MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It is perhaps the least likely place to find tens of thousands of African refugees: the cold, snowy, middle of America. So why are there so many Somalis in Minnesota?
“Maybe someday they will enjoy the ice fishing,” laughed Dr. Ahmed Samatar, dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College. Samatar was born in Somalia.
As far as living in such a cold weather climate, “on the surface it may look bizarre,” said Samatar, however “there is so much goodness in this state.”
The Somalis are here as legal refugees, largely. The Somalis Minnesota story tracks to 1991, when civil war broke out in Somalia. Millions fled to refugee camps, many in Kenya.
Two years later, the first wave of Somali refugees were sent to Minnesota.
“In the beginning the U.S. federal government assigns people,” said Samatar.
To qualify as a refugee, there is a process. The U.S. State Department ultimately decides where refugees will live, but it has to do with the voluntary agencies, called VOLAGS, that contract with the State Department.
Minnesota has very active ones like Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, and World Relief Minnesota. Those agencies agree to help the refugees get settled, to learn English, find housing, get health care, and begin a new life.
They “are known to be welcoming, and they invest a significant time of labor and resources, to help people find some comfort here and hope,” said Samatar.
It’s the same reason this is a population center for Hmong refugees. The VOLAGS make the initial wave happen. But just because people are relocated to a place like the Twin Cities, doesn’t mean they’ll stay.
“They have the opportunity to move,” said Samatar.
But the Somalis have largely stayed, somewhere around 30,000 of them, partially because of the strength of the non-governmental VOLAGS, and partially because of the strength of governmental programs to help refugees begin a new life, according to Samatar.
After the first wave is assigned here, the second wave of relatives and friends soon followed.
“As Somalis settle down, find a life, the good news spreads: ‘Hey this is a good place, you can find a life here,’” said Samatar.
Over the past 25 years, the United States has admitted about 84,000 Somali refugees. Close to 40 percent live in Minnesota.
“The institutions of this state, private or public, have an important place in the mind of Somalis,” he noted.