African immigrants finding a home in rural Minnesota


by Ben Lilliston • 10/31/08 • Minnesota has always attracted new immigrant populations. The wonderful movie Sweetland tells the more traditional immigrant story of the Minnesota plains and the culture clashes of the 1920s. Over the last decade, the state has become one of the country’s most popular destinations for African immigrants, now estimated at 80,000 people. Minnesota also hosts the largest Somali population in the United States.

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

About 20,000 new African immigrants live in Minnesota’s rural communities —many working in meat and poultry packing plants around the state. New immigrants in rural communities often feel isolated as they face the challenges of a much colder climate and a new language. On a day-to-day basis, rural communities have their own unique hurdles for new immigrants in transportation, housing, health care and jobs. IATP’s Garat Ibrahim discusses some of the challenges for new African immigrants in Minnesota on this past podcast from Radio Sustain.

Garat To help connect African immigrants in Minnesota to discuss common strategies for overcoming the challenges they face, IATP hosted the first Rural African Summit in St. Cloud, Minn. earlier this week. The meeting attracted about 150 participants, including community leaders from many smaller rural towns like Owatonna, Pelican Rapids and Willmar.

At the opening reception, the Reverend David Ostendorf of the Center for New Community gave a sobering history of the U.S. meatpacking industry and issued a call for people of all faiths to work together. “Meatpacking, more than any other industry that I know of, has perfected the ability to exploit race,” said Ostendorf. He traced the history of meatpacking in the U.S., from the South Side of Chicago around the turn of the 20th century to rural communities today. When most of the country’s meatpacking was based in a solid square mile of Chicago, the companies pitted different ethnic groups against one another, said Ostendorf. And when the unions started to grow, they brought in African-Americans from the south. Eventually, the companies moved to rural areas in the 1980s and began to hire Latinos and now African immigrants to do the very demanding work. Those two communities of new immigrants are currently being pitted against each other in some rural towns. “It is our responsibility to build relationships between workers. The companies won’t do it,” said Ostendorf.

Hussein Samatar, of the African Development Center based in Minneapolis, examined the history of new immigrants in Minnesota, pointing out that in the late 1800s there were 23 foreign languages on voting ballots, and in 1920, 60 percent of the population was foreign-born. Samatar urged the participants to recognize that “this is your state too”—and that the African immigrant population generates considerable economic activity and real buying power within the state.

Discussion Throughout a number of separate sessions, presenters discussed in-depth the issues that new African immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, face in the workplace, such as the need for prayer breaks, clothing restrictions and how to advance beyond entry-level jobs. As interesting were discussions about economic development, where new immigrants need to learn about how the American financial system works. Understanding how to build a credit history, improving financial literacy, as well as figuring out access to Islamic-financing (which forbids interest) were all discussed. Public safety, affordable housing, human rights, public health and education were also covered in lively sessions.

Jim and Fowzia “We are not leaving,” Fowzia Adde of the Immigrant Development Center in Fargo told participants. “There shouldn’t be a delusion that we are going back. We have to be part and parcel of these communities. We opted to be here so we have to be productive. We have to integrate, we have to see democracy.”

You can find more background about African immigrants in Minnesota in a short report by Neal Remington. Look for more on the summit, including materials, photos and videos on IATP’s soon.