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Rising to leadership: How second-generation Somali-Americans are coming into their own in Minnesota

By Ibrahim Hirsi, MINNPOST

Ever since Omar Fateh announced his run for a state legislative seat last December, he’s been taking note of a recurring experience on the campaign trail: It’s easy, at first glance, to mistake him for an immigrant or a refugee from Somalia.

But when people hear him speak, they realize something different about him. “A lot of times,” he said, “they say, ‘It’s interesting because you don’t have an accent.’ ”

The reason voters assume Omar Fateh’s a refugee has a lot to do with the immigration experiences of the Somali candidates who have come before him.

Each time Fateh comes across these individuals — and he often does during campaign events or phone conversations with constituents — Fateh uses the moment as an opportunity to walk them through his family history.

He tells them about how his Somali-born parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s; how the couple then got married in New York City; and how they eventually gave birth to him in Washington, D.C., 28 years ago.

“I’m an American,” he tells them.

Even then, Fateh is quick to say that he doesn’t take issue with questions about his identity and that he is, in fact, proud of his Somali heritage.

But the reason voters assume he’s a refugee has a lot to do with the immigration experiences of the Somali candidates who have come before him. While there have been dozens of Somali-American politicians who have run — and won — political offices in cities and towns across Minnesota in the past two decades, not a single one of them was born in America.

The same is true for a half dozen Somali-Americans whose names will appear on an election ballot in Minnesota this year, including two other candidates vying for the same District 62A state House seat that Fateh is.

Fateh’s experience, as a U.S.-born Somali-American, represents something of a milestone for the Somali-American community in Minnesota — the emergence of a second generation of leaders — even as it reprises a familiar story, a path taken by the German, Scandinavian, Eastern European and Southeast Asian refugees who came to Minnesota before them.

‘They’re coming into their own’

Fateh’s candidacy may be new, but some young Somali-Americans of his generation have been visible in professional careers and in leadership roles for some years now. Mohamud Mohamed, Minneapolis-born organizer and senior at Augsburg University, has also taken note of more and more individuals from his generation taking part in efforts to improve themselves and their communities in the Twin Cities and beyond.

It’s an effort that has been in the making since the first waves of Somali refugees started to arrive in Minnesota in 1991, when the civil war erupted in the East African country.

During the first decades of their presence in the state, the older generation of Somali immigrants were in survival mode, focused on establishing the essentials of creating a new community. So they built small businesses that carried traditional clothes and familiar groceries; nonprofit organizations that guided and served newcomers; and worship places and charter schools that preserved their culture and religion.

Then in the early 2000s, the community started to get involved in local and state politics as volunteers and policy aides for elected officials and candidates. Their role was mainly to get the few members of the community who had become U.S. citizens to vote.

By 2010, Hussein Samatar, the first Somali-American ever elected to office, became a Minneapolis school board member; in 2013, Abdi Warsame was elected the first Somali-American City Council member in Minneapolis; and in 2016, Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American legislator in the United States.

Meanwhile, the children who were brought to Minnesota as infants or those born in the U.S. — like Fateh and Mohamed — in the 1990s and 2000s are now in their late teens or 20s.

In many ways, Mohamed said, the older generation did their part in raising and educating this second-generation of Somali-Americans. “They’re coming into their own,” he said of the U.S.-born Somali-Americans. “They’re graduating from colleges; they’re getting jobs; they’re going into corporate America, into the nonprofit sector and into community leadership.”

Young generation in leadership roles

Today, most of the Somali community’s political candidates, mosque leaders, charter school administrators and nonprofit leaders remain predominantly older men, who came to the U.S. in their 30s and 40s some decades ago.

But those who were born after the first wave of Somalis came to the U.S. in the early 1990s  are becoming increasingly visible in certain neighborhoods in the Twin Cities. They’re playing influential roles in promoting social justice, leading student associations in colleges or opposing initiatives they deem harmful.

In 2016, for example, a group of young generation Somali-American activists successfully blocked the filming of an HBO series — “The Recruiters” — in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis because they didn’t want another narrative that depicted their community as a recruiting ground for terrorists.

They’ve also been vocal against the controversial Countering Violent Extremism program, which the U.S. federal government says is meant to prevent young people from joining groups like ISIS or al-Shabaab. Many young activists, conversely, have said that CVE was created for profiling and surveillance of Muslims.

The young generation of Somali-Americans has also been active in Black Lives Matter protests and other social justice efforts in a way that their parents never were.

The political participation of people like Fateh also aims to shift a longstanding narrative about younger Somali-Americans, from that of generation struggling between their American and Somali identities to that of leaders working to improve their communities and bridging the cultural gap between the older Somalis and their American neighbors.

That’s the reason Mohamed and many other U.S.-born and U.S.-raised Somali-Americans have been supporting him,  Fateh says. “I’m showing them my criminal justice reform and my racial justice platform,” he said. “I tell them we can turn things around. I’ve had a lot of young Somalis, that never voted, that said, ‘I’ll come and vote for you.’ ”

Read more: Rising to leadership: How second-generation Somali-Americans are coming into their own in Minnesota


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