Fear lives in the gaps between us — the gap between what we know and what we don’t know.
Hudda Ibrahim sees that clearly. As a Somali woman who came to the U.S. 11 years ago, she’s faced a lot of uncertainty. She now hopes to lessen that uncertainty for others, for Somalis and for non-Somalis.
Her new book, “From Somalia to Snow: How Central Minnesota Became Home to Somalis” is one tool she’s using.
In it, she explains elements of Somali culture and Islam that can be confusing to non-Somalis and non-Muslims.
Almost 1,700 Somali refugees settled in the city of St. Cloud between 2002 and March 2017, and that does not count secondary refugees, who come to the area to find work or be with family.
The community hasn’t always welcoming to the newcomers. At local meetings and rallies in the past few years, anti-immigration and anti-resettlement sentiments have flared up, invigorated by the contentious political climate.
But others, like Ibrahim, are trying to bridge that cultural gap and connect local residents with newcomers.
“We appreciate being part of this community. I always tell people this is my home and I’m not going anywhere. And we’re not going anywhere, but we are open to discussion and having a dialogue where we learn from each other,” Ibrahim said. “And really, get rid of this fear of unknown, because that’s the problem. … People think we’re here to do something else. We are not here to convert people.”
Ibrahim has also started a consulting company, where she acts as a cultural navigator and communicator for employers or employees that can’t resolve conflicts. She wants to be the person employers go to for help, because she has the expertise to navigate those problems.
“I want to see employers reaching out and partnering with not only me, but organizations that serve the immigrant community or minority community in this town and see where we can bridge that gap,” Ibrahim said.
She can help with recruitment, education, how to have effective communication and relationships.
“I do believe the employers, their intention is not bad, but they just don’t know how to talk to these people,” Ibrahim said.
She sees the damage ignorance and fear can do. In Minnesota, that fear can manifest itself as avoidance, because people are so afraid of offending one another.
Ibrahim hopes the book can give people confidence to get past the “Minnesota Nice” tendency.
“I said stop being Minnesota Nice. … Offend me if you want to. Just ask,” Ibrahim said. “Seriously, who is going to tell these people this is right or this is wrong if they don’t communicate. … People have to open up. It’s OK to offend people.”
In the book she weaves in interviews from 35 Somali people, young and old, who describe their lives, their decisions, their hopes and their dreams.
“The 35 people we interviewed for this book agreed that they love this country and they want their neighbors to know that they’re here to be a part of the fabric, to contribute, whether it’s economically, politically or socially. And that they’re here to be a part of a whole.”
Ibrahim took two years to write the book, from researching and interviewing to transcribing, writing and editing, helped by Abdi Mahad.
To know the Somali community, you need to know about their past. The simple “where are you from” question can elicit a complicated answer. Ibrahim outlines Somali’s history briefly, including the most recent conflict that has raged for more than a decade, displacing hundreds of thousands of Somali people.
One of the major factors in causing misunderstandings is the type of culture each group values. Somalis live in a very collectivist culture. In the U.S., the individual is held above everything else.
So where Americans may try to solve a problem by themselves, individually, the Somali man will solve it with the help of family, friends and members of his clan.
This is what food you’ll find at a traditional Somali meal. Wochit
Basic to complex
Ibrahim answers the basic questions: Everything you wanted to know about Somalis but were afraid to ask.
- What’s the difference between a refugee and an immigrant?
- Why did so many Somalis come to Minnesota?
- Why did so many Somalis come to St. Cloud?
- What are clans and why do they matter?
Some of the tips are just practical.
- What foods do they eat and why?
- How should you greet a Somali or Muslim person of the opposite gender?
- Why don’t many Somalis make eye contact when they’re speaking with you?
- Why are so many Somalis and Muslims named Mohammed?
But the book goes beyond that, too. She tries to dispel stereotypes and show that just like any group of people, the Somali community has a range of opinions on every topic.
“There are some issues in the book that we will never agree on,” Mahad said.
Because — and this should be obvious — all Somali people don’t think alike. Some are more traditional, or more conservative. Some have adopted more American values than others.
“It’s human nature,” Mahad said.
“No, we don’t think alike and we don’t do alike,” Ibrahim said.
The differences have caused headaches for Ibrahim. One person on social media chosing to focus on the fact she was wearing pants — something he thought Somali women should not do — than what she was discussing in a video.
It gets more complicated, too.
Ibrahim explains the complex forces that impact the health care choices Somalis make. They may avoid Western medicine because they don’t understand the system or think they can’t afford it. They may rely first on traditional methods of healing, more homeopathic remedies, exhausting those before seeing a Western doctor. They may be shy to explain their health condition through an interpreter who is a family member or person of the opposite sex.
Why can’t they be like us?
Ibrahim also dives into the difference between assimilation and integration. She pictures assimilation as the so-called American melting pot, where individual identities are erased to become part of a whole. She prefers another metaphor.
“Because in the United States, it’s a salad bowl, where everybody can believe whatever they want. At the same time, they’re part of the fabric of the whole. They’re not interested in the melting pot.”
That’s one of the things may Somalis love about America.
“They think what makes American unique is that diversity,” she said. That diversity includes freedom of religion.
“You can believe in whatever god you want to believe. At the same time, who you are can be part of this community and contribute economically, politically, and socially while maintaining some of your values,” Ibrahim said.
For many Somalis, assimilation can feel like they have to give up their Muslim faith.
“They are not interested in leaving their faith. They are not interested in leaving their values and culture,” Ibrahim said
And of course, as with many things, there’s a range of how much Somalis integrate or assimilate. The younger generations are very quickly assimilating.
“They are saying we speak the language, we know how to write, we know how to communicate, but we can’t leave our moms and dads here,” Ibrahim said. “They want to stay in this community and contribute and work at all those companies. But there’s this gap of disconnections.”
At the very least, Somalis need to integrate enough to care for their families.
“We need well-paying professional jobs. We want to be a part of this community. We want affordable housing. … We don’t want to be isolated from the rest of the group,” Ibrahim said.
The degree of a family’s integration is impacted by their time in the country and their socio-economic status.
“These people are new to the country. They are working seven days a week trying to feed their kids, trying to feed their families back home,” Ibrahim said. “But yet they want to be a part of the whole, part of the fabric, part of the community. They, too, want to lead a nice life, a legacy. They want to make differences.”
Some non-Somalis fear the immigrant community because of misunderstanding about Islam, she said.
“Somalis are not interested in converting anyone,” Ibrahim said. “They want to be a part of this community and contribute. They want jobs, they want to take their kids to better schools. They want the kids to go to the same schools that the other non-Somalis are going to. They want them to have the same opportunities other kids have. They really value this community and they appreciate that they’re here. Because, they don’t have to worry about someone coming to their door with a gun or harming them, right.”
The groups have more in common than they think. One man in a Somali culture class Mahad and Ibrahim helped teach said he was only the second generation in his family in the U.S., coming from Europe. His parents were so worried the kids wouldn’t learn the language, their native language wasn’t to be spoken at home.
Some Somali families are the same way, hoping their kids can more easily integrate, Ibrahim said. Others hope to retain whatever Somali culture they can, starting with the language.
The one benefit of English is that it’s fairly universal. Any place you travel, you’re more likely to find someone who speaks English than Somali.
“Some Somali families are saying we need to hold on to our culture, our faith, our religion,” Ibrahim said. “That’s because it’s our values. And they’re passing that on to their children.”
in the book’s postscript, Ibrahim references the attack at Crossroads Center mall in September 2016, a series of stabbings committed by a Somali man.
“This event shocked and disturbed everyone in St. Cloud, including members of the Somali community. Somalis’ hearts went out to the victims of this type of violence, from which they themselves had fled in Somalia.”
But she was heartened to see the community’s response, which, for the most part, was seeking unity, not division. Still, because of this event, the 2016 election and many other events, Ibrahim believes there’s a lot of work to do.
She wants to see more partnership between the Somali and wider community. She wants to see more friendships and relationships that cross cultural and religious boundaries.
She wants to see more Somalis in the professional and leadership jobs in Central Minnesota. She doesn’t want to find herself as the only person of color or only woman on a nonprofit board.
“Who else is going to do it?” Ibrahim said. “So sometimes, yes, it is intimidating, but I know our community is also trying … to help others come along. But we have to meet in the middle, right? That’s what I’m right now actually doing.”