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In images of Somali life, photographer captures Minnesota stories

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Mohamed Barre
For years, Mohamed Barre has been taking photographs of the Twin Cities Somali community. The Somali refugee's goal is to create an archive of immigrant life to share will his American-born children.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

Years ago, Mohamed Barre began snapping pictures of Somali life in Minnesota just so his kids could see what it was like for the first refugees.

But as he photographed everything from mosques to halal markets, Barre found he'd built a rich archive of Somali-American life for everyone. What began as an amateur photographer's tinkering grew into art.

On Saturday, he'll host an exhibit of his images at Bottineau Commons in Minneapolis. Barre, 50, describes the photos as "a good excuse" to get Somalis and non-Somalis together.

"I want everyone to get to know my community as well as their neighbors, to know more who they are and ask questions that you somehow cannot ask at the playground, at the bus," he said recently as he watched his children run around the soccer fields near their northeast Minneapolis apartment building. "You can come and ask me any question that relates about the community."

Barre came to the United States as a refugee in 1995. He lived in Virginia then moved to Minnesota in 1998. He met his wife, Naema Ali, also a Somali refugee, when they were both in college at St. Mary's University in Minneapolis. Their six kids, ages 9 to 13, were all born in Minnesota.

Family photo
Mohamed Barre and his children pose for a photo on October 15, 2014, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Pictured (from left to right) are Ilias, age 12, Ilhan, age 9, Issa , age 11, Barre, Ilham, age 9, Ismael, age 13, and Ishaq, age 10.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

It's important for the younger generation to know the way things were for people who fled war-torn Somalia, Barre said. But while some Somali refugees focus on returning to a renewed Somalia, Barre says that's the last thing on his mind.

"We are raising children that were born here. Few of them will ever go back," said Barre, a child-support officer at the Hennepin County Department of Health and Human Services. Immersing them completely in American life will let them "integrate and understand this is their country."

That doesn't mean he wants his children completely disconnected from their heritage. When asked, they can rattle off facts about Somalia, their parents' homeland.

"They have dangerous animals, like hyenas and lions," says 10-year-old Ishaq.

"A lot of beaches and mango trees," Issa, who's 11, chimes in.

The children are more comfortable, though, with knock-knock jokes and NFL scores. Occasionally they burst into random pop culture refrains, like when they sing the theme from the "Cops" TV show.

American kids
Ishaq Issa watches his brother Ismael play a video game in their Minneapolis, Minn., home on December 6, 2014.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

Barre and his wife wouldn't have it any other way. "They owe a sense of belonging to somewhere and it has to be here in Minnesota," he said. "I have to give them full freedom for them to exercise and understand the culture they belong to."

"I want them to understand who I am, what my values are, the cultures that I had," he said. "But I also want to give them the opportunity to understand their culture so they can choose how to blend the two."

When they're older, he hopes they'll look at his photos and see the faces of the Somali refugees who helped make their lives in Minnesota possible.

"I always tell them, 'Don't be like me, a newcomer,'" he said. "You were born here. You live here."

If you go

What: MN 6 I Group's Fourth Annual Somali Photo Exhibit
When: Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Where: Bottineau Commons Community Room, 1808 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis
Note: The exhibit features the work of Barre and Mohamoud Hussain. It's free of charge.