Somali life strong on U’s West Bank

Thousands of Somali immigrants live near the West Bank campus.

Emily Kaiser

At the Brian Coyle Community Center, blocks from the West Bank campus, grade-school students scurried in and out of a tutoring class Tuesday.

Two University students, Mona Mohamed and Suad Hassan, sat at a small table, helping young children with their homework while also studying for their own classes.

When the children are told it’s time for Campus Kitchen, an event in which Augsburg College students visit the center to serve them snacks, the children leap up from their homework assignments and run down the hall to grab a seat.

Mohamed and Hassan follow the students but cannot eat the meal because they are both fasting during Ramadan, the monthlong Muslim holiday that ends this weekend.

Celebrating the Muslim holiday is another example of how even though Somalis’ home country is half a world away, their customs, values and voices are thriving in the United States.

Thousands of Somali immigrants live near the West Bank campus, and many University students are engaged in the Somali community.

“You sacrifice food during the day and try to stay away from anything that is categorized as bad,” Mona Mohamed said.

Breaking the fast

Some Somali customs still followed include reading the Koran and praying more often during Ramadan, Mona Mohamed said.

When it was time to break the fast at sundown Tuesday, first-year student Fartun Mohamed went to a friend’s Cedar-Riverside apartment for a meal.

Adorned with fresh fruits and dates, the table was set with many traditional Somali dishes, including a meat dish called “sambasa,” a tortilla called “malawah” and Somali coffee known as “akhawah.”

Fartun Mohamed said that during Ramadan, she gets to spend more time with her friends and family because she doesn’t cook.

“If I want to break my fast, I can’t go have fast food, so I go to my friends or family’s house,” she said.

While some students break their fasts at home, many come to the nightly meal served in Coffman Union for all Muslim students. Every night, a different Muslim group creates the meal for the rest of the students to try.

“The main reason we do it is to build communication and to build the Muslim community at the University,” said Hibaq Warsame, a Muslim student who coordinates the meals.

The Somali Student Association, a University group, creates the Somali portion of the meal.

“It’s an organization where students can meet, talk and discuss their future, their education and anything else,” said Ahmed Jama, the group president. “We get those students to come together and strengthen the community bond and try to make something out of it.”

Jama said the Somali organization has 226 members and other students are active participants in its events.

The route to the United States

Jama’s story about entering the United States is shared with most Somali immigrants, who left their country to escape a civil war.

“When I left Somalia, I was very little; I didn’t know what was happening, but in Kenya, I lived in a refugee camp, which was very bad,” Jama said.

He said everything in the camp was dysfunctional. He said the camp had no utilities, health or education system in place.

The move to the United States was a major change, Jama said.

He was only 12 years old, he said, and he immediately entered the sixth grade at Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis.

At the time, he was taken back by the roads, transportation system and buildings in the city, he said.

“I was shocked to come from that small place to this huge metropolitan place that had everything systematically working together,” he said.

“Middle school was my first time going to school, and having a pen and having a book,” he said. “I wasn’t satisfied with the school system, and I am still not, because they look at your age instead of your education background.”

While Jama struggled to learn the very basics of the English language, he said, he quickly caught up and became a successful high school student at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis. The school is heavily populated with Somali students, he said.

Jama was able to participate in the Commanding English program as a postsecondary student.

Commanding English is “a program for freshmen who are bridging the gap between high school and college and need to work on academic English,” program director Robin Murie said.

The high school portion of the program allows postsecondary students to seek a college education, Murie said.

The program welcomed its first large group of Somali students in 2000 and has had an estimated 120 students come through, Murie said.

“If English isn’t your first language, it’s hard to get on the college track in high school, Murie said. “It really pushes their reading and writing, and they get comfortable with what college is like.”

Hassan said college was a great academic change.

She said she arrived in Minneapolis in 1996, learned the language quickly and was not challenged enough in high school.

“There were a lot of immigrants there that were just beginning school,” she said. “The school made a huge generalization about immigrants and put me in classes with students just beginning English.”

Hassan said her unfulfilling high school experience inspired her to go to college to become a teacher.

A changing community

The students who work at the Brian Coyle Community Center are bridging a gap between the diverse cultures of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and the University, which sit right along one another on the West Bank.

Hassan said the community is strong, but most University students don’t take the time to understand it.

“If you go to school, the least you can do is learn about all of the cultures around your school,” she said. “It will only help you in the long run.”

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said she recognizes a large increase of Somali immigration to her district, which includes the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and parts of the University.

“The big change in the last 10 years is the large number of immigrants who have come in, particularly the large influx in Somali immigration,” she said.

Although there are no specific numbers about Somali residents in the area, the 2000 census recorded more than 18 percent of Kahn’s district is made up of foreign-born residents who entered the United States in 1990 or later.

Jama said his Somali family was one of the first to arrive in the area, and he has watched the Cedar-Riverside develop ever since.

“When we moved here, there were people who didn’t welcome us,” he said. “The tall buildings are populated by immigrants who have their own problems, so it tends to be very violent.”

The Somali community recently got one of its first opportunities to participate in the democratic process.

By looking at voting statistics in the area, Jama said, the area’s development is evident based on how many people voted Nov. 2.

Amano Dube, a social services staff member at the community center, said it was the main polling station for residents living in the Cedar-Riverside apartments and the surrounding area. Center employees and volunteers registered approximately 2,000 voters, he said.

Jama said Somali immigration might be slowing down, but the community will continue to grow.

“It’s a community in transition,” he said. “They have adapted to things, and some families have moved up, found good jobs and moved out, but many of them are still very attached.”