Rochester’s Somali community struggles to adapt


In addition to the fear and unease generated by the beating death of Muhdin Yahye Mumin last October 1, the achievement gap between Somali and White students in Rochester schools is one of several other problems facing the Rochester Somali community. Abdalla Mursal, Rochester Senior Citizen Center Somali program coordinator, believes that cultural misunderstanding is a primary reason for this gap.

Civil war and other violence back in their homeland often tore apart the Somali family, Mursal explains. This, along with being forced to leave their homeland and resettle in a new country, proved to be a difficult adjustment for many Somalis after they arrived in Rochester, beginning in the early 1990s.

There are too many Rochester teachers who seem inadequately trained to handle such students, Mursal continues. “Teachers in Rochester are trained to teach only students [who] are coming from American families,” he points out. “They have no idea how to teach students who come from civil war areas. Most of the students who come from Africa, especially Somalia, are coming from refugee camps and have no basic education.”

Another contributing factor is the fact that so many Somali households are headed by one parent. Most Somali families are headed by single mothers because “[the] fathers are killed in the civil war,” explains Mursal. “So the mom who comes here with six, seven, eight children, she has to work for them. She has no regular education [n]or speaks English.”

According to Mursal, Somali students are dropping out of school at an alarming rate, mainly because they are not getting the proper educational assistance.

“Every family from the Somali community in Rochester is losing two or three children because they are dropping out of school. So, the students who are not getting help from the schools and are not getting help from the house [are dropping out]. That is what is worrying us.”

However, Mursal says he believes that Rochester School District Superintendent Dr. Romain Dallemand, who has been meeting with Somali groups, is trying hard to solve this problem. “He [Dallemand] is informing us of what is the [achievement] gap between the Somali students and other students,” says Mursal.

Among the goals in the district’s 2008-2013 five-year strategic plan is improving academic proficiency among all students, Dallemand acknowledges. Yet the superintendent notes that despite an almost seven-percent improvement among Black students in reading proficiency, “We still have a concern with an overrepresentation of Black students, and minority students in general, who are not graduating. We are making progress, but we still have a long way to go.”

The achievement gap is just one of several issues confronting the Somali community in Rochester. Another is their perception that Somalis are too often targeted by the city’s police officers for questioning inside the schools.

“I hear some problems are happening in the schools,” says Mursal. “A police officer goes to the school and tries to take out a [Somali] student. The student is asked questions about something he has never done.”

When asked about this, Dallemand says he has no knowledge of such activity occurring in his schools. “I have no concrete data that this is taking place, but I do have information from parents and students who are saying that these things do happen.”

According to Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson, “We would not have any policy or encourage our officers in any way to unfairly question anybody. But I do recognize that perception can exist out there for a lot of different reasons, and that perception is something that we must address.”

Peterson, who has been on the Rochester police force since 1981 and became chief in 1998, adds, “There are some things that we do better now than we did 20 [or] 30 years ago. But that doesn’t mean that we have solved all the problems or there aren’t challenges.”

He reported that at least 10 percent of his police officers are bilingual; several speak Arabic, including an officer who is a native of East Africa and “who has great familiarity with the culture,” says Peterson. “That has helped us a great deal, but there still are some cultural issues that present a challenge, both in terms of [Somalis] acclimating to the community and working with them to make sure that we are respectful of their circumstances.”

Rochester should be a welcoming place, especially since both the Mayo Clinic and IBM, two internationally known entities, are located there. But Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede readily admits that hasn’t always been the case, especially with the Somali community.

There are still some Rochester residents who don’t understand Somali culture. Mayor Brede points out that his community’s reaction to the beating death last October of Muhidin Mumin is a good example of this shortcoming.

“There is some feeling that I sense that when [the crime] happened, there weren’t [enough] of us that maybe should have [and] could have reached out to the community with our strong concern in support for them,” Brede recalls. He adds that not doing anything “can be interpreted that we don’t care.”

Brede believes that, at least in his case, a recent trip to Saudi Arabia has helped him better “understand our neighbors who live here in our city.” Mursal says that recent meetings with the mayor, police chief and school superintendent have shown him that these officials positively want to help solve his community’s concerns.

“We are currently in the process of developing an equity plan that can address all disparities and things that make our students feel that there is not a sense of belonging,” says Dallemand, who adds that diversity training for all school staff will begin next school year. “We have been doing a lot of work, and we are making a lot of progress,” he surmises.

Peterson agrees with the mayor that “the cultural issues are something that we need to pay a great deal of attention to. We need whatever help that we can [get] to educate ourselves on that issue.”

Finally, Mayor Brede says his city must do more than talk about inclusion and diversity: “Building an inclusive community has got to be more than a [road] sign.”

Watch the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder for updates on the trial of those accused of the beating death of Muhdin Yahye Mumin.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to, or read his blog: www.ww

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