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I’m Muslim. Here’s how I explain my faith to fearful Americans

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Written by: Ayan Omar

“Do you want to kill us?”

Washington Post — It’s a question I get a lot. I’m a Muslim Somali American living in Saint Cloud, Minn. My family of 10 emigrated here in November 1993, and I became American by the old-school system called assimilation. It’s been a sprint with no discernible end. It’s even more challenging in places like Saint Cloud, a Catholic town that’s earned the nickname “White Cloud” because of its demographic make-up.

In recent years, though, the city’s demographics have begun to shift. Between 2009 and 2014, our small African American population doubled. Our Latino population grew by about 50 percent. St. Cloud has been adjusting to this change, but it hasn’t gone so well. I’ve watched as residents throw temper tantrums about people like me, about parents who want to make a better life for their children. Around my neighborhood, white people post signs that read, “This is America, and we have a right to offend everyone. Don’t like it, too bad” and “Get prayers out of school.”

There are organized groups that call for a limit on the number of legal refugees allowed to live here. My Somali Muslim friends have confided in me about rental discrimination, customer service discrimination, public school discrimination and employee discrimination.

Once, during a panel discussion on Islamophobia, a couple approached me.”Your people have crowded America,” the wife told me. “You live for free, eat free, and all you do is take … from people like my husband and I. You bring your culture and your religion and want to take over. No more. We’re tired. We just want America back.” Her docile husband nodded in agreement. Afraid to further her hurt, I listened and apologized. As they walked away, the husband left me with a last thought, “You’re okay. You’re an American. You speak English.”

Misconceptions like this spread like wildfire, leveled against university students who made a conscious decision to move away from home or newlyweds who want somewhere beautiful in which  to settle down.

In this lack of enthusiasm for diversity, I saw an opportunity. I saw a platform for people like me to educate. So for the last six years, I’ve been traveling around the city, giving talks about my faith. I hope to humanize Islam, Somalia, refugees and others who are different to privileged, white Americans. I, a Muslim Somali American refugee educator, need acceptance in order for me and my people to flourish.
At one recent gathering I sat on a panel vulnerably facing more than 100 inquisitive residents. I was handed a handful of anonymous question. Aware of my inferiority in age, wisdom and religion, I managed to keep a steady smile as I choose my poison: “Who is Allah? How is Allah God?” “Do you feel oppressed?” “How do you pray?” “Why do you wear the veil in America?”

The questions seemed accusatory, but intrinsically, I felt comfortable. The bold arrogance of their inquiry electrified my being, awakening my soul. Surely, Islam did not start with me, nor their Muslim Somali refugee neighbors, or did it?

A particular question pulls me in: “Who is Allah?” I ruminate. Allah is God, Allah is Yaweh. Islam’s holy text is the Quran. The Quran is written in classical Arabic. Like the Bible and Torah, it has been translated to fit the modern times. As a result, Allah, Yaweh and God are all the creator of mankind. I pray to God, Yaweh and Allah. Same difference.

I worry, though, that this explanation won’t really address the fear baked into a lot of these assumptions. So I decide to go with a more controversial point: “Do you want to kill us?”  It’s a question I’ve heard a lot over this election season, a fear perpetuated by the way Donald Trump has been campaigning. Trump has scorned Obama for not using “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe the Islamic State. He believes Islam, a religion of over a billion followers, is ISIS. He’s sold that message all over the country.

As I consider how to answer, I think about my language. Somali is tonal. It’s taught me that in life, sometimes, it’s not what you say but how you say it. I recall this lesson in my answer to the inquisitive audience. Reiterate the question: “Do I, a Muslim, want to kill you?” Respond: “Absolutely not. My faith states, ‘…if any one killed a person, it would be as if he killed the whole mankind…’ (Quran 5:32). Ladies and gentleman, Islam teaches me discipline through prayer, fasting, and peace. Violence is never an option or thought for practicing Muslims.”

A sigh of relief fills the room. Suddenly, I appear more human.

Unlike the previous couple, the individuals I encounter here want to learn. At the end of the panels, I get hugs and intimate questions. One elderly man timorously approached me once, asking, “I heard from a friend that all Muslim men can have four wives. Does your husband practice that?”

“No,” I tell him.”

“I can’t imagine they can afford that. Wonderful. God bless you. I never realized we have so much in common.” At the end of every panel, I always feel the room is less eerie. Facial expression change, a light of hope turns on, and people seem more social than the hours before. Some ask me for my email and phone number. I tell them I do this for free and I’d be happy to travel. I am sure my story helps some sleep better at night.

I never expected Trump to win. No way, I thought, would America choose him for a president. I assured myself the American presidency is the most noble and honorable position in the world. Now that he’s been elected, though, I see an opportunity. While Trump has been occupied settling score on Twitter, I have engaged in dialogue to shatter the false assumptions about my faith, race and country of origin. I will display class, compassion, humility and grace in the face of a President who lacks these qualities. Others seem interested too. Since the election, I have received two requests to lead discussions promoting dialogue and diversity.

Wolfgang Mozart said, “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.” I am confident America has many more unsung geniuses than we realize.


Ayan Omar is a language arts teacher in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Diaspora

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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Canada

Canada’s immigration minister warns against illegal crossings at Minnesota’s northern border

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Canada’s immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, arrived in Minnesota just days after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand for now new travel restrictions for eight countries, including Somalia — the land a teenage Hussen fled with his family.

But even as he has come to symbolize for some the divergent immigration philosophies on either side of the U.S.-Canada border, Hussen shuns criticism of the Trump administration’s approach. In fact, he was in the Twin Cities this week in part to discourage a spike in asylum-seekers crossing into Canada this year that has tested the country’s famously welcoming attitude.

“We are huge fans of immigration, but we want people to immigrate through the regular channels,” he said.

In a speech at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Hussen touted Canada’s measured approach, including a gradual increase in immigration planned over the next three years.

He met with resettlement agency staff and other advocates, plugging a unique Canadian program in which private citizens and churches sponsor some refugees.

Members of the local Somali community, where he enjoys rock star status, threw him a welcoming reception in Minneapolis.

“He is an icon,” said Mohamed Ahmed, a local community leader and Bush Foundation fellow. “People see him as an example of what is possible in the West.”

The first Somali-Canadian elected to parliament and appointed as minister, Hussen was 16 when he arrived alone in Toronto, where older brothers had resettled earlier. He has spoken of finding a sense of belonging on his high school track team and of enduring a two-hour commute as he worked at a gas station to save money for college.

He got a law degree from the University of Ottawa and practiced criminal and immigration law. Once a receptionist in an opposition politician’s office, he was elected to parliament in 2015. In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tapped him to lead the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

“I am a big champion of our immigration system because I have been through it,” said Hussen, whose visit to Minneapolis was his third to the United States since becoming minister.

In the media, Hussen is often cast as an emblem of Canada’s stance against anti-immigration sentiments sweeping the United States and Europe. But he is unfailingly diplomatic about the differences between the Canadian and American approaches, saying only he has a good working relationship with counterparts on this side of the border. And, he stresses, Canada is by no means unified in support of more immigration.

A recent rise in illegal border crossings into Canada has triggered pushback from conservative politicians there and concerns from border communities such as the Manitoba city of Emerson, unsettled and overwhelmed by the arrivals. In Manitoba, many of those arrivals have been Somalis who had unsuccessfully applied for asylum in the United States. Now, Hussen and some Canadian lawmakers are reaching out to immigrant communities to highlight that border crossers undergo rigorous screening and face deportation if their asylum claims fall short.

“We don’t want people uprooting their lives based on false information,” Hussen said. “Crossing the border irregularly is not a free ticket to Canada.”

Ahmed said word in the local Somali community remains that Canada offers a much gentler welcome to those arriving at its border with asylum claims. He spoke of a friend, a permanent resident who faced deportation after a criminal conviction, who crossed into Canada this year. Though he doesn’t know yet if he will be granted asylum, the friend reports receiving subsidized housing and free legal help, Ahmed said.

To a packed auditorium at the Humphrey School, Hussen touted a plan the Canadian government released in November that will bring in almost 1 million new immigrants by 2020. About 60 percent will be employment-based immigrants, largely arriving through a merit-based system that awards points for education, language and professional skills, among other factors.

Hussen said doing immigration right requires an investment: The Canadian government is spending $1 billion this year on language classes, help with finding jobs and other integration efforts. But he said bringing in newcomers is crucial to ward off a looming labor shortage given Canada’s aging population.

“We strongly believe immigration is key to our future success in Canada,” he said.

Hussen also praised a Canadian refugee resettlement system in which, alongside the government’s program, private citizens and organizations commit to supporting refugees for a year.
The country has found these refugees do better easing into Canadian life. Hussen said the United Kingdom and several Latin American countries are modeling new programs on the Canadian approach, though he hasn’t yet fielded inquiries from the United States.

Hussen said with more refugees displaced globally than ever before in modern history, Canada plans to remain a key player in resettlement: “More people are on the move, and we can’t turn our heads away.”

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Minnesota

Plane carrying deportees to Somalia returns to the United States

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Mila Koumpilova

A plane with deportees to Somalia, including at least four from Minnesota, returned to the United States Friday after a stop in Senegal that immigration authorities said did not go according to plan.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement that a flight with 92 deportees headed back after a refueling and pilot exchange stop in Dakar. As the plane landed in Dakar, ICE was notified relief crew members were not able to get enough rest because of issues with their hotel, and the plane remained parked at the airport to allow the relief crew time to rest.

“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,” said the statement from the agency, which declined to provide further details.

Local attorneys for several of the deportees on the flight said they were baffled by the turn of events — but hopeful the flight’s return might offer some of their clients a long-shot opening to block their deportations.

The number of Somalia natives the United States deports to their homeland has increased markedly in recent years, and the Trump administration this year removed that country from a list of nations deemed uncooperative on deportations. The U.S. government has argued that conditions in the East African country have improved sufficiently to return people there. Advocates have pointed to a string of deadly terror attacks in Somalia as they insist the country remains unsafe.

John Bruning, an attorney at Kim Hunter Law in St. Paul, said his office had two clients on the flight, both of whom unsuccessfully applied for asylum in the late 1990s and early 2000s. After receiving final deportation orders, they had been checking in with ICE regularly for years until they were detained earlier this year. One of them worked as a cardiovascular technician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. In a dramatic last-minute turnaround, a federal judge blocked temporarily the deportations of three other clients who were slated to be on Thursday’s flight.

“This doesn’t add up to me,” Bruning said of ICE’s statement. “We’re still trying to wrap our minds around what is going on.”

Bruning said the two men on the flight have pending claims with the Board of Immigration Appeals though it is unlikely that decisions in those cases will come during what will probably be a short stint in the United States until another flight to Africa can be arranged. Still, he said his office is trying to find out more about the circumstances of the return to determine if it might offer any chance to make a fresh case on their behalf.

Habon Osman, whose husband Cabduqaadir Mayow was on the plane, said she hoped the plane’s return might give him another chance. The couple is legally married, but her husband was arrested days before their religious ceremony. “It’s the worst story of my life,” she said. “I have a little bit of hope he came back, but you never know.”

Linus Chan at the University of Minnesota’s Center for New Americans, which is representing another deportee on the flight, said he is also exploring whether the plane’s return might provide an opening for his client. He said he was encouraged by the outcome in federal court for Bruning’s three clients.

He said the flight’s return seems like an ordeal for those on board, though he noted ICE might not be at fault for the issues in Dakar. The agency said the air conditioning remained on throughout the stay in Dakar, and the plane was stocked with enough food and water.

“You’ve been sitting in detention for months,” he said. “You’re on a plane to Somalia, and the next thing you know you are heading back to the US. That’s got to be terrible.”

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