, 12, and Roon Mahboub, 11, play a game together at their home in Willmar, Minn. Feb. 27, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Race has something to do with that sentiment, Kjergaard says, but so does a general nostalgia for a simpler time.

"There's a feeling there's something that's been lost," Kjergaard said. "We know it will never go back to the way it was."

Over the years, Willmar has learned a thing or two about accepting outsiders.

A rural town surrounded by turkey farms, it's home to about 4,100 Latino residents, roughly a fifth of the city's population. They've opened Mexican groceries, where butchers carve meat to the sound of regional Mexican music.

They've also established a handful of churches, including a lively Pentecostal congregation known as Casa de Misericordia, where worshippers from Honduras to Los Angeles dance, shout, and succumb to the spirit.

Not only is Willmar never going back, one could say it's the future.


State demographers say Willmar foretells what Minnesota will look like two or three decades from now. People of color make up 28 percent of the community, which is a much more diverse picture than the state as a whole.

City leaders say immigrants have driven Willmar's growth. They've kept the local economy ticking and ensured the schools are adequately funded. Census estimates suggest about 500 Somalis live in Willmar, but community members say the population is much larger.

Computer work
Yusef Mahboub, 8, works on the computer at the Willmar Public Library in Willmar, Minn. Feb. 27, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Some Somalis think of Willmar as a sort of minor-league farm team for new arrivals who want to ripen their skills in this country. They can find low-skilled jobs, study English, and learn how to drive. After a few years here, they'll be better equipped to move to larger cities in search of higher wages. Others clearly are putting down permanent roots.

Yet many residents -- of all races -- say the city remains socially segregated. In some cases, that breeds suspicion.

In downtown Willmar, where many Somali families live in apartments above the shops, some white residents say they don't feel safe when shopping. But Willmar police say the number of calls for service don't support that perception.

Mayor Frank Yanish said some of the concerns of longtime white residents have to do with the large crowds of Somali men milling about outside.

"The white citizens think that is loitering," he said. "It is probably loitering in our way of thinking, but to the Somali people, what they're doing is giving their wives a break. I can understand that."

Yanish, who was elected in 2010, said he's trying to get up to speed on Somali culture. He owns a tire shop along the main business strip, home to chain stores and a shopping mall. As is the case in many small towns across America, much of Willmar's retail has gravitated from downtown.


David Herzer, a friend and adviser to the mayor, said the changes have caused some older white residents to feel "abandoned." Herzer said his wife has fond childhood memories of shopping in a vibrant downtown, and now laments that today she can't buy a new dress there. Instead, there are disheveled storefronts run by Somali immigrants, he said.

"You could call it messy," Herzer said. "It's certainly not inviting to most people as a place of business they want to enter."

Herzer acknowledges the immigrants are filling shops that would otherwise go vacant, and that the exodus of stores took place long before the Somalis arrived.

But his point is that Americans have something to teach refugees fleeing more than 20 years of civil war. Herzer and many other white residents say they'd like to see Somalis making a bigger effort to engage with the community and join some of the area's social clubs.

"They're here to learn our successful ways," he said. "That's why they were attracted to come to America. We have something that's better to offer than where they came from."

Some find that kind of us-vs.-them perspective polarizing. And it's only half the story. What's the obligation of residents who were already there to understand their newest neighbors?


In Willmar, community leaders say it's the responsibility of longtime locals to help start the conversation.

After the controversy over the mosque proposal, local Somali-Americans teamed up with community leaders -- including a banker, a pastor, and the head of the chamber of commerce -- to address their communities' mutual need to get along.

They found an ally in Abdirizak Mahboub, who goes by "Zak" for short. A well-educated Somali father of three who wears glasses and suits, Mahboub moved from Minneapolis last year to take a job with the Minneapolis-based African Development Center.

Mahboub recalls some of those early conversations with his new friends.

Using area pool
Sahra Gure reads a book while other local women arrive for a water aerobics class at the Kandiyohi County Area YMCA pool in Willmar, Minn. Feb. 27, 2012. Gure and her family attend the YMCA several days a week.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"I said, 'Listen, say whatever you want to ask,'" he said. "People are afraid of insulting you, being Minnesotan, being nice, and being more rural."

Or as schools superintendent Jerry Kjergaard puts it: "We don't talk. We don't ask. We don't want to be nosy. But we really would like to know."

The locals finally got their chance to be nosy. In January, nearly 600 people came to a couple of town-hall discussions that could have been called "Somali 101." The mostly white crowd listened as Mahboub and other panelists offered a primer on everything from Somali clans to the Islamic headcovering for women, known as the hijab.

White residents raised their hands. Some asked how they could get to know a Somali family. Others wanted to know what they could do to be more welcoming.

Much of the audience's curiosity focused on the religion. One white man, a Christian, told Mahboub about his desire to, in his words, "convert you to a faith in Jesus."

"If your son or daughter comes to faith in Jesus and accepts him as their personal savior, and says they want to go to a Christian church, how are you going to handle that?" the man asked.

Mahboub said he recognized the freedom to choose one's religion.

"If my daughter becomes a Christian, I think she's entitled to do that. Do I agree with that? No, I'm a Muslim," Mahboub said.

Another woman in the audience admitted she was wary of Islam, and of Muslims' views of outsiders.

"If you read your Koran, and you come across a verse, 'Kill the unbelievers,' this frightens me," she said. "Can you explain to me how you would receive this verse?"

Mahboub told her he's not a religious scholar, but understands right from wrong, as do most Muslims. He said every peaceful religion has its brand of fundamentalists who'll use their faith to carry out their political agenda.

He drew applause for that point.

Maboub recently left his job with the African Development Center and started a new interpreting business with his wife, Sahra Gure. They'll also continue to teach Willmar employers and organizations about Somali culture.


Gure said they have a lot of work to do. She came to the United States to attend college, not as a refugee. With a hint of a smile, Gure said even she sometimes runs out of patience when Somali men conversing on the sidewalk fail to step aside to let her pass.

She said it's important to remember that many of these newcomers came straight from refugee camps, where there were few rules.

"So they don't have Somali culture. They have a completely different culture," she said. "We keep forgetting they are survivors and lived in a harsh, harsh environment for so many years. The main focus was to survive."

La Gran America
La Gran America is a newspaper published in English, Spanish, and Somali. It's been in operation for about three years, and serves several communities in the Willmar area.
MPR file photo/Ambar Espinoza

Now that Somalis have peace and stability, Gure said it will take time for them to adjust to their new community. She said refugees stick together because there's comfort in familiarity -- but that will change over the years, too.

Somali children say they find acceptance at school, where the lines are more blurred. In 2005, Somali runners at the high school led their cross-country team to a state championship.

And high school senior Mowlid Mohamud, 18, who was raised in Willmar, broke another barrier when he became the first Somali-American student to make the varsity basketball team.

"To say I'm the first one -- it's pretty awesome," he said with a smile.

One of the biggest questions on the horizon is what more, if anything, the city should do to welcome immigrants. One of the most pressing challenges the traditionally larger families face is a lack of affordable rental housing beyond one- or two-bedroom apartments, said Lul Yusuf, who runs a nonprofit that helps Somali women and children.

Yusuf assists a lot of single mothers who are coming to terms with the daily struggle in America. If they are turned down for jobs at Jennie-O, they have few options left, Yusuf said.

"They say, 'Oh, this is America?' Everybody is surprised," she said. "They don't know nothing; they speak only Somali. They think, 'Oh my God, I have nothing. I cannot learn. I worry about my family. I worry about myself.'"

In their struggle to adjust, Somalis can look to earlier waves of newcomers, including early Latino residents who are ready to help.


One of them is Luz Gonzalez, who remembers when the first wave of Somalis arrived in Willmar about a decade ago. Gonzalez, 58, was working for a nonprofit helping low-income people receive energy assistance. She said she was surprised that some of her new clients seemed to carry a sense of entitlement.

"We had Somalis that were coming, and were like, 'Here's my bill. Pay it. Pay it!' And we were like, 'Sorry, we have no money. You pay it!' And they were like, 'No, you pay it!'" she recalled, laughing. "They're nice people, but they're coming here with all these benefits, and they think they deserve it."

But over time, Somalis learned the rules and began to adapt, said Gonzalez, who soon made Somali friends of her own.

"It's a simple life. We love Willmar."

Still, misunderstandings persist between some Somalis and Latinos in Willmar. Somalis have largely come to the United States as refugees, with legal permission to be in the country, so they qualify for benefits such as food stamps to help them get on their feet.

Gonzales said Mexican and Central American immigrants who did not enter the country legally covet that kind of assistance.

As someone who arrived legally in the United States more than 20 years ago from Mexico, Gonzalez, now a U.S. citizen, ran into her own struggles.

When Latinos from Mexico and southern states started to make Willmar their home in the '80s and '90s, the climate was hostile. There were tense meetings in church basements, when whites told the immigrants to "go home."

Gonzalez said the Latino community waged an ongoing battle to fight closed-mindednes.

She said one of her first good friends in Willmar, a white woman, confessed her own assumptions about Latinos after Gonzalez invited her into her house.

"And the first thing she did when going through her house was, 'Wow. Your house is very, very, very, very clean,'" Gonzalez recalled. "I was like, 'What did you expect?' And she apologized. She said, 'I'm sorry, Luz. But we [had] misconceptions.' But it didn't bother me, because when you don't know, you're afraid."

It took many years, but Gonzalez said today she feels welcome in the community. Willmar is home.

One painful chapter in Willmar's history came during the '90s, when a trailer park filled with Latino residents festered with code violations, drug deals, and other crimes.

"Just to have a neighborhood of all Hispanics on the edge of town, away from the rest of the community, sort of ignored and left to their own devices with a bad landlord -- it was a bad recipe," said Willmar native Gregg Aamot, a former reporter who wrote the book, "The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees."

The city eventually closed the park. But Gonzalez and others say it was one of the best things that happened to Willmar because it rallied the entire community. Nonprofits and other groups helped dislocated residents find new homes, said Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

"It was just like, we're not going to have these people live underneath the bridge," Warner recalled. "That's not how we do things here."

The national divide over immigration continues to shape how people in Willmar perceive immigrants, and Latinos in particular. A 2007 raid by federal immigration agents had a lasting effect on the town.

During his campaign, Yanish expressed support for a plan to allow local police to enforce federal immigration laws. The mayor backed off once he was sworn in, but it put many Latinos on alert, said Roberto Valdez, a Texan-born Mexican-American who now runs a nonprofit that helps immigrants launch their businesses.

"Latinos have been here for two decades or more, and things are starting to mellow out," Valdez said. "But then an issue like immigration comes up, and the 10 years you've invested on building communities and relationships is destroyed in a matter of seconds."

Community leaders say most residents accept, if not embrace, the fact that Willmar is a community of change. It's also a harbinger of what's to come. Other cities across Minnesota and even the nation have looked to Willmar to learn how this all-American city has adapted.

Many residents admit they're still learning. But the first step, they say, is to talk about their differences, and also what ties them together. They say their future depends on it.