Building bridges, Minnesota to Mogadishu

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American air strikes on suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists in Somalia as well as food shortages and riots were addressed by the May 20 UBS Forum, held at the downtown St. Paul headquarters of Minnesota Public Radio. MPR’s Tom Crann joined two BBC reporters who cover Somalia in a first-time forum dialogue with the Somali community of the Twin Cities. BBC correspondent Abdi Aynte, Former Twin Cities resident, Minnesota Monitor writer, and TC Media Alliance board chair, returned to talk about what these events mean for the Somali community here in the Twin Cities. A second BBC correspondent, Mohamed Olad Hassan, participated by phone from Mogadishu.

More than 25 people attended the forum, which was streamed live online and will be rebroadcast on MPR in some form later. The majority were Somali men, with a handful of Somali women making their voices heard throughout the discussion. Many in the audience had family members who had called them after, or even as, they fled their homes in Mogadishu due to the increasing violence of the past six months.

The discussion began by focusing on the political situation in Somali, both its causes and possible solutions. Responses were both emotional and divided. While some said it was primarily a Somali problem, rooted in histories of tribalism and warlords, the more dominant sentiment was that blame lies with the Ethiopian occupation, which began in late 2006 and installed a new government of U.S.-backed warlords in an attempt to replace the Union of Islamic Courts. While criticized by some for instituting overly-strict religious laws, the UIC often had a stabilizing force unseen in the country’s 17 years of civil strife without a functioning central government.

Many also accused the United States of only focusing on links to Al-Qaeda at the expense of wider problems, including the very real possibility of famine due to food shortages, both in Somalia and globally. At the same time, Somalis in the audience praised the American people, and how welcoming they have been, distinguishing the U.S. people and certain sectors of the U.S. government from the foreign policies of Bush and earlier administrations, which have provided covert support for the Ethiopian occupation, through both military assistance and CIA funding.

While Crann attempted to shift the discussion towards experiences of Somalis in Minnesota, many in the audience wanted to keep talking international politics. The political strife is part of their experience, and using their voice in the forum of a radio program could start raising greater awareness of the situation in Somali, which can be overshadowed by Darfur. Aynte, and many in the audience, believed that the U.S. media only covered something in Somalia when the United States itself caused it, such as the air strike that killed suspected Al-Qaeda leader Aden Hashi Farah last month.

The question of whether or not diasporic Somalis should leave Minnesota and elsewhere for their homeland brought about equally diverse responses. Crann related the call by Somali novelist Nurradin Farah for diasporic Somalis to come home as the best way to help their country. While many have returned, much of the audience felt that this was naïve and unrealistic, given the necessity of money to return, or that this route was limited to people of Farah’s generation, the elderly feeling homesick for their place of birth.

Others said that their lives are in Minnesota now, and that they should learn what they see as American values, assimilating as to “forget about the past.” This seemed to be a minority view among those in attendance. Staying here raises other issues. One man pointed out that U.S. taxes Somalis pay might support CIA and military interventions in their home country, resulting in the deaths of their fellow countrymen and women, sometimes even their friends and families.

The evening ended with agreement on both sides of the microphones that such conversations need to continue.

“Judging from the reaction,” Crann told me, “I’d say this was a great way to build on our previous coverage, and take it to the next level.” It was also an example that showed the diversity of viewpoints within a community that is often seen and portrayed as homogeneous. If the many cards and email addresses shared after the event are any sign, a number of voices will make sure these conversations continue.

Justin Schell is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.