Somali-Minnesotans Wield Clout from Minneapolis to Mogadishu

Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, 28 January 2014

When Somali-Minnesotans receive media attention, it’s often due to controversy, from homegrown suicide bombers to teetotaling cabdrivers refusing to transport alcohol. Last October, when unfounded rumors circulated that Somali perpetrators of the Kenya mall massacre were from Minnesota, national media descended on the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis like locusts. When the rumors were dispersed by the truth, they swarmed away just as quickly.

When it comes to Somali-Minnesotans, these controversies are a sideshow. The real story is how a poor immigrant community has become a major political force locally and abroad, from Minneapolis to Mogadishu.

As policy director for Mark Dayton’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, I saw firsthand that Somali voters were being aggressively courted. I am confident that gubernatorial campaigns outside of Minnesota are not asked to take a position on the Ogaden border dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia.

Such outreach foreshadowed a rising political force.

In November, Abdi Warsame became one of the two highest elected Somali-American officials in the country when he was elected to the Minneapolis City Council. He didn’t just win; he won in a record-breaking landslide. His opponent, incumbent Robert Lilligren, actually received 500 more votes than he had during his victorious 2009 campaign, but lost to Warsame by 1,500 votes nonetheless — a testament to the turnout machine assembled by Warsame’s campaign. Half of Warsame’s votes came from early ballots, smashing the number that President Obama’s 2012 campaign was able to elicit in the Sixth Ward dozens of times over. Few people elected to the City Council from that ward have ever received as many votes as Warsame.

Those in the Somali community made it emphatically clear: They have political muscle, and they know how to flex it.

As Warsame recently explained to me, “We wanted my success to reflect the growing clout of the Somali community … but I represent all the people of Ward Six and everyone in Minneapolis.”

Warsame’s inclusive rhetoric is indicative of a trend: Somali-Minnesotans are becoming more integrated into the fabric of Minnesota politics. Many of those who fled from bloody fighting in their homeland are now fighting for better snow removal, job training and better education for their kids in Minnesota’s world-class schools.

Not everyone shares this enthusiasm for Minnesota politics. Some Somali-Minnesotans still look back to their homeland, a distant but nagging identity anchor that is hard to detach.

Since Somalia’s civil war started in 1991, the country has become a horrifying place. The best estimates suggest that the average citizen of Somalia earns between $1 and $3 per day. Eighty-five percent of children never attend even elementary school. Life expectancy is just 51; in Somalia, a numerical midlife crisis would affect 26-year-olds. This is no Lake Wobegon.

Such tragedies are hard to ignore, particularly when friends and family members are still suffering. Even Warsame, the symbol of Somali integration, admits, “I’m a proud Somali — and what is happening in Somalia affects me, too.”

Unlike Warsame, some Somali-Minnesotans made the wrong choice, further destabilizing an already horrific nightmare. America’s first suicide bomber came from the Minnesota Somali community. Two Rochester women were convicted of funding Al-Shabab, a terrorist organization, and 25 others are believed to have left Minnesota to join its ranks.

Equally destructive, Mohamed “Tiiceey” Aden, formerly of Burnsville, returned to Somalia and became implicated in piracy as governor of a province in central Somalia. He was recently apprehended in a “reverse Argo” sting, wherein Belgian authorities tricked him and another pirate kingpin into traveling to Belgium to be advisers for a fake “Captain Phillips”-style film; they were arrested when they landed.

Some Somali-Minnesotans clearly have made a bad situation in Somalia worse. They are the minority. The tales of a rotten few apples have obscured the triumphs of the bunch — contributions to peace, stability and humanitarian relief in Somalia, 8,000 miles away.

Somali-Americans contribute $215 million in annual payments to friends and family in Somalia. Most comes from Minnesota. These remittances affect as many as 80 percent of Somali households, and surveys suggest that most families use the remittances to buy fundamentals: food and medicine. This funding is a key reason why Somalia has been able to slowly get back on track, successfully forming a federal government in 2012. Without this pipeline of Minnesota money, Somalia’s already dire straits would worsen.

Moreover, some Minnesotans have returned to Somalia to help rebuild the country as members of the government. Their Minnesota educations may save countless lives as they attempt to secure a fragile peace.

Most, however, have stayed in Minnesota — forging a vibrant community, transforming the so-called “Crack Stacks” (the Riverside Plaza apartment towers) into a small-business hub and propelling one of their own to elected office.

This, then, is the real story of Minnesota Somalis. The early arrivals came from a fiery conflict to our frozen lakeshores — tired, poor, huddled masses. Now, they are a political force to be reckoned with, from Lake Calhoun to the Indian Ocean.

Brian Klaas is a Clarendon Scholar and researcher at the University of Oxford, focusing on African politics. He grew up in Golden Valley.