The five young women in the office of the Somali Student Association in Coffman Union transition seamlessly from unaccented English to Somali.
Many, born in the United States, are fluent in both cultures. Even their clothes, a blend of hip American fashion and long skirts and hijabs, reflect this biculturalism.
MN DAILY EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series examining violence in the Somali community — Monday’s will look at community responses.
But the cultures don’t always mix so readily.
The Somali community in the United States is challenged by sometimes-limited education, traumatic situations as refugees and intergenerational divisions where children are torn between traditional Somali values and American norms, University sociology professor Awa Abdi said.
Violence as part of migration
The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates a half million refugees have fled Somalia since the start of its civil war in the late 1980s.
There has been no central leadership in Somalia since its government collapsed in January 1991, Abdi said.
Many Somalis now in Minnesota fled violence in Somalia only to spend years in Kenyan and Ethiopian refugee camps. Somali refugees have landed in many areas in addition to the United States, Abdi said, such as New Zealand and China.
“You don’t choose where you go,” she said. “When you’re a refugee, you go where you can.”
The refugee experience complicates integration into mainstream American culture, Abdi said.
“These people are often times very traumatized with very little support network for them coming to a place that’s completely different in terms of ethnicity, in terms of religion, in terms of culture,” Abdi said. “The trauma of war itself, and the loss that is associated with war and civil war … is very much an integral part of migration.”
Alienation from authority
On June 27 and again on Sept. 25, police publicly asked Somali community members to come forward as witnesses in recent murders of Somali men. So far, witnesses have only come forward with result in the case of Ahmednur Ali , who was shot after leaving his volunteer job in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood on Sept. 22.
The distrust of law enforcement comes in part from the experience of living in refugee camps after the civil war, where police routinely demanded bribes and harassed refugees, Abdi said.
“Somalia had a dictatorial regime prior to the collapse. The majority of the population is very distrusting of relationships with government institutions, including police,” Abdi said. “To some extent, that’s been brought here.”
Minneapolis police Insp. Janeé Harteau is commander of the First Precinct, which includes Cedar-Riverside.
Often, a language barrier crops up between police and Somali community members, Harteau said, and youth need to act as translators.
But sometimes, she said, messages aren’t clear — by accident or intentionally — and Somali adults and police can’t understand each other.
“I’m confident in saying we’ve made inroads; we have built relationships there,” Harteau said. “We do not have solid relationships with everybody, that’s absolutely true, but that’s not for lack of trying.”
Mohamed Ghedi, 27, immigrated to the United States from Somalia when he was about 9 years old.
There are groups that should share the blame for crime, he said, including the Somali community itself.
“The community was affected way before the violence,” Ghedi said, adding that preventative action should’ve started when parts of the Somali community began slipping into lawlessness. “The Somali community loves to blame the police for their problems. I think that’s unfair.”
Still, the police could change their approach, he said.
“If police are going to be blamed, they should be blamed for basically not intervening with this problem, for not seeing it ahead of time and for not having enough knowledge [about the Somali community and its culture],” Ghedi said.
It helps that police have met with Somali community leaders and elders to build trust, Abdi said.
“I attended a couple meetings where police and the community talked about these issues. It’s very challenging both for the police and for the community,” she said. “Again, building bridges does take time.”
‘Moving from the school system to the criminal justice system’
Much of the problem with violence and gangs in the Somali community can be traced to public schools’ lack of formal support for students adjusting to a new culture, Shukri Adan, the author of a 2007 report on Somali youth for the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department , said.
“For me the biggest failure has been the school system,” she said.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 forced public schools, for budgetary reasons, to withdraw resources from programs that helped students transition into American culture.
“They fired maybe 70 teachers,” Adan said. “As soon as that happened, kids started dropping out and failing. It’s moving from the school system to the criminal justice system.”
Somalis in the American education system sometimes struggle to keep pace, Somali Justice Advocacy Center director Omar Jamal said, which is a key factor in Somali youth shying away from formal schooling and turning to the street life.
“When they hit the wall, they find out they won’t be able to fit in here,” he said, “then they went and picked up the things they knew the best: Violence and gangs.”
The growing pains that the Somali community is currently experiencing, including youth violence, is similar to that experienced by second-generation Czechs, Swedes and others, Augsburg College sociology professor Garry Hesser said.
“Whatever is happening is probably not a whole lot different than immigrant groups that come here from anyplace,” he said.