‘Meet Your Somali Neighbors Forum’ attracts a crowd

Linda Asche, an adult enrichment coordinator for St. Louis Park Community Education, talks with Khadija Charif, a senior at St. Louis Park High School Feb. 6 at a “Meet Your Somali Neighbors Forum” at the St. Louis Park Recreation Center. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Seth Rowe) Khadija Charif, a senior at St. Louis Park High School, reads a poem she wrote for the “Meet Your Somali Neighbors Forum” Feb. 6. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Seth Rowe) The forum included traditional Somali treats. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Seth Rowe)
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Linda Asche, an adult enrichment coordinator for St. Louis Park Community Education, talks with Khadija Charif, a senior at St. Louis Park High School Feb. 6 at a “Meet Your Somali Neighbors Forum” at the St. Louis Park Recreation Center. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Seth Rowe)

Interest in Somali Minnesotans is high in St. Louis Park, as evidenced by full tables at the St. Louis Park Recreation Center’s Banquet Room during a “Meet Your Somali Neighbors Forum.”

Although relatively few members of the Somali community attended the two-hour Feb. 6 event, several of those who did spoke enthusiastically about their life stories and culture.

Zeinab Barud, a 13-year resident of St. Louis Park, said after the forum that she appreciated the opportunity to speak at the event.

“I want people to come together more often so they can share their stories,” Barud said. “They can learn where we come from and who we are. When you’re opening your door, you are opening yourself to someone.”

In Somalia, a neighbor is like family, she added.

“We talk a lot,” she said, laughing. “If we understand your language, we will tell you a lot of information!”

She added thoughtfully, “We are human beings. We need people. We need our neighbors to share their problems, to share their happiness – everything.”

Barud and other representatives of the Somali community fielded questions from the audience during the forum.

In response to a question about the capital city of Somalia, Mogadishu, Barud recalled it as a once beautiful city that has become ruins during the nation’s lengthy civil war. The fledgling government cannot protect the city from al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate that is “doing a lot of bad things,” she said.

“The city is still there, but it’s not the way  it was,” said Barud, who left Somalia in 1991. “It still is in our hearts.”

St. Louis Park resident Kadar Hadis noted he came to the Minneapolis area after joining family members who lived in a small town in Iowa. After earning degrees, he now works at a mental health clinic specializing in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly among immigrants.

Ahmed Ali, Somali outreach liaison at Brookdale Library in Brooklyn Center, said many Somalis moved to Minnesota because of the opportunities available in the state.

“Besides the weather, everything else is good,” Ali said. “What matters is the opportunity.”

Somali immigrants have that opportunity thanks to people in the community, like those attending the forum, who have made such possibilities exist, Ali added.

Barud said Somali women in particular have benefited from opportunities they likely would not have had back in Somalia.

“We are half of society,” Barud said of women, to the applause of many people in the audience. “If you teach one female, she will teach her children.”

Many women in Somalia do not have the chance to learn to read and write, she said.

“Now the girls have opportunity,” Barud said. “Nobody can force them to marry an old guy or somebody who has money.”

Refugees lost their country and some aspects of their culture but have gained something through educational opportunities, Barud said.

“And we meet a lot of friends along the way,” Hadis added.

The speakers acknowledged that issues still exist within the Somali community and externally. For example, they said some Somali immigrants still judge others within the community by clan affiliation.

“It’s a bad thing when you see everything through that lens,” Ali said.

He criticized the division of power according to clan membership in Somalia.

“Can you imagine having the Senate based on color?” he asked. “This is not going to work for a nation.”

He said that much of the time American society is based on what a person knows.

“Hopefully we’ll get there,” Ali said.

An African-American audience member from St. Louis Park asked speakers about tensions between Somali-Americans and African-Americans, particularly among teenagers.

“It kills me that there’s so much PTSD within both communities and so many misperceptions between two groups who have so much in common,” the audience member said. “It’s just not right.”

Abdirahman Mukhtar, who is also a Somali outreach liaison with the Hennepin County Library system, said he believes some of the misperceptions arise because of differences between the groups.

“We don’t speak the same language, have the same culture and most of the time we don’t have the same religion,” he noted.

As a result, sometimes stereotypes have developed, Mukhtar said.

“It’s a culture of misunderstanding,” he said. “This event is needed often. It’s not just for elders, but (should be) at schools, too.”

Ali added that tension among groups of people is not new.

“It’s happened all throughout history,” he said, pointing out past tensions among people from various European ethnic groups. “It’s a learning curve. The new generation will come.”

St. Louis Park High School senior Khadija Charif, ended the evening with a poem she wrote for the occasion.

“Somalia is known as a poet nation,” Charif said. “That basically means poetry is in our blood.”

She often writes poetry about racism, war, sexism and misconceptions about Islam, she said. This poem focused on her culture.

“I was at peace with myself when I wrote it,” she said.

She said she appreciated the idea for the forum.

“I was really happy we had a chance to explore the Somali culture and bridge those gaps and bring us and our community together,” Charif said.

Mayor Jeff Jacobs called the forum an opportunity to learn.

“I enjoy listening to the stories because they remind me that everybody in this room has a story of a journey taken to get here,” Jacobs said.

Referring to the speakers, Jacobs added, “Whatever journey they took, from this point forward we take that journey together.”

Contact Seth Rowe at seth.rowe@ecm-inc.com