In America, Somalis find proud footing


by Hussein Samatar | March 3, 2009 • Many of us from Somalia see ourselves as Americans first and then Somalis. I include myself, having been born and raised in Somalia but having never worked a single day there due the ongoing civil war. My work, and the work of my colleagues, has been in Minnesota, where we’ve been making our state better and safer through sheer determination, hard work, entrepreneurship and can-do American attitude.

MinneAfrica offers a way to connect, reconnect and stay connected with Africans and friends of Africans in Minnesota.

Americans of Somali descent now live in every corner of Minnesota, from Pelican Rapids to St. Paul to Minneapolis. In a very short time the community has produced an impressive amount of new businesses throughout the state. Even in cities like Willmar, you will find businesses owned and operated by the members of the Somali community. Students have been graduating in high numbers from high schools, colleges and universities and are becoming professionals in many fields.

My own story is living the American dream. Having been displaced at the tender age of 21, I’ve never given up hope, and I’ve found hope here in Minnesota. Trained as a banker, I left my secure job to start the African Development Center, which has become one of the leading community development organizations of the state. We’ve added new products to the state’s lexicon. For example, in conjunction with the city of Minneapolis, ADC offers sharia-compliant business loans. We’ve also just launched a sharia-compliant mortgage product. Both the loans and mortgages are set up to allow borrowers to stay faithful to Muslim law, which prohibits charging or paying interest. Americans of Somali descent can and should be the ambassadors of America throughout the Islamic world — and they should show Muslim countries what is inherently great about America and American people. We have an awesome story to tell about Minnesota and America to the rest of the Muslim world.

I was appointed by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to the Minneapolis Library Board in 2005, and I believe that I’ve made a significant and lasting contribution to our beloved public library system. I also serve on several other prominent boards, including the Minneapolis Foundation, CommonBond Communities, the Citizens League and Humphrey Institute Dean’s Advisory Council.

We love this country not because of its economic opportunities and freedom for all, but because of its values and ideals. America is the best county in which to be a practicing Muslim. Americans of Somali descent know this very well. In less than 15 years, this community has established more than 20 mosques throughout Minnesota. We are well aware of the beauty of having the choice to practice one’s faith without being fearful or oppressed.

Recently, several young Somali men have gone missing from their Minnesota homes, as have others in cities across the country, and federal investigators are exploring whether these young men have been recruited by extremists. As uncle of one of the missing boys and as a member of the Somali community, I am affected a great deal by this issue. We’ve said clearly and unequivocally that the community must work with the authorities to find out who has been behind this cowardly act of sending young men to harm’s way. We’ve also said that the mosques and community must be open and transparent and share with our brothers and sisters in Minnesota the brand of Islam that we preach and practice. Our faith must be uplifting, unifying, inspiring and hopeful. We are also asking the rest of the community to hold their judgment until we know who is behind this situation.

I believe we are all aware of the collective guilt by association that sometimes happens when things are rough and people are not sure what is going on. I just want to remind everyone that each of us is an individual and that each is responsible for his or her choices and actions.

Having said that, Americans of Somali descent must protect the security and safety of our beloved homeland — and start to have a meaningful dialogue with their neighbors and their communities about their faith. Now let’s get back to work and make Minnesota a safe and better place for all of us.

Hussein Samatar is executive director of the African Development Center. This post first appeared in the Star Tribune.