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Muslim, health leaders team up to curb measles outbreak



Elham Ashkar works on community outreach for Children's Minnesota in Minneapolis.She said health care providers have the full support of imams who are helping to spread the word that vaccination is in the community's interest. Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Mark Zdechlik

Health care and religious leaders are working in tandem to control Minnesota’s measles outbreak, which has stricken the state’s majority-Muslim Somali community.

With another three weeks of Ramadan and its numerous gatherings and prayers yet to come, officials face the challenge of getting through the holy month without the highly contagious disease spreading further.

Some religious leaders have put a sharp point on their effort to protect their followers’ health, said Elham Ashkar, who works on community outreach for Children’s Minnesota.

“One of the imams, and I’m paraphrasing, he said, ‘If you don’t immunize, it’s like killing the Muslim children.’ I think that’s such strong messaging,” Ashkar said.

There were 73 cases in the outbreak as of Friday afternoon, the most recent count available at publication time.

Minnesota has now had more measles cases in the past two months than the entire country had all last year.

After several days without any new cases and speculation the outbreak may have run its course, additional cases were reported last week. Even if there are no new cases, it would be well into July before health officials could conclude the outbreak has ended.

The clear majority of measles cases have been in Somali-American children in Hennepin County. False information suggesting the measles vaccine causes autism spread among the Somali community, driving down immunization rates.

Imams, in their position of power, can spread the word that vaccination is in the community’s interest.

“They are a person who can take scripture, Islamic principles and can also relate that back to how people make health decisions,” said Ashkar.

Only about four in 10 Somali 2-year-olds were vaccinated before this outbreak, the health department says.

But since this outbreak, hundreds of Somali-Americans have been getting vaccinated each week, said Kris Ehresmann, the state Department of Health infectious disease director.

That should leave the community better protected against future outbreaks when this one is over, she said.

Most of the kids sickened in this outbreak have been treated at Children’s Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. More than one-third of those kids have required hospitalization.

It’s been miserable for some of them, said Patsy Stinchfield, who’s overseeing care at Children’s Minnesota.

“They are very, very sick,” Stinchfield said. “They’re very tired. They are dehydrated. They are so dry that they don’t cry tears anymore. They are very listless. They’ve needed IVs. They’ve needed oxygen. They’ve had pneumonia.”

Children’s Minnesota has armed Somali community leaders with pictures of some of their kids caught up in the outbreak and suffering in hospital rooms.

“Seeing children — how miserable they are, how dehydrated they are, the extensiveness of the rash,” Stinchfield said. “Sharing those photos has been powerful.”


Minnesota Somali Community Condemning Charges Against Mohamed Noor



WCCO — The Somali-American Police Officers Association calls the charges “baseless and politically motivated, if not racially motivated as well,” Esme Murphy reports (2:28). WCCO 4 News at 5 – March 22, 2018

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Arts & Culture

First-ever Somali exhibit at Minnesota History Center opens in June



STAR TRIBUNE — The Minnesota History Center will throw open the doors to “Somalis + Minnesota” in June, the first long-term exhibit about the east African nation’s culture, heritage and diaspora at the state’s premier history museum.

Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, and their stories need to be told, said Steve Elliott, CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, which operates the History Center. The U.S. Census reports the Somali population in Minnesota at 57,000, though the actual number is believed to be much higher.

“With Somali people in almost every sector of Minnesota’s workforce, now is the time to celebrate the strength and resilience of the Somali people and to help build bridges in understanding what it means to be an immigrant,” Elliott said.

The exhibit is being created in partnership with the Somali Museum of Minnesota, which opened on Lake Street in Minneapolis in 2013.

“We see this as a big honor,” said Osman Mohamed Ali, founder of the Somali Museum. “The Somali community is proud that they will have their stories told at the Minnesota History Center.”

Ali said Minnesotans are curious about their neighbors’ history and that there’s a need in the Somali community to teach the younger generation about their heritage. Many Somalis arrived in Minnesota as refugees fleeing civil war, and families have been more focused on rebuilding their lives than exploring family histories.

“There are a lot of Somalis who don’t know their history,” Ali said. “It will be educational for all Minnesotans — whether they are Somali-Americans or non-Somali-Americans.”

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Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor makes first court appearance; leaves jail after posting $400,000 bond



STAR TRIBUNE — The former Minneapolis police officer charged with murder and manslaughter in the July shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond made his first court appearance Wednesday, where his bail was set at $400,000.

During the hearing, Mohamed Noor said his first public words since the incident in south Minneapolis, spelling his name and confirming his address to Judge Kathryn Quaintance. Noor, slight and soft-spoken, said nothing else during the 15-minute hearing at the Public Safety Facility in downtown Minneapolis.

Quaintance set his bail at $400,000 on the condition that he turn over his passport, surrender his firearms and ammunition and refrain from contacting his former partner Matthew Harrity, the lone witness in the racially charged case that drew international outrage and led to the ouster of former police Chief Janeé Harteau. Bail without conditions was set at $500,000. Noor paid the $400,000 conditional bond and left the Hennepin County jail late Wednesday in the company of his attorney.
Police union officials said that Noor was fired from the department on Tuesday.

Throughout the hearing Wednesday, Noor stood behind a glass partition in an orange jail jumpsuit, wearing a solemn expression. He barely turned to face the packed courtroom gallery, never making eye contact with a group of relatives and friends seated in the front row. Several dozen other supporters huddled in the hallway outside the courtroom.

Noor, 32, turned himself in on Tuesday morning, a day after authorities issued a sealed warrant for his arrest. He is charged with firing his gun from inside his police SUV and hitting Damond, who had called 911 to report a suspected assault in the alley behind her Fulton neighborhood home. Her death provoked protests and became a symbol, in Minneapolis and her native Australia, of how police shootings affect all communities. It also led to Harteau’s firing by then-Mayor Betsy Hodges.

Noor maintained his silence, choosing not to speak to state investigators or the grand jury investigating Damond’s death. The grand jury concluded its probe Monday, the day before Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced his charging decision.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy argued that Noor’s bail should be substantial, saying that he posed a flight risk, and that her office had developed “credible evidence” last fall that Noor had left the country.

The report proved false, but she said prosecutors grew more worried after hearing from a witness who claimed that he had “offered to hide [Noor] out.”

“These are the witness’ words, not mine,” she said.

Noor’s attorney, Thomas Plunkett, said in court that the charges against his client were baseless, while calling the initial $500,000 bail “frankly, outrageous.”

He pointed out that Noor had submitted his DNA to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in June for testing, and later voluntarily went to City Hall to meet with an investigator after rumors surfaced that he had left the country.

Plunkett said that Noor posed no risk of fleeing, adding that the former officer came to Minnesota at the age of 5, escaping a civil war in his native Somalia, and had never known another home.

“He has no connection to any other place,” said Plunkett, after waiving a reading of the charges. “Your Honor, Mr. Noor is an American.”

After hearing from both sides, Quaintance offered the conditional bail and set Noor’s next court date for May 8.

“Officer Noor, like any other person charged with a crime in America, is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Quaintance said. “If he has a trial, it will be in a court of law, not in the media or in the streets.”

Defense attorney Ryan Pacyga said that he was surprised by the prosecution’s high bail request, particularly considering that Noor voluntarily turned himself in and has ties to the community.

He also scoffed at the prosecution’s depiction of Noor as a danger to the public, pointing out that his alleged crime was committed in the course of his duties as a police officer — a profession that is authorized to use deadly force if lives are in imminent danger. “The point is that we’re not talking about some madman, even under the government’s version of this case, that poses some particular danger to the community out there,” Pacyga said.

Jeronimo Yanez, the only other Minnesota officer in recent history charged in an on-duty shooting, was released on his own recognizance. A jury last summer cleared Yanez of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights.

About a month after that verdict, Damond was killed in Minneapolis.

Messages left for Noor’s father went unreturned on Wednesday.

The Somali-American Police Association broke its monthslong silence on Wednesday, saying in a statement that it was “saddened” by what it called politically and possibly racially motivated charges.

We believe Freeman is more interested in furthering his political agenda than he is in the facts surrounding this case,” the statement read. “The charges brought against Officer Noor are not intended to serve justice; rather, they are meant to make an ‘example’ of him.”

An MPD spokeswoman on Wednesday confirmed that an internal probe into the incident was ongoing, but otherwise declined to comment.

Lt. Bob Kroll said claims that Noor plotted to leave the country were news to him.

“He was on administrative leave so he had daily check-ins with [Internal Affairs], I believe,” said Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, the union that represents the department’s roughly 880 sworn police officers.

He said they will likely file a grievance on Noor’s behalf to challenge the firing, which is standard practice in disciplinary cases. He said that he wasn’t entirely surprised by the department’s decision to fire Noor, who had been on paid administrative leave since the shooting. “I understand when you’ve got a person facing those charges, there’s a lot of pressure for the administration to get that person off the table, given the public outcry,” he said.

The union has come under fire from critics from both within the department and outside its ranks for not publicly defending Noor.

Noor, who joined the department three years ago, is named in a brutality lawsuit wending its way through federal court. Earlier this month, a judge in that case ruled that an attorney for the woman suing Noor along with another Minneapolis cop and the department was not allowed to ask questions about the Damond shooting.

Staff writers Elizabeth Sawyer and Faiza Mahamud contributed to this report.

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