Abdulwahid Osman didn’t have much time to talk late Monday afternoon, so he spoke fast, and with the urgency of a man on a mission. As I interviewed him in his Midtown Global Market law office, six of Osman’s Somali-American clients sat outside in the waiting room, eager to see their lawyer about deportations and other legal family matters.
Me, I wanted to talk to Osman, one of the few Somali-born immigration attorneys practicing in Minneapolis, about the United States Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate Donald Trump’s travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries (Somalia, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Yemen and Libya), which came Monday morning after two federal appeals courts blocked the order. Instead, I got the greatest pre-Fourth of July pep talk ever.
“I came to this country as a refugee, and today I’m a licensed practicing attorney in the state of Minnesota, and I have benefited a lot from freedom of religion in this country,” said Osman, after explaining how the travel ban “could have been worse,” in that it doesn’t include immigrants coming to America to be reunited with family. “I understand what it means to be a refugee seeking to enter the United States, and I understand what it means to become a refugee who made it in this country. I have a family, I have young children, I have a house, I have a legal practice and I am a proud former refugee.
“If that doesn’t mean anything to Donald Trump, it’s up to him. But it means a lot to America. It reflects the American value. America is an idea to us; it’s not a specific country or religion. We come here for a few ideas, one of which is freedom of religion, that you won’t be judged by the color of your skin, that you have equal opportunity as anybody.
“I’m living example of that. I litigate cases in court every day. I go up against white Anglo-Saxon Caucasians who were born here and come from rich families, and sometimes, or many times, I win the cases against them. It doesn’t mean that … me being … 17 years ago, having nothing … being able to graduate from the University of Minnesota Law School … only in America that is possible. I couldn’t have made it in any other country, and if Donald Trump has a problem with that, excuse me? He should do what he’s doing, but he’s not going to change the nature of America.
“America is to us that idea: diversity, respect, rule of law. Those are the key things that make America exceptional. If he wants to make America a country of specific people or a specific religion, he is a traitor to America itself. Because the idea of America has always been that beacon of freedom where everybody says, ‘OK, I could make it. Nowhere else, but in America that’s the only place you can make it, regardless of the color of your skin.’ That’s why Americans voted twice for Barack Obama — someone who has such an international background, who grew up in different countries, born here. … That is the America that we feel is under threat. And I’m glad we have the court system — which is the last line of defense against transgressions that infringe upon our constitutional rights.”
Osman speaks with the passion and assurance of a man who came to Minneapolis as a refugee 17 years ago and who has worked to become an Islamic law scholar, an adjunct law professor at the University Of Minnesota, a Hennepin County Human Services Officer and a vital resource for the Somali-American community in the Twin Cities. As he spoke, surrounded as he is by one of Minneapolis’s most multi-culti malls and neighborhoods, he proudly pointed to the diplomas and certificates of achievement hanging on his office wall.
“To us, the travel ban reflects a very dark history,” he continued. “It’s known that any country that tries to exclude certain religions and people in the history, that country is doomed. It didn’t work in Nazi Germany, it didn’t work in any other empire throughout history. And Muslims around the world? 1.6 billion people of all races, all cultures. You can’t ban them. You can’t ban half of the world.
“So this travel ban is actually an assault on the very foundation of America. This has nothing to do with security. People can be vetted for security reasons, but that’s not going to make America secure. It will only make America look bad in front of others. This country came through a lot: internment camps, slavery before that, civil rights movement, economic inequality, all of that. And now if Donald Trump wants to take us back and to play to the worst instincts and the worst insecurities of rural America — if that’s what he wants to do, he doesn’t represent America. He doesn’t know what ‘refugee’ means. The Syrian kid who is being bombed by Russian aircraft? He’s not a threat to America. If Trump doesn’t want to help, that’s up to him, but that’s not America. And I hope that our courts, especially the Supreme Court, which has always been the refuge for upholding the basic rights of what’s best about this country, will ultimately resoundingly rule against this draconian so-called travel ban.”
These days, business is more than a little brisk at Abdulwahid Law Firm (2929 Chicago Ave., suite 110, 612-501-7384), and it has been since Trump promised to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants in his first 18 months as president.
“I’m very busy, as you can see,” said Osman. “I’m one of the very few Somali-born lawyers here, and our community is such a large community that uses our services. We not only practice law, we assure the community, we are the eyes of the community, we explain the legal system, we explain the rule of law, we explain the constitutionality of the human rights that these people have, so we have a lot of work. I’m a very busy guy.
“Somalis are doing very well. And our president came to the hangar at the airport before the election to give a hate speech against refugees, that’s all he came for, and then he left, that’s how irresponsible he is, to enflame the Minnesotans against us when he doesn’t even know who we are, and he doesn’t care. And he wants to be our president?
“The fact is, Somalis have a lot of success stories. We are a very vibrant community, and we are so proud of Minnesota and the way it welcomed us, and the way it is, despite everything that’s going on, trying to understand. And Minnesotans, and Americans also, need to understand that we came with a culture. We have our own baggage. It will take time to integrate into the Minnesotan culture. We are the first generation. I’m not going to dress or speak like you, but my kids are now fully Americanized. They speak like you, but I don’t, I have accent, and I can’t help.
“That’s how we grew up. That’s the story of every first generation in this country. When the Italians came, and the Jewish came, and Eastern-Europeans, and Polish, and Irish, they were made fun of and discriminated against, just like we are. So this is a typical American story, and if Donald Trump’s not happy with that … he has no more claim on this country than I have.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
When radicalization lured two Somali teenagers … from Norway
Acclaimed Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent years researching what happened. Now her book, “Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad” is available in the United States.
Seierstad, who discusses her book Monday night at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, said she didn’t go looking for the story.
“The story actually came to me,” she said. “It was the father of the girls who actually wanted the story to be written.”
His name is Sadiq, a Somali man who worked for years to bring his family to Norway. He hoped for a better life. He thought things were going well, then everything collapsed when Ayan and Leila disappeared.
When the girls left home, their parents were in shock, Seierstad said. “They hadn’t understood what was this about. Why? And then as months went by and they got to learn more about radicalization, they realized that all the signs had been there. That the girls were like a textbook case of radicalization. And he [Sadiq] wanted the book to be written to warn others, to tell this story to warn other parents.”
It is a perplexing story. Ayan and Leila were bright, and opinionated. They didn’t put up with being pushed around.
“And that is somehow part of why they left, in their logic,” said Seierstad, adding that the girls were convinced Syria and ISIS offered a chance of eternal life.
“They believed that life here and now is not real life. Real life happens after death. And this life is only important as a test. So the better your score, the better you behave in this life, the better position you will have in heaven for eternity. So isn’t that better?”
Seierstad is known for her in-depth reporting. Her book “One of Us,” about Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway’s worst terror attack, is an international best-seller.
When published in Norway Seierstad said, “Two Sisters” became the top-selling book for two years running. What pleases her most is the breadth of her readership. She gets email from young Somali girls, and also from government officials who want to prevent future radicalization.
Ilhan Omar documentary among Minnesota projects headed to New York’s Tribeca Film Festival
STAR TRIBUNE — Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival will have more than a touch of Minnesota this year. Two projects shot largely in the state will be part of the event that runs from April 18-29 in New York City.
“A Time for Ilhan,” by documentary filmmaker Norah Shapiro, chronicles Ilhan Omar’s successful bid to win election to the Minnesota House of Representatives, making her the first Somali-American, Muslim woman to hold state office in the United States.
In addition, Rosemount native Naomi Ko will be shopping a pilot for a potential series. “Nice,” which was mostly shot in the Twin Cities, stars Ko as a young Korean-American woman who faces a crisis when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Ko, who appeared in the 2014 indie hit “Dear White People,” is hoping screenings at the festival will attract a streaming service or network that will green-light an entire season.
The festival, now in its 17th year, will also feature new documentaries about Gilda Radner and the New York Times, as well as high-profile feature films, including the sci-fi romance “Zoe,” starring Ewan McGregor, last seen showing off his Midwest accent in “Fargo.”
After charges in Justine Damond killing, racial dynamic remains a focal point
STAR TRIBUNE — To some, the question loomed large as a former Minneapolis police officer was charged in the killing of an unarmed woman: Would the charges — the first in a case involving a fatal shooting by police in recent Hennepin County history — have come if the officer hadn’t been black and Somali-American and the victim hadn’t been white?
An intense debate over the shooting’s uncommon racial dynamic has played out among police reform activists, in the city’s Somali malls and among the police department’s own officers. Even some passionate proponents of police accountability balked at celebrating the murder and manslaughter charges against Officer Mohamed Noor, saying they reflected the justice system’s racial bias as much as previous local decisions not to charge cops who kill in the line of duty. Some Somali-Americans worried their community, rather than the use of deadly force by an officer, will end up on trial.
But others said the charges are a clear win in the push for more scrutiny of police use of force and possibly the beginning of a tougher approach to law enforcement accountability. Noor shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old Australian spiritual healer and meditation coach, minutes after she called police to report a suspected sexual assault in her southwest Minneapolis neighborhood.
“There have been numerous shootings that the community felt were unjustified and this one with Ms. Damond is one of them,” said Nathaniel Khaliq, past president of the St. Paul NAACP. “I hope it lowers the threshold for officers to be charged in deadly shootings.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced the charges Tuesday, more than eight months after Damond’s killing and nearly two years to the day after he declined to charge two white officers in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Jamar Clark. Damond’s family welcomed the charges, calling them “one step toward justice for this iniquitous act.”
Criticism of the charges
On the question of the Noor charges at Remix Barber and Beauty shop in Minneapolis Friday morning, the predominantly black clientele was in near-agreement: After years of pressure for more accountability in fatal officer shootings, a black cop had been made the fall guy. Customers and co-owner Chanda Tolbert said the charges came as no surprise given the races of the officer and the woman who was shot.
“Race has everything to do with it,” customer Teena Hill said. “It’s not a justice system for us.”
Reaction at nearby Jones and Jones Barber Shop, only a block from the site of Clark’s shooting in 2015, echoed that sentiment. “If it was a white police officer shooting a black man, he wouldn’t have been charged,” said Rob Hannah as he waited to get a haircut. “The system fails us a lot.”
Added owner A.J. Turner, “The Somali community needs to be in an uproar. I would be.”
Talk about race and perceived racial bias has lit up Somali community members’ social media accounts, animated coffee shop conversations and brought a couple of emotional impromptu community meetings in the days following the charges. Some have questioned whether Noor was treated differently from other cops who have killed in the line of duty, alleging a rush to judgment absent after other police shootings.
“A lot of the community is saying that if it’s Michael or David, he’s not going to be guilty today,” said Mahamed Cali, who runs KALY 101.7 FM, a Somali-American radio station.
After months of silence, the Somali American Police Association (SAPA) last week criticized the charges, suggesting Freeman had bowed to political pressure ahead of his re-election bid later this year. In an interview, Waheid Siraach, acting spokesman for SAPA, said the case raises legitimate questions about racial bias.
He pointed to former Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s news conference several days after the shooting in which she condemned Noor’s actions before an investigation had been completed. He also noted a cellphone video of Freeman criticizing the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for its handling of the case and telling activists in a taped conversation that to make a charging decision would be “the big present I’d like to see under the Christmas tree.”
“The aggressiveness, the ruthlessness with which Freeman went after this case, and personally Noor, it’s completely different from how they went after other cases,” Siraach said.
Privately, some Somali-American officers complained they were called in to testify before the grand jury simply because of their ethnicity. They spoke about several racially charged incidents in the department in the aftermath of Damond’s shooting, including disparaging comments about Somalis made by a white sergeant on Facebook, which were investigated last month.
Officers and community activists such as Omar Jamal also criticized Noor’s Tuesday firing, which they said sends a strong message to potential jurors. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Federation, usually an outspoken advocate of officers accused of wrongdoing, remained largely silent about the Noor matter for months.
Some in the Somali community worry about a broader backlash, noting feverish speculation in some corners of the internet and elsewhere that Noor’s religion and ethnicity motivated the shooting. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann called Noor an “affirmative-action hire by the hijab-wearing mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges,” and insinuated that Noor may have shot Damond for “cultural” reasons.
Others decried the case as a possible setback in law enforcement efforts to engage with the East African community and recruit officers from its ranks, an initiative that has received international recognition.
“A lot of young people wanted to be a police officer, but they’re rethinking it now,” said Cali, citing his own son as an example. “A lot of young people are saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be [the next] Mohamed.’ ”
Some prominent black police reform advocates are speaking out in Noor’s defense. Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist in Minneapolis, noted that 11 days before Damond was shot, on-duty New York City police officer Miosotis Familia was shot and killed as she sat in an RV police command vehicle in the Bronx. During roll calls across the country, Edwards said, officers were told to be on the lookout for situations in which they could be ambushed, to “have their weapons prepared.”
“In those tragic few seconds, officers were following their orders,” he said, adding, “Justice was not served, but I wasn’t surprised.”
Support for the charges
But the response to the charges in Twin Cities communities of color is far from uniform. For some, the bottom line is that a police officer is being held accountable in the death of an unarmed civilian. They feel the case has helped broaden the call for police and criminal justice reform — and could serve as a rallying cry for a community still reeling from the 2016 shooting death of St. Paul school cafeteria worker Philando Castile by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez was acquitted last year on manslaughter charges.
Farhio Khalif, a Somali-American women’s advocate, said she welcomed the charges against Noor as a chance to get to the bottom of what happened the night Damond was killed.
“My solidarity is with the Damond family. Justine has to be given her justice,” she said.
Khalif says that to her, Noor was simply a Minneapolis officer who shot an unarmed woman, and she voiced disappointment that much has been made in the public discourse of his Somali-American background. She said she trusts that the justice system will handle the case without regard to Noor’s race and background.
Some black community advocates also said they are heartened by the charges.
“Just because racist white folks do terrible things to black folks, we don’t have to act like them,” said Mel Reeves, one of the leaders of an unsuccessful campaign pushing Freeman to indict two officers in the Clark shooting. “I don’t support wrong. Clearly, if officer Noor shot Justine Damond, he should be punished.”
All eyes now turn to Noor’s upcoming prosecution. The proliferation of video and other factors have increased pressure on prosecutors around the country to not only charge but convict officers involved in controversial shootings, according to Justin Nix, who has studied police use of force at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Yet, convictions remain uncommon.
Much remains unknown in the Damond case, which was not captured on video because the officers’ body cameras were turned off at the critical moment. Still, Nix said there appeared to be enough evidence to support charges, regardless of the victim and officer’s race.
“If you separate race from that and you just look at those facts, this is one of those very questionable cases in which charges might be pursued,” he said.
Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.