Youths Flee Somalia, Flood Land of Lakes

Print More

Minneapolis—In the late 1990s, Minneapolis faced a surprise dilemma: This heartland city had suddenly become the preferred U.S. destination for refugee families from war-torn Somalia.

Grants posed a challenge for youth and social agencies, but the way Minneapolis (pop. 383,000) welcomed newcomers also appeared to be a reason that the Somali community was growing. Thousands were choosing Minneapolis based on what they heard from earlier arrivals.

In a reflection of what typically happens in American communities, the sudden presence of Somali youngsters did not bring an increase in funding to help immigrant youth integrate.

“There are not a lot of dollars that target youth refugee groups,” says Linda Bryant, director of the Brian Coyle Community Center in Cedar Riverside, one of the city’s gateway neighborhoods for immigrants. “There are dollars for adults if you’re working with families or with job training, but not for youth.”

This means that the Coyle Center, one of six Pillsbury United Communities centers in the city, had to adapt to the new population through its standard programs funded by United Way, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board and other sources.

But the Coyle Center also took on a new ally, turning over office space to the Confederation of Somali Communities in Minnesota. “We’re the heart, the pulse, a hub of activity,” says Abdulla Warsame, operations manager for the confederation.

The center now houses a food bank that specializes in foods Somali families favor, and offers legal counseling and other family services.

Only recently, however, did it add a native Somali youth worker – a part-time outreach position added through Street Works, a collaborative that works with homeless youth.

Coyle must try to integrate Somali youth and those of other backgrounds, Bryant says. “We have no choice. If you live here, your neighbors are going to be Somalis.”

But it’s not clear how large the Minneapolis Somali community is. The U.S. Census Bureau has not yet released a figure from the 2000 census. Estimates range from 6,000 to 60,000, but a figure of 30,000 is widely accepted.

The front lines of cultural adjustment also run through Roosevelt High, which is 39 percent Somali. The Somali presence in the school corridors and elsewhere in the city is noticeable, in part because many Somali women and girls wear traditional dresses and scarves.

Somali youth are tugged in two directions: toward traditional Muslim ways and toward the ways of their new home, Somalis say. “[Somali] parents who have teenagers worry that their children will change – that they will learn something different,” says Shamsa Idle, a Somali outreach worker for Way to Grow, an early childhood program managed by the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board (YCB).

Idle was hired in 1997, even before it became fully evident the Somali presence was likely to be large and long-term. With funding from the St. Paul-based Archibald Bush Foundation, YCB sponsored a 1999 study of newly arrived East African families. The study found that the families encountered social isolation and difficulties finding decent housing, child care and places for children to play.

Idle says her work with 40 families often involves introducing them to ways of American life that have no parallels in Somalia. There are no youth workers, there, Idle says, and concepts like preventive medicine have yet to gain a foothold.

“We tell parents they need to be involved in the school, to know the teachers and how your child is doing,” Idle says. “Then we need to tell them to go to appointments for their children’s checkups. We don’t have checkups in Somalia. When we’re not sick, we don’t go to the doctor.”

Some Somali families still hope to isolate their children and raise them in traditional ways, Idle says. “They think they need special school only with other Somalis,” she says. “I tell them they need to get involved in the schools here.”

Local news coverage about Somali youths has tended to focus on fights between the East Africans and other groups.
Bryant insists this gives a false impression of their adjustment. A few incidents, including a July 2001 shooting in a park next to the Coyle Center and fights at the Mall of America in suburban Bloomington, made it seem that Somali and black youths were warring.

But the after-school crowd in the gym at the Coyle Center includes Somalis, Ethiopians, Hispanics, blacks and Asian-Americans, plus a few white kids. And the youths are not fighting; they’re playing basketball, talking, laughing.

Bryant says she sets strict rules. “If there’s a fight in the gym, we close the gym. They have to calm each other down.”

Contact: Coyle Community Center, (612) 338-5282.