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TALKING POINT : SOMALIS IN AMERICA, TWO THUMPS UP

TALKING POINT BY
M.M. AFRAH
Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA)
Aug., 12. 2004

SOMALIS IN AMERICA, TWO THUMPS UP

Email: afrah95@hotmail.com
M. M. Afrah

ON THE POSITIVE SIDE

After leaving behind a country torn apart by a brutal civil war compounded by man-made famine, more than three decades of military dictatorship, where judges in kangaroo courts made phone calls to find out how they should rule, followed by 13 years of gun rule by a bunch of thugs aka as warlords, the Somali refugees in Minneapolis, one of a twin cities in Minnesota State (the other is St. Paul), made an unprecedented economic miracle and added colour and extravaganza on a hitherto sleepy neighbourhoods.

An estimated 20,000 Somali refugees ended up in the US State of "10,000 Lakes" some 10 years ago with only the clothes on their backs. Today the city of Minneapolis is galore with hundreds of Somali owned and operated colourful stalls inside several malls that offer everything from Halaal meat to stylish leather shoes to men's and women's latest fashion, gold jewelry, money transfer or Xawaala offices, banners advertising the latest Somali movie, video stores fully stocked with nostalgic love songs not found in the mainstream supermarkets, groceries and boutiques.

Evidently, the Somali community is hungry for movies with familiar contexts and characters. These movies does not, however, reach the screens of other Somali communities in the US and Canada due to distribution bottleneck. Several bilingual newspapers and radio stations, including SOMTV and MAYTV, inform, educate and entertain the Community on hourly basis. SOMTV, however, exhibits as the most watched channel in the twin cities.
"We're doing our very best to be objective and at the same time invite our audience to send us their own versions on controversial issues," Mohamed Hussein "Shino", Assistant Director and Producer of SOMTV told me during an interview. The East African TV is another choice for Somali and other African viewers in the city.

One of the interesting aspects is that the scenario could instantly transports you back to peace time Mogadishu, half a world away.

Walking through the thriving malls, and past well-tended houses isn't a lot different than walking along the narrow streets of Bakaaraha and Sinai open air markets in Mogadishu, minus the Supermarkets of guns, hand grenades, bazookas, counterfeit passports, noisy money exchange stalls and private armed guards high on Qaad, a narcotic drug flown daily from Kenya by light Cessna and Dakota airplanes.

"They arrived here without a single penny in their pockets, and immediately started everything from scratch," said Yoseph Budle, former Editor of Juba Weekly newspaper, and a man who has gone through the mills of the knotty Somali media in North America. His resourceful data of the Community lifestyle is amazing, and I was privileged to know him. Mr. Budle now runs his own Juba Enterprises, a travel and insurance agency and doubles as the Director of Somali Intellectual League with the motto "TO EMPOWER THE MIND."

While stalls selling all kinds of merchandises are still dotted all over the well-appointed meandering malls, they include a mix of coffee shops; restaurants video stores and money transfer offices.

"I want to get lost in the crowded Somali malls saturated with small colourful stalls," says a young shopper who was brought to America by his parents when he was still a toddler, and prefers to express himself in a mixer of English and flawed Somali. He is wearing the ghastly oversized pant and a huge chair around his neck, in imitation of the mainstream youths in America.

Mainstream Americans and law enforcement agencies seemed to be taking the hubbub and sometimes ear-splitting Somali music emanating from video stores in stride and most neighbours are now in buoyant mood, saying the rhythm of the Somali love songs helps them take their afternoon nap!

"It's floodgate effect," a white taxi driver said, referring to the Somali business acumen. "I'm surprised by the inventiveness of the Somali people without bank loans or business degrees," he added. Yet, the Somali malls rarely attract the widespread spotlight enjoyed by what is dubbed as The Biggest Mall in America in the city.

In an effort to ease the city's unemployment problem, many of the Somali business people create jobs and boost state revenue. Those who are not running their own businesses are driving taxis or are employed by private companies or are in the civil service. Others opened their own neighbourhood groceries outside the congested malls where customers include non-Somalis.
"They're law abiding tax paying citizens with an almost clean criminal records," said Omar Jamal of the Somali Advocacy Center. Omar is a man who fought for the rights of the newcomers for many years, until he himself was face to face with the law on an alleged immigration charge The refugees' main challenger in the State is officials from Immigration and Neutralization Department. They struck fear into the hearts of every asylum seeker. Recently, they threatened to deport a number of Somali refugees, including former Police Chief, General Mohamed Abshir Muse, a man who saved the lives of many Americans during the bloody conflict in Somalia, according to a former American ambassador in Mogadishu.
Initially, pressure against the huge influx of Somali refugees from a section of the residents have been building for years, claiming they would steal jobs from them. But city and county officials said the Somalis are trying doggedly to make a decent living for themselves in a strange environment and do not stoop so low to beg for jobs as was the case of earlier immigrants and refugees from other countries.

The State of Minnesota is also the home of high profile individuals, including a former Prime Minister of the civilian regimes of 1960s, Abdirizak Haji Hussein, former Prime Minister of the TNG, Ali Khalif Galeyr, former police boss, General Mohamed Abshir Muse, Professor Abdi Ismail Samatar and his older brother Ahmed Ismail Samatar as well as several well known personalities.

Inside the malls' coffee shops and restaurants they talk politics (Minneapolis's version of Fadhi ku dirir), about families back home, finances, anxiety, or depression and about lost family members and friends in the unending bloodshed in South Somalia. Others face it with great courage and homour, and regularly send money to their loved ones through the chain of money remittance offices conveniently located inside the malls.

Their kids are doing well in schools, colleges and even universities and have even introduced football (soccer in North America), a game that's not popular in North America. The Somali women are better in the business world as most of them have gone through hell and high water before landing on these shores, penniless. Most of the stalls are owned and operated exclusively by women.

"I love the passion of competition," said a middle-aged woman who hails from Kismayu. Just like their male counterparts they are motivated, creative and risk-takers who can survive in a cutthroat competition, where money generating and "can do" are the catch phrases. And at the end of each answer to a question they utter the famous word "Inshallah" (God Willing).

They upped the ante in business acumen without business degrees or schooling. According to Vice-President-in-waiting, John Edwards, "In America everything is possible."

FAMILY VALUE


Family is the cornerstone and moral high ground of the Somali way of life. For example, Somalis do not dump their aged parents in nursing or retirement homes. It is considered as unorthodox and un-Somali. However, children born in North America have trouble understanding some of our philosophy and tradition. The parents in turn do not approve of their ideas and lifestyle. The parents do not approve of their friends and the oversized tent-like trousers and the chains they wear around their necks.

These children are sucked into a world that was not really their world. They think their parents were interfering and restricting them in a country they perceive to be free and democratic, where everyone is entitled to express his/her opinion without retribution.

I need a book to tell all these properly.


ON THE NEGATIVE SIDE

To a people who had came from a land of continuous conflict, violence and bloodshed, elders and religious leaders were expected to instill in their minds ideals of democracy, tolerance, appreciation of religious and cultural differences and peace in today's and tomorrow's adults. Unfortunately, these elders and religious leaders abdicated their responsibilities and allowed by what one of my hosts described as shadowy characters masquerading as leaders of religious organizations running on the loose in a bid to create an atmosphere of hatred and disunity among the community. Misinterpreting the Holy Quran to suit their purposes, they continually preach falsehoods against certain well-meaning individuals.

In an interview with Warsan Times, a vibrant and also the most enduring Somali newspaper in this State, whose director, Eibakar proves to be a man who never minces his words, Yoseph Budle, mentioned above, described the groups as "Jir aan madax lahayan" (a body with no head).

There are many versions vis-à-vis these groups. In one, they are financed by unnamed Middle Eastern country to divide the community along sects, clan and sub-clan lines to cause friction among the Community for their own hidden agenda. In another, members of the bogus groups are affiliated with black listed organizations, but an editorial in Warsan Times had omitted to name names or who funds them, but said members of the group zeroed on unwary and ignorant individuals, particularly the women folk in order to scarf up fund raising drives that netted the bogus groups 1.5 million dollars in cash and a large booty of gold jewelry. They are currently in hot water with the IRS, America's tough Internal Revenue Service.

Such urban myths are particularly potent in a society already frayed by violence and deeply divided along clan and sub-clan lines. Since no revelation arrived in a blind flash, I decided to seek further independent source and I almost went into a cardiac arrest, "Everything you do in this city is known in a matter of minutes and often misinterpreted by the same groups," says a young restaurant owner, "Seal your mouth, or better still play the three proverbial monkeys," he advised.

A slogan on a T-Shirt proudly declares: "WHATEVER HAPPENS, SOMALIA IS STILL MY COUNTRY."

Another editorial in Warsan under the title of "The Inflation (sic) of Defrauding Public Assistance," from childcare misuse to tax fraud within the Somali community have been mounting to this date. Even driver's licenses are "doable" in Somali language," the editorial said. It blamed elders, religious leaders, media workers and Community activists for not doing enough to eliminate fraudulent practices.

Just when members of the Community were trying to recover from the trauma of the savage civil war and clan hegemony intellectuals like Yoseph Budle gradually continue to achieve their goal to stabilize the Community.

It now appears clan worshipping, once again, rears its ugly head. Will the Community stand the heat?


Minneapolis is a pretty amazing city well worth visiting by traveling by road from Toronto, in Canada, on what seems to be an endless Interstate highways across several States, including Detroit (Michigan), Chicago (Illinois), Milwaukee, Wisconsin and across the famous Mississippi River and finally to Minnesota, the State of 10,000 lakes, to hear the sound of Somalia transplanted in the United States of America.

An article like this could not, of course, end without citing one of the famous murmured words: "Are we there yet?" But my son, who was behind the wheel, adhering to the strict highway speed limits, frequently asked me to be patient and relax. It was summer and it was Africa hot with barely any breath of air. But the road trip is an experience like no other.

Talk to you next week,

By M. M. Afrah©2004,
Email: afrah95@hotmail.com


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