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How Somali Immigrants Are Revitalizing Main Street America

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NBC NEWS — There’s a mom and pop grocery store in Willmar, Minnesota that carries a few items you won’t find in the freezer aisle at any Wal-Mart. Like cubed camel meat.

“We chopped it and we weigh it. You can’t get it anywhere except us,” said Abdilahi Omar. He’s the owner of Ainu Shams Grocery, which also sells goat meat, ghee, and Ethiopian flatbread.

In recent years, the arrival of thousands of Somali immigrants from East Africa has reshaped the Main Street in this tiny agricultural town and many more throughout the state. These refugees are opening businesses in once empty storefronts and introducing their customs to new customers in places once only found in America’s inner cities, where newcomers like these have traditionally settled upon arrival.

“If you want to know what Minnesota will look like in 20 years, go to Willmar,” said Ken Warner, President of the town’s Chamber of Commerce.

Redefining the Demographic

On two square blocks along Litchfield Avenue, Willmar’s otherwise sleepy main street, Somali women run errands while talking on cell phones tucked into their hijabs and men in traditional hats called kufi sip coffee at a local café called Bihi’s.

According to the Minnesota State Census, the official Somali population here is 1,500 — though informal estimates put that number at over 2,000. Combined with the city’s Latino population, the two groups now make up close to 25 percent of Willmar’s population, which is still dominated by farmers of Swedish and Norwegian origin.

The days of family farms have passed here. Many of the large agribusinesses that have since taken their place now depend on immigrant labor.

From Civil War to Jennie-O

The first wave of Somalis came to Minnesota as refugees in the 1990s after the outbreak of civil war in their homeland. After settling in the Twin Cities, many moved to Willmar, where they found work at the local Hormel-owned Jennie-O turkey processing plant.

Today over 20 businesses in and around Main Street are Somali-owned. Many of those have used community-based financing which complies with Islamic law prohibiting the collection or payment of interest.

Despite religious and cultural differences, there are many things these Somali immigrants share with their neighbors, said Abdirizak Mahboub, a local entrepreneur here.

“We speak the language. We are God-loving people, you know, in our own perspective. We work hard,” said Mahboub, 56, who owns an interpreting agency that employs over 30 translators and interpreters and has contracts with area hospitals, courts, and law firms.

On his desk, Mahboub displays photos of his two children, both of whom grew up here and graduated from Willmar High. Without the children of immigrants like Mahboub, Willmar’s school district would have had a net loss of over 1,000 students in the school system. Now, the children of Somali and Latino immigrants represent 50 percent of the district’s population.

“That is our future. We need to embrace the diversity that will be coming in our future workforce,” said Aaron Backman, the director of Willmar’s Economic Development Commission.

No one is pretending that assimilation has come easy here. But there are signs that Willmar’s youngest residents are embracing both cultures. Step inside the Somali Star Restaurant and you might meet Hassan Yusuf, the 8-year-old son of owner, Bashir. Ask him his favorite food, and he won’t say camel meat.

“McDonald’s,” he says with a smile.

His proud father patted his boy on the head — and winced, just a little bit.

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Somalis face ‘slave ship conditions’ on failed deportation flight

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Ninety-two Somali immigrants, set to be deported from the US, found themselves shackled at the hands and feet and kept aboard a plane for two days earlier this month. That part of the story is not in dispute.
The Somalis left Louisiana on Dec. 7. Their flight, chartered by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was bound for Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. But the plane never arrived.

After landing in Dakar, Senegal, on Africa’s west coast, the one-way flight became a round trip, back to the US. Why that happened, though, remains subject to dispute.

The 92 immigrants, now being held at the Krome and Glades detention facility outside Miami, are consulting with their lawyers.

The passengers say they were denied food and water and weren’t allowed to use the bathroom. “One of my colleagues characterized them as slave ship conditions,” says attorney Kimberly Hunter, who represents two of the passengers on the flight.

“ICE disputes accounts about lack of adequate food, water and restrooms — although those inadequacies are consistent with reports that we’ve had from our clients,” she says.

According to ICE, the flight was returned to the US because the relief flight crew was unable to get sufficient rest.

“So [the passengers] were held on the tarmac to allow the crew to rest and subsequently, due to ‘logistical concerns,’ returned to the US,” Hunter says.

But Hunter believes the flight was turned back for another reason.

“Somali media report that, due to protests taking place in Mogadishu pertaining to the Jerusalem decision by [the Trump] administration, the security situation just became completely untenable as far as allowing that flight to land,” she says.

Hunter believes ICE will try to send the group to Mogadishu again soon. Once in Somalia, even those who might have grounds to appeal their deportation will be unable to return.

“I think it’s reflective of the Trump Administration’s overall crackdown on immigration as well as reflective of their attitude towards Somalia and towards Muslims,” she says.

One of her clients, Abdoulmalik Ibrahim, could, in theory, be allowed to return to the United States because his American wife is entitled to file a petition for him.

“But he’s got no way to actually return now or in the near future, with the fact that the Somali travel ban has recently been allowed to continue.”

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Somalis say they were shackled and beaten on aborted ICE deportation flight

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Rahim Mohamed, 32, was already dreading being deported from his home of 15 years in Atlanta to Somalia, a country he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager.

His dread transformed into a nightmare when he was chained to a seat on a plane for 46 hours with 91 other Somalis who say they were denied adequate food, water, medication, and even access to a restroom.

Allegations of mistreatment is the latest turn for the ill-fated flight, chartered last week by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to return Somalis to Somalia, one of several Muslim-majority countries named in the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban. It’s unclear how many were undocumented or targeted for another reason, but some onboard had lived here for decades and were slated for eventual deportation because of improper entry into the country, according to the New York Times.

The flight to Mogadishu left the U.S. last Thursday but was grounded in Dakar, Senegal, where the Somalis were confined on the hot plane on the tarmac for hours before returning to the U.S. under mysterious circumstances.

The would-be deportees, now being held in detention centers in Florida, are talking about what happened during the ordeal. Mohamed, who came to the U.S. in 2002 as a teenager and was given pending deportation orders in 2005 after missing a court date, said fights broke out on board as passengers tried to use the bathroom.

Mohamed said he was struck in the face and began bleeding as an ICE agent fought his seatmate. “He was choking somebody else next to my seat, and he tried to hit the other dude, and I moved out of the way and got hit,” Mohamed said. “To cover up the traces, they took his shirt.”

Mohamed is also diabetic, and he said denial of medicine and movement caused his vision to blur and his legs to swell so severely he had trouble walking off the plane.

Rachel Petersen, a Minneapolis-based attorney representing another detainee onboard, says her client reported a similar experience. “He mentioned they did not have sufficient food or access to bathrooms and that violence was exacted against passengers who tried to use the bathroom,” Petersen said in an email to VICE News.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a civil rights group, said Tuesday it had “direct reports” of the same lack of access to humanitarian supplies and bathrooms, as well as “abusive” treatment of the detainees at the hands of ICE and Senegalese security personnel.

The group sent a letter to ICE Deputy Director Thomas D. Homan regarding the alleged mistreatment.

“Forcing these individuals to remain restrained for nearly a day on an airport tarmac, in smoldering temperatures, without consistent access to food, water, toilets, or air-conditioning is simply inhumane and unacceptable,” ADC Legal Director Abed Ayoub said in a statement. “ICE cannot act with such disregard for its detainees, and must be held accountable.”

ICE disputed the prisoners’ accounts, telling VICE News detainees had adequate access to food, water, AC, and restrooms, but that they could not disembark the plane. It did not comment on whether detainees were shackled to the chairs.

“No one was injured during the flight, and there were no incidents or altercations that would have caused any injuries on the flight,” ICE said in a statement. “Claims that detainees were physically threatened are categorically false.”

Petersen says trouble broke out even before the plane left the U.S. Her client broke his arm in ICE custody falling off a bed. He alerted ICE multiple times to the injury and eventually received a cast, but was put on the plane to Somalia before being able to attend his scheduled follow-up appointments.

When asked about the reported broken arm, ICE said safety is a top priority and the detainee’s account was “likely false.” It also mentioned that detainees were screened upon arriving back in the U.S., with no injuries being reported or noted.

But what happened on the plane isn’t the only disputed fact about this flight. There are conflicting accounts of why the plane turned around in the first place. ICE said in a statement to VICE News that a lack of “sufficient crew rest” caused the plane to do its U-turn in Senegal. A relief crew were due for rest in Dakar, but a disruption at their hotel made that impossible, so they were required to turn around and return to the U.S.

Mohamed and others onboard said ICE agents told the detainees they were turning around because of a mechanical issue, not a crew problem. Kim Hunter, a St. Paul, Minnesota–based immigration attorney whose firm represents two men who were on the flight, said her clients reported hearing the same story about the mechanical issue from ICE.

Additionally, Mohamed, having heard from his family in the U.S. and Somalia, believes an al-Shabaab threat to the returning Westerners caused the Somali government to refuse their re-entry.
The Somali government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. One Somali news site, meanwhile, blamed the turnaround on recent protests in Mogadishu following Trump’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

When asked about these reasons, ICE reiterated the plane turned around due to logistical problems.

John Bruning, an attorney working with Hunter, says attorneys are on their way down to Florida to meet the men in the detention facilities. Mirella Ceja-Orozco, Mohamed’s attorney, says attorneys involved in the case are meeting to discuss federal litigation, and she’s reached out to Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison for help, as many of the men on the flight live in Minnesota.

Ellison’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Whatever actually happened on the flight, it’s clear that more Somalis are at risk than ever of deportation under the Trump administration. Hunter and Mohamed’s attorney reported their clients were detained during a regular check-in with ICE, a strategy that’s becoming increasingly common as Trump targets immigrants who were low priorities under the Obama administration.

According to federal data, deportations back to Somalia have spiked to 521 people this financial year, up from 198 from the previous period, even though the country just experienced one of the worst terror attacks in its history, with al-Shabaab killing over 300 in a truck bombing in the heart of Mogadishu.

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U.S. Put 92 Somalis on a Deportation Flight, Then Brought Them Back

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Ninety-two Somali citizens were flown out of the United States under orders of deportation on Thursday, but their plane never made it to Somalia. The flight landed in the West African country of Senegal and, facing logistical problems, was rerouted back to the United States.

It was an unexpected, 5,000-mile backtrack for the migrants, some of whom have lived in the United States for years, or even decades, while on a list for deportation because they had entered the country without proper documentation.

In recent weeks, dozens of Somali citizens were transported from their homes in the United States — many were living in Minnesota — to Louisiana in preparation for the flight. A few, with the help of lawyers, managed to secure stays of removal.

The 92 on the plane got only as far as Senegal’s capital, Dakar, according to United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In an emailed statement on Friday, the agency said it was notified that a relief flight crew was “unable to get sufficient crew rest due to issues with their hotel in Dakar,” so the aircraft and detainees spent time parked at the airport there. It added that “various logistical options were explored, and ultimately ICE decided to reschedule the mission to Somalia and return to the United States with all 92 detainees.”

Civilians helping a man who was injured in a suicide car bomb explosion in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, in October. Credit Feisal Omar/Reuters

War, famine and disease have killed hundreds of thousands of people in Somalia since the central government collapsed in 1991. Militants, including members of the Shabab, an Islamist terrorist group, are still carrying out deadly attacks in the Horn of Africa country. A pair of truck explosions killed hundreds of people on one of the busiest streets in Mogadishu, the capital, in October. It was the deadliest attack the city had experienced in decades.

Kim Hunter, a lawyer whose firm represents two men who were on the flight, said it did not make sense to send her clients back to such a dangerous country.

“The security situation is abysmal,” she said on Thursday. “I, apparently, was naïve because I actually believed that following the Oct. 14 bombing, this flight might be suspended.”

Ms. Hunter learned on Friday that the flight had turned around and her clients’ deportations had been rescheduled, though it was unclear for when. An ICE spokeswoman said the agency does not provide that information in advance.

Ms. Hunter said she also had no advance notice when immigration officials recently transported five of her clients from their Minnesota homes. (They were first taken to Louisiana to prepare for their deportation.) Her law firm scrambled to secure stays of removal for the men and helped three avoid the flight.

Now that the other two have had their deportations delayed, Ms. Hunter said she would keep working to prevent their removal. Neither client has a criminal record, and both have been in the United States for more than a decade. One is married to a permanent resident and has children who are United States citizens.

“We’re inclined to think that this sort of failed flight reflects on the fact that more deportations are being carried out in haste and are perhaps not as well-planned as they might have been previously,” she added.

One Somali woman in Minnesota, who did not want to give her name for fear of getting her family in trouble with the authorities, said in a phone interview on Friday that her cousin was among those on the flight.

She said she had been desperate for answers since Wednesday, when her cousin called from Louisiana saying he was about to be deported. “I was very sad. I cried, and he told me not to make him cry,” she said, adding that it would be dangerous for him to land in Mogadishu because he had no connections there. “He hasn’t seen Somalia for the last 20 years.”

Many Somali citizens who are in the United States without documentation have been able to stay for years despite deportation orders because Somalia would not grant them the necessary travel documents. Mogadishu, which opened an embassy in Washington in 2015, appears to be cooperating with American officials to accept more of its citizens back.

The number of Somali people being deported from the United States has risen since 2014. During that fiscal year, 65 Somali citizens were removed from the United States. That number jumped to 120 the next year, and 198 the year after that.

In the fiscal year 2017, 521 Somali citizens were deported, according to the most recent report from ICE. A spokeswoman for the agency said there were five chartered flights to Somalia that year.

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