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Somali refugee aims to help Minnesotans better understand their plight

Hudda Ibrahim, a professor at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, speaks on the experience of Somali immigrants during a Cultural Thursday talk at Central Lakes College. Zach Kayser / Forum News Service

BRAINERD, Minn.—Somalis in Minnesota often find themselves misunderstood, but one young refugee hopes to help change that.

Hudda Ibrahim, a professor of diversity and social justice at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, presented to a sizable crowd on her background as a Somali refugee and the plight of Somali refugees generally during a talk Thursday, Dec. 7, at Central Lakes College.

Ibrahim left Somalia as a young girl with her family in 1991, after the onset of civil war. They fled to Ethiopia, abandoning everything they owned, and later moved to America. An uncle and brother died, she said.

"It wasn't easy for my family," she said.

Every Somali family that comes to America has a story similar to the Ibrahims, she said.

When Ibrahim arrived in America in 2006 at the age of 19, she didn't speak one word of English. She shared a room with her sister, so Ibrahim studied English in the closet until 3 a.m. to keep from waking her up, she said.

In college at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, Ibrahim was the only Somali woman, she said. She kept silent in class because she was afraid what people would think of her accent.

"I did my assignment, I knew what I was talking about, but I didn't have the confidence to speak up," she said.

But she realized if she didn't make an effort to break out of her shell, college would be hard on her, so she did all she could to join clubs and make friends, she said.

She went on to obtain a master's degree from Notre Dame, and work for a nonprofit in Washington D.C. She moved back to Minnesota in 2015.

"I really wanted to get back to my community, my hometown, my city of St. Cloud ... to build bridges," she said.

Ibrahim founded Filson Consulting, which lends its services to businesses trying to bridge the culture gap, including translation and mediation. She also wrote a book, "From Somalia to Snow," on the Somali experience in central Minnesota. The research for the book formed the basis of the second part of her talk Thursday—on Somalis in Minnesota as a whole.

Finding Minnesota

Somali immigrants have been settling in America since the 1920s, Ibrahim said, but she focused on those arriving during the early 1990s onward.

There are several factors prompting Somalis to immigrate to Minnesota as opposed to other states, Ibrahim said. Following the outbreak of war in Somalia, refugee agencies resettled in Minnesota. That caused word to spread among the Somali community that Minnesota was a tolerant place with life opportunities, attracting more immigrants. Ibrahim recalled hearing stories before she immigrated of the wonders of Minnesota—stories which conveniently omitted the freezing weather.

Somalis came to central Minnesota because there were jobs that didn't fluency in English, she said. They also came because their family members were already there. They came because there were schools, hospitals and mosques available.

Ibrahim made a distinction between assimilation and integration, in response to critics who say Somalis aren't assimilating enough to American culture. Assimilation involves abandoning one's home culture and adopting that of the dominant group. However, integration means maintaining one's cultural traditions and values, while interacting and respecting the diverse community as a whole.

When it comes to learning English, younger generations of Somalis were more apt to learn it because the older, parent generation was too busy working and providing a living for their kids, Ibrahim said—parents go to work, kids to go to school.

Somali cultural norms form a barrier for younger Somalis looking enter the workforce, Ibrahim said. Tradition dictates family members live close together, which can be tough when there aren't jobs in a young adult's field within their geographical area.

Despite language and cultural barriers, Somalis work, pay taxes, form businesses, create jobs and participate in politics, Ibrahim said. She referenced Ilhan Omar, who last year became the first Somali-American female legislator in the U.S. when she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives.

However, there are not many Somali voices in media, so it's difficult for outsiders to get a full picture of the community, she said. Youths of all cultures should make their presence known by speaking out, she said.

"Young people should not only stay, but make themselves part of the discussion," she said.

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