Connect with us


The War on Terror Is a War on Minnesota’s Peaceful, Entrepreneurial Somali Immigrants



The Somali community in Minnesota has become a microcosm for the national debate over immigration, refugee resettlement, and national security.

When Abdirahman Kahin landed in the United States in 1997, he only knew a handful of people. He pooled his money with a few other Somali refugees who landed the same day in Atlanta. They rented a van, pointed the steering wheel north and headed for Minnesota, a strange land nothing like their former home.

Twenty years after fleeing war and famine in Somalia, Kahin is peacefully feeding hundreds of Minnesotans every day. He’s the owner of The Afro Deli, a successful restaurant that he opened in 2010 after more than a decade of working low-paying jobs. He serves Somali food, but made “Minnesota spicy” as a concession to the stereotypically Nordic tastes of many Midwesterners. The restaurant, Kahin says, is a bridge between cultures.

But his big smiles and delicious food belie the difficulties that Kahin and others like him have faced in coming to America and building a life here. He has a classic immigrant success story, one that has been replicated for centuries as waves of foreigners seek a better life. But he worries that America is now making it harder than ever for others to follow in his footsteps.

Somali refugees like Kahin have faced many of the same difficulties as other immigrant groups coming to America. They’ve had to learn a new language, find work, and build new social connections. They’ve faced racism and intolerance from those who came here before them. They’ve been on the outside of the political order, living in a democracy without having a voice in it.

Over time, like Kahin, they have moved closer to the inside. The first Somali-American state legislator was elected in Minnesota last year. But even as these immigrants settle in, the community finds itself facing a new set of challenges.

Minnesota’s Somali communities have become domestic fronts in the war on terror. Federal law enforcement agencies have singled out Somali Muslims in the Twin Cities for a special surveillance program intended to curb terrorism since 2011. But there is little evidence that this program has been successful.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has instructed the federal government to step up the scrutiny of immigrants and refugees from a number of Muslim-majority countries. The Trump administration’s so-called “travel ban” has gone through various iterations since January, but every version has included Somalia on the list of places from which visitors will be uniformly labeled as threats. The administration has also taken steps to reduce the number of refugees allowed into America. Only 45,000 will be accepted next year, down from the previous floor of 67,000 set by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

Against this national political backdrop, the Somali community in Minnesota has become a microcosm for the national debate over immigration, refugee resettlement, and national security. Under President Trump, the war on terror and the fight over immigration have become the same thing.

“The goal is to build neighborhoods from within.”
Bounded by a pair of interstates and tucked into a curve of the Mississippi River on the east side of Minneapolis, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood has long been a landing point for foreigners. The area was first settled in the 1890s by Germans and Swedes who came looking for work in the city’s legendary flour mills. Vietnamese and South Asian immigrants reshaped the community during the 1970s, when the Riverside Plaza, a set of brutalist concrete apartment buildings that serve as a centerpiece for the neighborhood, was built.

Jonathan Alpeyrie/Polaris/Newscom

In 1993, the United States began accepting refugees from Somalia after that country’s government collapsed amid a regional civil war and famine. Many of the displaced resettled in Minneapolis. With a small community established there, others followed. Today, the Twin Cities are home to the largest Somali diaspora anywhere in the world outside of Africa.

Thousands more refugees have followed a similar path in the 20 years since. In 2015, the most recent year for which complete data is available, over 8,800 Somali refugees were resettled in the United States, with more taking up residence in Minnesota than anywhere else. Overall, more than 30,000 Somalis live in the state, according to U.S. Census data. The majority are in Minneapolis, but sizable communities have also been established in places like St. Cloud and Mankato.

Kahin arrived in Cedar-Riverside in 1997 after making the cross-country drive from Atlanta. He was just 20 years old. After struggling to find work, he landed a job with a video production company and eventually ran his own video business, filming weddings and other events. He also took classes at St. Thomas University’s business school in downtown Minneapolis, and eventually earned his MBA.

Eventually, he entered the restaurant industry. His first venture was a failure, but The Afro Deli found success when he opened it in 2010 on the main drag of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, an area peppered with small, dimly lit bars, coffee shops, and independent theaters—a consequence of the neighborhood’s relatively affordable rents and close proximity to the University of Minnesota—along with halal groceries and other Somali-owned service sector businesses.

Just last year, Kahin closed that location and re-opened The Afro Deli on the opposite side of the University of Minnesota campus, along the bustling Washington Avenue corridor. His new place—with menus displayed on shiny HD television screens, an exposed kitchen, and neon booths bathed in natural light from floor-to-ceiling front windows—looks like any other upscale fast food eatery. It fits right in between a Bruegger’s Bagels and a generic college town pizzeria.

Photo by Eric Boehm

The place is meant to invite Minnesotans to try Somali food, Kahin says. He sees his restaurant as part of a growing trend of businesses trying to cross that cultural divide.

Kahin’s success makes him an outlier compared with most of the Somali community in the Twin Cities. The unemployment rate in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is nearly 18 percent—four times higher than the unemployment rate across the state of Minnesota as a whole (3.3 percent in October 2017) and further still above as the unemployment rate in Minneapolis (3 percent in September 2017).

Still, the refugee community has a sizeable economic footprint. Statewide, African immigrants earned an estimated collective income of $1.6 billion in 2014 and paid more than $183 million in state taxes, according to a study by Bruce Corrie, an economist at Concordia University in St. Paul. There are more than 2,000 African-owned businesses in the state, Corrie found, and more than 200 of them are owned by Somalis, according to the Minnesota Somali Chamber of Commerce.

Immigrant entrepreneurs face all the same difficulties as anyone else who wants to start a business, but with added cultural barriers. For Somali businesses, one of the biggest problems can be access to credit. “Banks won’t even listen to you, no matter how good your idea might be,” says Kahin. He opened The Afro Grill with help from a nonprofit, the African Development Center, that uses a mix of public and private funding to help immigrants launch businesses.

Banks might be unwilling to lend to refugees-turned-entrepreneurs, but there’s also a religious barrier for many Somalis. Islam forbids borrowing or lending with interest, so devout Muslims have to find alternative banking solutions that aren’t always readily available, says Samir Saikali, a grants manager at the St. Paul–based Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), a nonprofit that, like the one that helped Kahin launch his business, helps get promising immigrant businesses off the ground with a mix of private investment and state funds.

In addition to providing direct aid to new business ventures, the NDC runs a special banking program that comports with rules of Islam. To avoid charging interest, these banks will purchase an expensive item—a new freezer for a restaurant, for example, Saikali says—then will turn around and sell it to the business, at a mark-up. The buyer will pay off the expense on an installment plan, called “murabaha” in Arabic. Late fees and other penalties are fixed, not based on a percentage of the purchase price.

The NDC trains roughly 200 aspiring immigrant entrepreneurs each year. About 20 percent of them will eventually start a business in one of the organization’s four targeted low-income, high immigrant neighborhoods. “People within a certain neighborhood are those who are best suited to develop their own neighborhoods, economically and culturally,” says Saikali. “The goal is to build neighborhoods from within.”

“We don’t trust the FBI, and we have good reason not to.”
In November 2016, during the final days of last year’s presidential campaign, Donald Trump made a campaign stop in Minnesota. He spoke on the tarmac at Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport, where nearly 1,000 Somalis are employed. But he wasn’t there to talk about the hard-working immigrants who have boosted the state’s economy. He was there to warn about the threat of Somali terrorism.

Glen Stubbe/ZUMA Press/Newscom

“Here in Minnesota, you’ve seen first-hand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with very large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval,” he said, calling the growing Somali community in the Twin Cities “a disaster.” Trump argued that Somali immigrants intended to infiltrate American society as part of a terrorist campaign. “Some of them are joining ISIS,” the soon-to-be-president said, “and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world.”

The U.S. Department of Justice says terrorist organizations in the Middle East have been actively trying to recruit Somalis living in Minnesota since at least 2007, when a group of about 20 Somali men and women left the Twin Cities to join the militant group al-Shabab. One of those men, Shirwa Ahmed, in 2008 drove a truck loaded with explosives into a government building in Puntland, Somalia. It was one of five simultaneous attacks carried out by al-Shabab that killed 28 people.

The Islamic State, a quasi-governmental terrorist group that rose to occupy significant portions of Iraq and Syria during 2014 –15, has similarly tried to recruit Minnesotan Somali-Americans to fight abroad or to conduct terror attacks on U.S. soil. An April 2015 video posted online by an ISIS-affiliated account specifically called for an attack on the Mall of America in suburban Minneapolis. In late 2014, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune cited “federal authorities” claiming that one Minnesota man had died in Syria while fighting for ISIS.

In response, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and FBI launched a joint program to work with local police departments in three American cities—Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis—to develop “comprehensive prevention and intervention pilot programs to help counter violent extremism within local communities.”

In February 2015, the Justice Department produced a report outlining the methods of a program for “countering violent extremism,” or CVE. The goal was to recruit “, elders, community organizations and associations” in an effort to work against the perceived threat of terrorist recruitment in the Somali-American community.

Jonathan Alpeyrie/Polaris/Newscom

The chance of being killed in a terrorist attack in the United States is exceedingly low. Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst for the Cato Institute, a free market think tank based in Washington, D.C., looked at the period from 1975 through 2015—a time frame that includes incoming waves not only of Somali refugees but also Vietnamese and Cuban refugees and, more recently, Iraqi and Syrian refugees. He found that 154 foreign-born terrorists carried out attacks on U.S. soil that killed 3,024 people. More than 98 percent of those deaths occurred on September 11, 2001.

Nowrasteh calculates that there were 3,252,493 refugees admitted in that 41-year period. Only 20 committed, or were convicted of attempting to commit, domestic acts of terrorism. That amounts to one terrorist entering the country as a refugee for every 162,625 non-terrorists. Put a different way, an American has a 1 in 3.6 million chance of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist per year, but just a 1 in 3.6 billion chance per year of being killed by a terrorist who entered the country as a refugee.

“Substantial administrative hurdles and barriers are in place to block foreign-born terrorist infiltration from abroad,” he concludes. “A sensible terrorism screening policy must do more good than harm to justify its existence. That means the cost of the damage the policy prevents should at least equal the cost it imposes.”

The FBI’s CVE program has caused myriad problems for the Somali community, says Ayaan Dahir, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Young Muslim Collective, a left-leaning student organization launched specifically in response to the program and dedicated to building what the group calls “a cohesive coalition against an insidious surveillance .” Fears about surveillance and entrapment have put strain on people and businesses and decreased the level of trust: How many of those imams, elders, and community organizations are secretly informing? “We don’t trust the FBI, and we have good reason not to,” Dahir says. “And I think the average American shouldn’t [trust the FBI] either.”

To highlight the friction, she points to the fact that the bureau has a “community liaison” stationed at a community center in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, where Somali kids gather to play basketball and participate in other after-school activities. The FBI and local police see the deployment of officers into those environments as part of an overall strategy aimed at community engagement, intended to be a first line of defense against the potential radicalization of American Muslims.

Dahir says many members of the community see it differently. “Why do 8-year-olds need to have interaction with law enforcement apparatuses?” she asks. “What you are telling these children is that they are inherently violent and they have a future of being criminal and they need to be monitored at that young age.”

As part of the joint DOJ/DHS/FBI pilot program, local officials and representatives of law enforcement hold regular roundtable discussions and community meetings, which are open to the public. These are supposed to assuage fears of surveillance and help build “community resilience” against radicalization, according to the Justice Department. But they can also be used to spread misinformation and increase paranoia, says Dahir. She relates the story of an FBI agent at one such meeting telling the Somalis in attendance that they should welcome FBI agents into their homes as long as they have nothing to hide.

“Somebody else had to go up there and immediately correct that,” Dahir says. “Misinformation is being presented as true, and it’s being accepted because of who it is coming from.”

A 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the CVE program lacked a strategic plan and had no clearly established process by which to measure its effectiveness. “We could not determine the extent to which the United States is better off today as a result of its CVE effort than it was in 2011,” the GAO concluded. “That is because no cohesive strategy with measurable outcomes has been established to guide the multi-agency CVE effort towards its goals.” In other words, the program has increased tensions between law enforcement and the Somali community, but there’s little evidence that it has done much to make Americans safer.

The CVE program launched under President Obama. But Trump has seized anti-terrorism programs created by his White House predecessors, and his administration could weild those tools in ways that create more barrier for innocent immigrants from Muslim nations, and for those who have lived here for decades.

In September 2016, five years after the program launched, a Somali who came to America on a refugee visa stabbed 10 shoppers and employees at a St. Cloud mall. He was likely motivated “by some sort of inspiration from radical Islamic groups,” according to then-FBI Director James Comey. Earlier in the year, three were convicted in federal court last year; the other six pleaded guilty.

Jerry Holt/MCT/Newscom
Jerry Holt/MCT/Newscom
Beyond the FBI, the Trump administration has taken steps to restrict the flow of refugees into the United States in the name of keeping Americans safe. Under the guise of stopping terrorists from entering the country, the administration has written—and repeatedly rewritten—its so-called “travel ban,” which blocks immigrants and visitors from a number of Muslim-majority countries. The list of nations included in the travel ban has changed, but Somalia has been included in each one.

Somali immigrants already face tightened allowances, some of which target them directly. In the fiscal year that ended in September 2017, the United States accepted 53,716 refugees from all countries down from 84,994 the previous year. The total for 2017 was the eighth-lowest since the 1975, when the U.S. started tracking refugee immigration. The Trump administration plans to reduce the number admitted again next year, with a ceiling of only 45,000.

In October, Sayfullo Habibullaevich Saipov, a Uzbek immigrant who came to the United States in 2015, drove a rented truck into a crowd of people in lower Manhattan. Saipov’s rampage killed eight people, six of whom were foreigners visiting from Argentina and Belgium, and injured 11 others. After being shot by police and arrested, Saipov claimed allegiance to ISIS. Following the attack, the Trump administration moved to further increase scrutiny for immigrants and asylum-seekers from Muslim-majority countres

“I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program [sic],” Trump tweeted hours after the attack. “Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”

“It’s not about us versus them.”
The Somali Museum of Minnesota can be found in the basement of a nondescript, partially vacant retail building along Lake Street in Minneapolis. Its three rooms are filled with carvings, flags, utensils, cookware, and traditional clothing salvaged from Somalia by the curator, Osman Ali, or donated by other refugees. In one corner, there’s a replica of a traditional Somali dwelling, a single-room hut with a thatched roof where Ali says an entire family would sleep together.

Jerry Holt/MCT/Newscom

Museums in Mogadishu were looted and destroyed during the civil war in the 1990s. Ali claims this is now the largest collection of Somali historical artifacts anywhere in the world.

Born in Somalia, Ali has lived in Minnesota since 1997 but makes frequent trips back to his homeland to scrounge for new pieces. The main purpose, he says, is to retain Somali culture for immigrants and their children. But the museum also serves as a platform for Ali’s efforts at outreach to the local government.

Housing department officials, police, and other public agents come to the museum for classes that attempt to address cultural differences between Americans and Somalis. For example, gesturing for someone’s attention or asking him to come closer by wiggling a single, upturned finger—a common, inoffensive move in America—can be read as an insult by Somalis. “They call their dogs like this,” Ali explains, wiggling a single finger. Using a cupped hand is a more friendly form of the same gesture, he says.

Despite the troubles facing his countrymen at home and abroad, he is optimistic about the Minnesota Somali community’s overall trajectory. He knows about Kahin’s new restaurant. “He’s doing such great things,” says Ali.

Equally important to Somali identity in the Twin Cities, he says, was the election of state Rep. Ilhan Omar (D–Minneapolis) in 2016. Omar, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, fled the civil war in Somalia as a child, then lived for four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before eventually making her way to the United States. “The Somali community is becoming voters,” Ali says. “Before that, they didn’t see that they could make a difference with their vote.”

Omar, an activist in the Somali community before her election, defeated state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who had served in the state House since 1973, in a hotly contested Democratic primary last year.

Kahn initially dismissed the younger woman’s campaign as “attractive to the kind of, what we call the young, liberal, white guilt-trip people.” Omar’s victory, though, seems to reflect both the leftward trend of Democratic politics nationally and the growing political clout of the Minnesota Somali community.

Omar made police reform a centerpiece of her campaign—a policy position that gained special salience in the Twin Cities after an officer shot and killed Philando Castile, a black man, in the nearby suburb of Falcon Heights last year just weeks before the primary election. Castile had been pulled over for a busted tail light; he was shot and killed while reaching for his identification.

Afterward, Omar proposed a statewide ban on traffic stops for vehicle violations like expired registrations and broken taillights, which she says give police too much discretion and can be abused to target certain communities and individuals. She also called for more accountability from police departments investigating lethal incidents, which she says would increase trust within Minnesota’s minority communities.

Omar’s general election victory, which happened the same day Trump won the presidency, was all but guaranteed. Her district is one of the bluest in the whole state legislature. But it still had significance for Ali. Omar’s Republican opponent, Abdimalik Askar, was also a Somali-American. “It is not about ‘us versus them,'” Ali says, beaming with pride. “It is Somalis running on both sides.”

“People don’t discriminate…as long as it tastes good”

At the end of our conversation at The Afro Deli, Kahin brings me a cardboard shell containing a pair of fried pockets of dough, roughly triangular in shape. These are sambusas, a sort of Somali pierogi, deep-fried and filled with a mixture of beef, lamb, and spinach, along with lentils and cilantro. They are one of the most popular items on the menu, Kahin says.

From the open kitchen comes the sweet sound of sizzling meat as a line cook grills up some Somali steak sandwiches—think cheesesteaks without the Cheez Whiz, topped with diced tomatoes and fried onions, and served on focaccia bread instead of a hard roll. Focaccia is common in Somali dishes, Kahin tells me, appropriated from the Italians who colonized the region in the mid-1800s. The idea, he says, is to “invite Minnesotans to see what Somali cuisine tastes like.”

Kahin recognizes that outsiders often arouse suspicion, and that integration can be a slow and cyclical process. Irish immigrants were once told that they “need not apply” to many jobs in America. Italians coming to America in the early 20th Century were portrayed as rats in anti-immigrant publications of the time. Chinese immigrants in California were denied the right to vote or work in the public sector in the initial version of the state’s constitution.

While every ethnic group still faces some discrimination even today, the passage of time is likely to see Somalis, too, accepted into the interwoven fabric of America. “The Somali immigrant of today, after 100 years, is going to say, ‘We don’t like the immigrants in this country,'” says Ali, only half-joking.

Photo by Eric Boehm

Kahin says he’s witnessed the FBI’s increased involvement in the Somali community during the past few years. But he disagrees with the notion that the bureau is making things worse by being present. Terrorism “is a big deal,” he says, “but I think it’s about lack of information. Lack of trust. Lack of understanding.” Most Muslim terrorist attacks kill Muslims in other countries, not non-Muslim Americans, he says, pointing to the recent truck bombing in Mogadishu that killed more than 50 people, including a Minnesota man who was visiting relatives.

He blames the media and politicians for perpetuating the image of Somalis as terror threats. The president is making it more difficult for others who might one day follow in Kahin’s path, he says—a path that millions of other immigrants have walked throughout American history.

Would it be harder for someone coming from Somalia today to do the things he’s done—settle in the United States, start one business, watch it fail, then start another and see it grow into something successful? “Of course,” he says. “We live in a different age now.”

But Kahin would prefer not to talk about politics, or the president. Trump is divisive, and Kahin believes he is deliberately attacking refugees to score political points.

Instead, Kahin wants to talk about his restaurant—about his efforts at bringing cultures together over food. To him, everyone’s a potential customer. “Trump people eat my food too,” he says. “People don’t discriminate…as long as it tastes good.”


A Minnesota health advocate’s crusade brings harmful skin lightening out of the dark



STAT NEWS — MINNEAPOLIS — Karmel Square is a hub of the Somali community here, a colorful, cheerfully noisy hodgepodge of vendors and restaurants unofficially known as the Somali Mall. Amira Adawe stops by often to buy tea and chat in Somali with friends and relatives wearing hijabs and flowing, floor-length skirts. They greet her with smiles and hugs, and she calls them “auntie.”

Her visits are more than social, however. The public health advocate scans market shelves for skin lightening creams that may contain harmful toxins — tubes and jars sold under names such as Fair & Lovely, Prime White, and Miss Beauty 7 Days White.

Some women use the creams in hopes of erasing dark spots, but many rub them over their entire bodies multiple times a day in hopes of whitening their brown skin. The practice pervades many cultures in Africa, Asia, the Middle East — and many immigrant communities in the U.S. — and Adawe has made it her mission to end it.

She began her crusade as a graduate student, after she discovered that creams sold in many Twin Cities ethnic markets contained levels of mercury thousands of times higher than the amounts considered safe by the U.S. government. But her concerns go beyond the physical harm to women. She worries as much about the damage to their self-esteem.

newsnisideIn Somali and other cultures, the lighter-skinned daughter is often seen as more beautiful, Adawe explained recently; in fact, the Somali term for light-skinned — cadey — is considered a compliment. “It’s used as a term of endearment,” she said, “but I think it’s so wrong to say it.”

Public health agencies in several major cities have launched their own investigations of tainted skin creams, occasionally getting advice from Adawe along the way. And now Adawe has created The Beautywell Project, to combat the stigma faced by women with darker skin and take on the industry that promises them beauty in a jar.

By day, Adawe is now a manager for the Children’s Cabinet of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. In her “spare time,” she hosts a weekly radio show in Somali that reaches 80,000 people worldwide. She holds educational outreach sessions in Minneapolis and Kenya, talks with imams, and presents at national and international conferences. Sooner or later, most anyone connected with the skin-lightening issue seeks out Adawe. She fields personal pleas for help from Somali men in Minneapolis worried about their pregnant wives rubbing cream on their skin, as well as calls for help from Kenya, Canada, and Australia.

“We can’t address this issue without discussing beauty, what it means and ways to redefine beauty, as well as discussing and educating individuals about wellness,” she said in an interview.

She admits her goal is ambitious. The stigma runs deep, and skin-lightening creams are a multibillion-dollar business overseas, despite bans and public campaigns against the products in many African countries. In the U.S., creams are often smuggled in and sold in small, ethnic markets like at Karmel Square or purchased on the internet. They have been found in Somali, Hmong, Mexican, Dominican, and West Indies communities from California to Minnesota to New York. Users, and even sellers of the creams, are often unaware that they are harmful or illegal.

Somali women are reluctant to speak openly about skin lightening, and Adawe faced resistance when she began her research seven years ago. Her persistence impressed Jim Koppel, who was deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Health at the time.

“It’s a very tight-knit community, and this put her in a tough place,” he said. “It could have had a negative impact on the businesses [that sell the creams], both financially and potentially for legal problems, and was of great concern to her personal reputation. And she went ahead and did it and continues to speak out.”

“I had to be brave enough, and, fortunately, the community saw it as an issue” and supported her, Adawe said. “That means a lot to me.”

A topic few wanted to talk about

One recent afternoon, Adawe was 35 minutes into her radio show, broadcast from the studio of KALY, 101.7 FM, a Somali-American station tucked into a corner of the International Bazaar in Minneapolis. She had been talking nonstop about skin lightening, peppering her fluent Somali with a few English words — endocrine system, mercury, hydroquinone, prescription.

Then she turned to the phones, murmuring in understanding as she listened to a female caller from a Minneapolis suburb. Do you have any more feedback, Adawe asked in Somali.

“Women who practice skin lightening and who have experienced skin damage or illness should come to the radio and discuss their experience without disclosing their names,” the caller said in Somali.

Adawe nodded. The topic of skin lightening is a delicate one, both overseas and in immigrant communities in the U.S. While the stigma associated with dark skin is deep, admitting to using skin-lightening creams is also taboo, thwarting efforts to track the prevalence of the practice. As adept as Adawe is at navigating the delicate social norms and customs of the Somali-American community she’s part of, when she began her research in 2011, she could find only seven women who would talk about their use of skin creams.

It was in those interviews that women told her that they apply the creams to their entire bodies three times a day, sometimes while pregnant or breastfeeding. Most mixed several creams together and stored them in the refrigerator.

Adawe had been suspicious of the creams since her childhood. Growing up in Mogadishu and Minneapolis in a health-minded family (her mother was the head of the maternal and child health bureau in Somalia), she watched with concern when friends’ and relatives’ skin reddened or grew discolored from using skin lighteners. Adawe is grateful for the message she received growing up with the darkest skin of three daughters: “I’m so fortunate I came from a family who embraced me for who I am,” she said.

When Adawe became a county public health educator and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, she was finally in a position to act on her concerns. She purchased 27 samples of creams to test for the toxins she suspected were present.

The tests confirmed Adawe’s fears, revealing that 11 of the products contained mercury, a known neurotoxin. Mercury has been banned in skin-lightening products by the Food and Drug Administration since 1973; the legal limit is 1 part per million. Adawe still remembers the shock she and the pollution control agency specialists who did the testing felt when they saw the results reaching 33,000 parts per million.

FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said mercury is on a short list of prohibited ingredients in cosmetics. “The FDA has been aware of mercury as a potential allergen, skin irritant and neurotoxin for decades,” she said in an email.

Poisonous to the nervous, digestive, and immune systems, it is often found in unlabeled or mislabeled creams; sometimes it’s listed as “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” or “mercurio.” Just touching a washcloth or a mother’s cheek that has been rubbed with the products could be harmful to a baby, the FDA notes, interfering with brain and nervous system development.

Yet the agency was able to inspect only 0.3 percent of 3 million cosmetics shipments last year, and it tested just 364 products even though “adverse findings” are discovered in 15 percent to 20 percent of the products tested, the FDA said last June in a letter to New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone Jr.

Even skin-lightening products sold legally in the U.S. often contain ingredients other countries recognize as potential health hazards, Adawe said. Hydroquinone, a potential carcinogen that is banned in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, is often found in the creams, as are steroids, which can cause acne, thinning of the skin, and hypertension.

Adawe’s testing in 2011 triggered immediate action: The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency cracked down on suppliers (in a raid on one popular store, inspectors found about 20 boxes full of products that contained mercury); the FDA investigated; and the Minnesota Department of Health warned of the danger.

Elsewhere in the country, similar scenarios were playing out. Alerted through data from local and national surveys, health departments embargoed products, conducted home visits, and notified manufacturers and health agencies in other countries. In New York, for example, after finding eight skin creams with mercury after inspecting products from 22 stores, city health workers now visit stores incognito to identify products of concern, said Wendy McKelvey, executive director of environmental health surveillance and policy.

Once notified of the dangers, there’s “pretty good compliance,” McKelvey said. “They’re not wanting to sell hazardous products.”

Adawe is often consulted because she understands and is trusted by the affected community.

“I think it’s extraordinary what she’s doing,” said Lori Copan, a research scientist for the California Department of Public Health. “A person from the community is a much better spokesperson than someone working in a public health department in terms of motivating and speaking the language and being one of them. It would be fantastic for all of us in public health if we had a community leader like Amira.”

The value of that cross-cultural competence is often in the details. Inspired by Adawe’s study, an ongoing biomonitoring project in Minnesota looking at chemical exposure in pregnant women and babies now tracks urinary mercury. With Adawe’s input, the program has fine-tuned details such as how to phrase questions in surveys about use of creams.

“If you ask directly, ‘Do you use it?’ they will never, ever answer,” Adawe said. To get at the truth, she said, it’s better to start by asking what kind of moisturizer they use.

Initial results of the yet-to-be-published study show that more than 30 percent of pregnant Asian women who spoke Hmong in their interviews had high levels of mercury and received special follow-up to help them reduce their exposures. “The higher levels were likely from using skin-lightening creams and eating certain kinds of fish higher in mercury,” said Jessica Nelson, an epidemiologist and program manager at the Minnesota Department of Health, where Adawe works as a legislative liaison. (The Somali portion of the study isn’t finished yet.)

Adawe isn’t resting: She’s happy that skin lightening has been established as a public health issue. Still, Adawe said there’s plenty more to be done. Next up, she said, is trying to reframe what it means to be beautiful. She’s developing a curriculum for schoolgirls and outreach sessions focused on men, teenagers, and new teachers, which will revolve around the question: How do we change the narrative of what is beauty?

“My dream is that every woman stops using skin-lightening creams and trying to change their color,” she said, “and that they are happy for who they are.”

Continue Reading


ICE Abused Somalis for 2 Days On a Plane and Now Wants to Send Them Into Harm’s Way



Rahim Mohamed’s daughter was born in October, but the 32-year old father, who has been detained in immigration custody since April, has not seen or held her. If Immigration and Customs Enforcement has its way, he won’t get that chance. Instead, he will be summarily deported to Somalia, despite the fact that Rahim fears persecution by Al-Shabaab, the Somali-based affiliate of Al-Qaeda, and would be leaving behind his U.S. citizen wife, toddler son, and infant daughter.

Rahim is one of 92 Somali nationals, currently locked up in Florida, who ICE is rushing to deport before they have a chance to ask to reopen their immigration cases so that a judge can consider the danger to their lives. The Somalis have filed a lawsuit against ICE to stop their immediate deportations. In addition to the ACLU, they are represented by the Immigration Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law, Americans for Immigrant Justice, the James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School, the Legal Aid Service of Broward County, and The Advocates for Human Rights.

On Tuesday, we appeared in federal court to argue that these men and women must receive a full and fair opportunity to reopen their cases before an immigration judge in keeping with due process and habeas corpus rights. It is against U.S. law to deport anyone to a country where they are likely to be persecuted or tortured. Immigration law also permits the reopening of removal orders based on changed circumstances.

However, ICE seems intent on ignoring both of these facts.

It’s a disturbing pattern that’s quickly becoming a calling card of the Trump administration: targeting communities that were previously low-priorities for immigration enforcement and attempting to force them out of the country as hastily as possible, no matter the danger that may await them. In 2017, the ACLU challenged this ICE bully tactic on behalf of a nationwide class of Iraqis and a community of Indonesians in New Hampshire, securing crucial time for our clients to reopen their cases.

For those detained, Somalia is a distant and frightening place. Many have spent years building lives in the United States and, like Rahim, are married to or are the parents of U.S. citizens. As a truck driver with his own small business, Rahim is the primary breadwinner for his family. His parents and his nine siblings are all U.S. citizens, and he does not have any close relatives left in Somalia.

Rahim currently has an immigration petition pending based on his marriage, and, as a victim of a shooting, he was found eligible to apply for a U-Visa, a type of visa for victims of crimes in the United States who have helped law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity. Despite all this, ICE wants to deport him anyway

All of the 92 men and women fear returning to Somalia, citing concerns that their time in the United States will mark them as targets for violence. On October 14, 2017, Al-Shabaab killed more than 300 people in an attack in Mogadishu. Just two weeks later, a second attack killed 23 more people.


TAKE ACTION NOWWhat’s more, many of the Somali men and women are still recovering from abuse at the hands of ICE during their first botched deportation attempt. On December 7, the group was put on an airplane bound to Somalia, which was ultimately turned around following a more than 20-hour layover in Dakar, Senegal. The Somalis reported being shackled and beaten by ICE agents and forced to stay seated during the entire 48-hour episode. Rahim, who has diabetes, stated he was denied access to the restroom on the flight and shackled the entire time, leaving his legs severely swollen. Rahim recounted the humiliation and physical abuse on the plane, instances of ICE agents punching and choking men in front of him, as “inhumane, like we were slaves or something.”

“I had never felt so disrespected or like I wasn’t a person,” Rahim said.

Following the ordeal, the Somalis were returned to immigration detention, many at Glades Detention Center where they have reported further abuse, including being denied medical care, the use of pepper spray and excessive use of force. Now, because of widespread media reports of the plane abuse, the Somalis fear that they will be all the more visible targets if deported. The U.S. State Department currently warns against travel to Somalia “because of widespread terrorist and criminal activity.”

It’s clear that the federal government knows the danger that awaits these men and women if deported. It’s disturbing that ICE does not care; but fortunately, the agency is not above the law. As of this week, the judge has stayed any deportations until he rules on January 22, giving Rahim and 91 other Somali nationals hope that the country they know as home won’t deport them into danger.

Continue Reading


EXCLUSIVE: Somali man detained by ICE returns home, takes legal action



(KMSP) – As he was about to be sent back to Somalia, a Minnesota man was yanked off the flight at the last minute. He’s among 92 men facing deportation orders overseas.

Now, he’s back home in Minneapolis with his family and sharing his harrowing ordeal.

Maxamed Adan is one of only a handful of men who received emergency stays by a federal judge last month and is allowed to be back in Minnesota.

“You lose all your freedom,” Adan said.

Adan describes the months he spent in federal custody at an immigration detention center in Louisiana, awaiting deportation back to Somalia. Adan was doing his regular check-in’s with his immigration officer when he was arrested in September.

“[I gave] my driver’s license, and then he said, ‘wait.’ Three guys came over and they just arrested me,” he said.

With his hands and feet shackled, he was transported for hours, not knowing if he’d ever see his family again.

Adan came to the U.S. in the ’90s seeking asylum from war-torn Somalia.

He’s lived in Minneapolis for more than 20 years and is married with three young children. His wife. Ifrah Ali, also escaped the violence in Somalia and was granted American citizenship.

“How do you tell the kids? How do they understand the situation that their father may never be here?” Ifrah Ali asked.

While working and raising his family, Adan was in the process of trying to become naturalized. But the Trump administration has since cracked down on all immigrants, regardless of their protected status.

“I don’t want to get separated from my family; I want to raise my kids with the American ways,” Adan said.

Adan narrowly missed being put on a failed deportation flight to Somalia after his attorney intervened.

But dozens of other men from Minnesota did not have the same luck.

“The flight as a whole was really a tremendous ordeal for everyone—46 hours shackled, hands to their waist and feet. Many people weren’t able to use the bathroom,” said John Bruning, who represents Adan and several others on the flight.

Lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the detainees, claiming they suffered horrific abuse both on the plane and in the Miami detention centers.

In his declaration, Bruning writes about one of his clients’ injuries: “the pain was exacerbated by a physical altercation with guards on the flight that landed in Senegal.”

“The conditions in jail are so bad for a lot of people that a number of them who have good claims to stay here are considering going back just to get out of jail,” he said.

The next hearing will be in Miami on Jan. 22. If the judge finds jurisdiction, the cases of these detainees will move to the next step. If not, then they most likely will be sent back to Somalia for good.

Continue Reading