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How Somalis Have Shaped the State

Somali and Somali American Experiences in Minnesota

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Photograph of Ilhan Omar

Political candidate Ilhan Omar on the campaign trail, October 4, 2016. Omar won her election in 2017 and became the first Somali person to join the Minnesota State Legislature. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Although the first Somalis to arrive in Minnesota were students and scholars, the majority of Somalis who live in the state in the 2010s came as refugees fleeing a civil war in their homeland. Like earlier immigrant communities, Somalis have struggled to figure out where they belong and how to maintain cultural traditions as they adjust to living in a new place. They have faced unique challenges as African Muslims living in a historical moment (post-9/11) when their religion is being scrutinized and their home country is in the news for instances of Islamic terrorism and piracy.

Somalis face discrimination both as Africans in America and as Muslims in America. In spite of these challenging conditions, they have forged livelihoods and created a thriving community in Minnesota for more than twenty years.


Somalia is located in the Horn of Africa, on the continent’s east coast. Traditionally, Somalis are nomadic pastoralists, though agricultural systems developed in the nation's southern river valleys. The capital city of Mogadishu and other urban areas have been important sites for industrial development and trade.

The more than 1,880-mile coastline of Somalia has supported a fishing industry and been a center for maritime trade for centuries. Somalis have used these trade routes to migrate to the Middle East, Asia, and Europe in search of economic and educational opportunities. The first Somalis in the United States were a small group of sailors who settled in New York City in the 1920s. Since the 1960s, Somali students have come to the United States to pursue educational opportunities.

In the early twentieth century, European governments gained control of Somali lands and divided up the area. The British claimed northern Somalia, now known as Somaliland; the Italians seized southern Somalia (including the city of Mogadishu); and the French took northwestern Somalia, now known as Djibouti. Somalis resisted foreign occupation but failed to gain independence until after World War II, when both Italy and England were pressured to end their colonial regimes in Africa.

Somalia became a democratic nation in 1960 through a peaceful transition of power. In 1969, however, General Mohamed Siad Barre led a military coup, forcing Somalis into political, economic, and social turmoil. Many groups in Somalia organized a resistance movement that escalated in the late 1980s and forced Barre out of office in 1991.

A civil war engulfed the country for more than two decades as clans, “war lords,” and then the Islamic Courts Union controlled parts of Somalia. In 2010, the Transitional Federal Government, backed by the United Nations and the African Union, gained control in Somalia, and in 2012, the first parliamentary elections were held for a permanent and internationally recognized Somali federal government.


Since the civil war began, the United Nations has reported that more than one million Somalis have left the country as refugees or asylees and that there are 1.5 million people who are internally displaced within Somalia. The United States began issuing visas to Somali refugees in 1992. For those who received a visa, the decision to leave families and homes in East Africa was painful, but many did leave and resettled in the United States.

Somalis started arriving in Minnesota in 1992. Some came as refugees while others arrived as immigrants through the sponsorship of family members, or relocated to Minnesota from other parts of the United States. Refugee resettlement agencies like the International Institute of Minnesota and World Relief Minnesota, non-profit faith-based service organizations like Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities, Somali-led organizations like Somali Family Services and the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, and Somali individuals and families helped facilitate the migration and resettlement of Somalis in Minnesota.

In 2018, Minnesota hosts one of the largest Somali communities in the Somali diaspora. The exact number of Somalis living in the state is difficult to determine, and estimates range from 30,000 to 100,000. Census data from 2015 offered an estimate of 57,000. The majority of Somalis in Minnesota live in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, while others have settled in smaller towns throughout the state. Many Somalis have chosen Minnesota because of their social networks, for educational and employment opportunities, and to access an array of services. Somalis also cite Minnesota’s high standard of living and a reputation for martisoor (hospitality).

Somalis arrived in Minnesota with social and cultural resources to help them adapt. They have built extensive social and professional networks that have helped them find housing, employment, and educational opportunities. They have faced challenges, too, including separation from family and friends, learning English while preserving their native language, and maintaining cultural and religious practices in a multicultural society. Some struggle to obtain housing that meets their needs, to find jobs that meet their skill levels, and to succeed in secondary and higher education systems.


Oral history plays a vital role in telling the history of the Somalis in Minnesota. Their stories show the everyday experiences, individual agency, and decision-making processes of Somalis who left their homes in East Africa, journeyed to America, and made new homes in Minnesota. Fortunately, the Minnesota Historical Society has gathered several oral histories from Somalis in Minnesota (quoted below) so public audiences can learn about their experiences.

Leaving Home

Like many Somalis, Aden Amin Awil and his family fled their home in the early 1990s, when conditions reached a low point. “There was looting everywhere in the cities,” Awil later recalled. “We did not have services, education, health, communication, infrastructure of any kind.” His family and many others sought safety in nearby countries, hoping that the civil war would end quickly.

While Awil headed to a city in Ethiopia, others fled to refugee camps in Kenya. There, they received food and shelter, though there were often shortages. Many faced desperate conditions in the camps involving starvation, rape, and violence. Others sought refuge in Nairobi, Kenya, but experienced difficulties there, too.

The Somalis in Minnesota represent a cross-section of Somali society—they were teachers, civil servants, nomads, farmers, entrepreneurs, students, professors, and merchants in their homeland. They represent all regions of Somalia. Abdisalam Adam came with a student visa in 1990 and first lived in Washington, DC. “I used to hear about Minnesota as a very cold state, the snow and the ice. […] But, also, I heard that it’s a state that’s very welcoming. Its people are friendly. It has good education. It has very understanding people who, you know, are tolerant of other cultures and values and so on. When I came here, I did find all that to be true.”

Mohamed Jama’s family left Mogadishu in the late 1980s as violence escalated. “The country was not stable. There was a fear of young males like me getting recruited to fight be a part of the coup, that is a child soldier. […] My mother did not want to see me end up like that […] she had to find a safer place for her young people to grow up.” Jama’s family fled to Nairobi and in 1992 they were granted resettlement in the United States. Mohamed’s family was one of the first to arrive in Minnesota and settled in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis.

Hared Mah and his family survived several years of the civil war in Somalia but eventually fled to Kenya in 1999. Though they lived in Nairobi, as Somali refugees they faced harsh treatment by Kenyan police and found it difficult to get an education or employment. Mah’s father obtained a visa to the United States, and in 2001 he was able to sponsor Hared, his sister, and his mother, for resettlement in Minnesota.

Most Somalis ultimately chose to settle in the Twin Cities because there were opportunities for employment, housing, services and education. Early on, however, some came for jobs in agricultural and meat processing industries, many of which offered entry-level positions and did not require English proficiency. Some of the first Somalis in Minnesota settled in Marshall to pursue employment at a turkey-processing plant.

The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood hosts the largest concentration of Somalis in Minnesota and has become a hub for the Somali community because of its many organizations, mosques, and businesses. The Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota was established in the neighborhood in 1994 and was the first Somali organization to help refugees resettle in Minnesota.

Rebuilding Lives

Leaving homes in East Africa, traveling thousands of miles, and arriving in Midwestern America could be a bewildering experience. As Saida Hassan, a young refugee, explains, “It was hard for me to come here, and when I stepped off the plane into America I knew that everything was gonna change, I knew that nothing was gonna be the same. It was hard for me, you know, seeing all these different people.”

While Somali refugees share experiences with earlier immigrants, many have faced a different adjustment process because they have dealt with multiple traumas; they have survived a civil war, life in refugee camps, and resettlement in a country with very different cultural and religious traditions.

Like many immigrants before them, Somalis faced language and cultural barriers when they first arrived in Minnesota. Many arrived with proficiency in multiple languages: Somali, Arabic, and sometimes Swahili, French, or Italian. But gaining English proficiency has been challenging and made the transition to America difficult. As Somali refugee Hared Mah explains, “Everything you need you have to ask for. […] You have to ask someone to translate, so it was kind of like you cannot do anything. You are like a little kid that cannot even speak.”

Somali elders have had more difficulties learning English than Somali youth, who are exposed to English at school and through popular media. Because of this language barrier, many Somali elders struggle with isolation, which can be a major obstacle to adjusting to a new culture.

Older Somalis also are concerned that Somali youth are losing their Somali language skills. They understand, however, that they are surrounded by English in American society. Somali families have addressed this concern by creating charter schools that cater specifically to the Somali community.

Being Muslim in Minnesota

Many Somalis see their Islamic faith as an integral part of Somali identity. Somalis make up one of the largest Muslim communities in Minnesota, a state that has been largely comprised of Protestant (especially Lutheran) and Catholic communities for most of its history. When Somalis arrived in the 1990s, many in Minnesota were not familiar with Islam or the religious practices of Muslims. There has been a long period of adjustment as Somalis have sought to educate Minnesotans about Islam and as Minnesotans have gained more familiarity with Muslim religious practices.

Somalis have faced barriers to practicing their faith in Minnesota. For example, Muslims are expected to pray five times a day and to fast from sunrise to sundown during the holy month of Ramadan. For many, finding space for the daily prayers while at school or at work is a recurring challenge. In addition, carrying out ablution—the ritual of cleansing one’s hands and feet before daily prayers—requires space and time. This is difficult in a society that is not used to accommodating prayer in schools or workplaces.

Muslims are expected to avoid pork and alcohol and to eat foods that are halal (processed according to Islamic law). The number of halal markets and restaurants is growing, but pork remains a staple in the Midwestern diet. Bars and liquor stores form part of the social life of every neighborhood.

Muslim women are expected to dress modestly and to wear the hijab, or head covering. Many Somali women choose to wear the hijab but have faced religious discrimination at school, at work, and in public for doing so. Other Somali women have decided not to wear the hijab.

Increasingly, Minnesotans have tried to accommodate the needs of Somalis and other Muslims in schools and in the workplace. Many public schools have removed pork from their food menus or have provided options for those students who cannot have pork products. Many schools and workplaces have tried to accommodate the practice of daily prayers by providing space for students and employees to pray during the day. Since the founding of Dar Al-Hijrah, the first mosque in Minnesota, in 1998, the number of mosques has grown to accommodate the growing Somali population.

The events of September 11, 2001, impacted people around the world, including Somalis in Minnesota. Fear of terrorism led the US government to scrutinize anything that it believed had connections to the terrorist network Al-Qaeda. Money-wiring businesses in the Twin Cities were closed because of suspicions that they were connected to terrorist groups in Somalia. Many Somalis used these wire transfer businesses to send funds to family members still living in Somalia or in Kenyan refugee camps and did not know about any links to a terrorist network.

The possible connection of a wire service to Al-Qaeda, described in a 2001 Minneapolis Star Tribune article, might have even spurred attacks on a few Somalis in Minneapolis. The Somali community was outraged at these allegations and quick to assure the Minnesota community that it did not in any way support the mission of Al-Qaeda.

The US government has continued to investigate possible links between Somalis in Minnesota and the terrorist groups Al-Shabaab and Islamic State (ISIS). From 2007 to 2008, approximately twenty young Somali men left Minnesota and returned to Somalia. The reasons they left remain unclear (many think it was to fight against Ethiopian troops), but the young men were recruited to join Al-Shabaab.

Recruitment has been an ongoing tragedy for many Somalis in Minnesota as they have struggled with the loss of sons, nephews, and friends while the FBI has investigated the situation. In 2016, nine young Somali American men pleaded guilty to or were convicted of conspiracy to fight for the terrorist group ISIS in Syria. The trial was the largest of its kind in the United States and left the Somali community deeply troubled by the radicalization of Somali youth in Minnesota.

Most Somalis strongly disagree with the ideas and practices of violent extremists and terrorist organizations like Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS. The majority of Somalis advocate for Islam as a religion of peace. Several Somali faith leaders and organizations have supported de-radicalization initiatives and programs among Somali American youth.

Somalis have created their own organizations and networks to help each other navigate their way in Minnesota. They have also used a wide array of social, economic and health resources made available by state, county, and community organizations. Some have begun to purchase homes as they decide to settle in Minnesota. Islamic law, however, restricts Muslims from paying interest on loans, a major obstacle for Somalis who need mortgages to buy a house. A Somali-led organization, the African Development Center, provides interest-free loans for Somalis and other Muslim Minnesotans to start businesses and buy homes.

Somali youth are pursuing educational opportunities in many higher education institutions. The Somali Student Association at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities serves over 500 Somali students on its campuses. Many Somali youth see education as a way to achieving a better quality of life.

Many Somali adults could not transfer their degrees or professional training to jobs in the Minnesota economy. Some, however, have participated in the education and health fields as well as the transportation sector. The Somali business community has earned an international reputation for successful, small-scale entrepreneurship.

Balancing Cultures

As Somalis adjust to their lives in Minnesota, many are concerned about what parts of Somali culture they will hold on to and what parts of American culture they will adopt. But as Maryan Del sees it, “I have two homes—my American home and my Somali home. I have two cultures, two languages. This is part of my life because I grew up having my life here.”

There is much concern about a growing divide between Somali elders and Somali youth. Many Somali youth feel like they are combining American and Somali culture. As Mohamed Jama, a Somali youth leader, put it, “Most of our young people are not losing culture, but they are entwining with the culture.”

Both Somali elders and Somali youth, however, recognize the importance of Somali cultural preservation. As Sumaya Yusuf, a young Somali woman, explains, “We have to keep that part of our traditions very important to us. I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t speak Somali as well as I would like to. I would love to learn.”

As Somalis hold on to their traditional culture, they also embrace opportunities to get involved in American society through joining or creating civic, cultural, and political organizations. Younger Somalis are running for public office. Abdi Warsame joined the Minneapolis City Council in 2013, and in 2016, Ilhan Omar became the first Somali American elected to the Minnesota Legislature.

Staying Connected to Somalia

As Somalis focus on their lives in Minnesota, they also maintain transnational connections to Somalis living in Somalia and in other parts of the world. Many send remittances to family members that play an important role in Somalia’s economy. Somalis also travel around the world to visit relatives who have been displaced. They maintain connections with other Somalis in the diaspora as they reunite their families and help each other in places like Europe, North America, and Australia.

Somalis in Minnesota are deeply concerned with questions of how to unify and rebuild Somalia after decades of political, social, and economic instability. Some have returned to help, while others have participated in rebuilding the nation’s political, social, and economic infrastructure. The Minnesota-based Somali organization Somali Family Services (SFS), for example, built the Puntland Library and Resource Center in northern Somalia. Thousands of people who live in the region use the library, and SFS uses the space to provide trainings and workshops for civil society organizations.

Even as they build new lives in Minnesota, many Somalis hope that peace will return to Somalia. Some plan to return. As of 2018, however, the Somali federal government struggles to establish a safe and secure country. The desperate social, political, and economic conditions in Somalia prevent many Somalis from returning there, and many try to bring family members to Minnesota as they decide to make the state their new home.

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Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Speaking for Themselves: A Survey of Hispanic, Hmong, Russian and Somali Immigrants. St. Paul: Wilder Foundation, 2000.

Arrive Ministries. “Somalis in Minnesota.”
Originally found at:

Brons, Maria. Society, Security, Sovereignty and the State: From Statelessness to Statelessness? [Minnesota?]: Self-published, 2001.

Cassanelli, Lee. The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600–1900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Department of Administration. “International Immigration and Foreign-born Population, Minnesota.”
Originally found at:

Gelfand, Lou. “Readers Say Sunday Article Spurred Unfair Attacks on Local Somalis.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 21, 2001.

Gordon, Greg, Joy Powell, and Kimberly Hayes Taylor. “Terror Group May Have Received Local Funds; Some Minnesota Somalis Thought Al-Itihaad Was a Charity.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 14, 2001.

Immigration History Resource Center. “Saida Hassan: Immigrant Stories.” YouTube, 4:03.

Kleist, Nauja. “Nomads, Sailors and Refugees: A Century of Somali Migration.” Sussex Migration Working Paper no. 23. Falmer, England: University of Sussex, 2004.

Lewis, Ioan M. Peoples of the Horn of Africa: Somali, Afar and Saho. [N.p.]: Red Sea Press, Inc., 1998.

Maimbo, Samuel Munzele, ed. “Remittances and Economic Development in Somalia: An Overview.” Social Development Papers: Conflict Prevention and Reconstructions 38. World Bank, 2006.

Migration Policy Institute. “Minnesota State Demographics.”

Minneapolis Foundation. “Immigration in Minnesota: Discovering Common Ground.” Minneapolis Foundation, 2004.

Minnesota Compass. “Immigration.”

Minnesota Historical Society. “Becoming Minnesotan: Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees. Somali.”
Originally Found at:

Minnesota State Demographic Center.

Mukhtar, Ibrahim. “ISIS Trial in Minnesota: What You Need to Know.” Minnesota Public Radio, May 6, 2016.

Our Gathering Places Oral History Project, 1999
Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Interviews, dating from 1998 and 1999, with African Americans (including Somalis) in Minnesota.

Somali Skyline Tower Oral History Project
Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Interviews, dating from 2003 and 2004, with fifteen young Somali women, including Maryan Del, Hared Mah, Sumaya Yusuf, and Abdisalam Adam.

Putman, Diana Briton, and Mohamood Cabdi Noor. "The Somalis: Their History and Culture." Refugee Fact Sheet No. 9. Center for Applied Linguistics, 1993.

Remington, Neal. “African Immigrants in Minnesota.” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2008.

Robillos, Mia U. “Somali Community Needs Assessment Project: A Report Prepared for the Somali Resource Center.” Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. St. Paul: University of Minnesota, 2001.

Roble, Abdi, and Doug Rutledge. The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

“Two Homes, One Dream: The Somalis in Minnesota.” DVD. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2004.

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“What’s with the Hijab?” DVD. St. Paul and Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society and TV by Girls, 2004.

Wilhide, Anduin. “A Place to Call Home: Immigration and Community-Building in the Cedar Riverside Neighborhood in Minneapolis.” Unpublished senior thesis, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2003.

Yuen, Laura, and Sasha Aslanian. “The Missing Somali Men.” Minnesota Public Radio, 2012.

Yusuf, Ahmed Ismail. Somalis in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012.

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A large majority of the residents of Somalia are ethnic Somalis who share cultural practices; most are also Sunni Muslims. Members of the Bantu ethnic group, however, have also lived in the country for generations and claim Somali nationality.

Somali society is structured by complex systems of both castes and patrilineal clans.

In 1991, after decades of civil strife and the ousting of President Siad Barre, the country erupted in a clan-based civil war. Since then, over a million Somalis have fled their homeland seeking refuge all over the world. Some have decided to resettle in the United States, joining family members who were already there or coming on their own as refugees or political asylees.

Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States. Estimates range from 30,000-100,000. Most individuals live in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.



After decades of violent civilian repression, Somalia’s president is ousted. Civil war begins as clan leaders and politicians fight to control Mogadishu and the rest of the country. Thousands flee to refugee camps and cities in neighboring countries.


Drought, clan-based violence, and political chaos create a famine that kills more than 200,000 Somalis, many of them children. The US leads Operation Restore Hope, a UN-sanctioned mission to provide humanitarian aid to Somalia's most devastated areas.


The first Somali refugees arrive in Minnesota. Some resettle in the Twin Cities; others move to Minnesota from other states. In the summer, a group of Somali men travels from Sioux Falls and San Diego to Marshall, seeking jobs at turkey-processing plants.


The Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota is established in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis to help the resettlement of Somali refugees. CSCM is the oldest Somali organization in Minnesota.


Dar Al-Hijrah is established in Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. It is the first Somali mosque in Minnesota.


The events of 9/11 lead to increased scrutiny and interrogation of Somalis throughout the diaspora, including in Minnesota. The Somali community in Minnesota rejects Islamic terrorism and promotes Islam as a religion of peace.


Somali American Hussein Samatar founds the African Development Center in Minneapolis to provide interest-free loans to Muslim entrepreneurs and home owners, including Somalis. The ADC soon expands to include offices in Rochester and Willmar.


Karmel Mall, one of the biggest Somali malls, opens in Minneapolis. It houses more than 100 businesses that cater to the Somali community, selling everything from Somali food and clothing to phone cards and prayer rugs.


A small group of young Somali men returns to Somalia and is recruited to join Al-Shabaab. Many die or are never heard from again. The FBI investigates radicalization among Somali Minnesotans as the community struggles with the loss of these young men.


Hussein Samatar is elected to the Minneapolis School Board. He is the first Somali American elected to public office in the United States.


The first parliamentary elections are held for a permanent and internationally recognized Somali federal government. While some Somalis return to Somalia hoping to reunite with family, most stay in Minnesota and continue to build their lives there.


The Somali Museum of Minnesota, dedicated to preserving Somalia’s traditional culture, opens in Plaza Verde on East Lake Street in Minneapolis.


Abdi Warsame is the first Somali American elected to the Minneapolis City Council.


Nine young Somali men plead guilty or are convicted of conspiracy to join the Islamic State (ISIS). Their trial brings more scrutiny of radicalization in the Somali American community. Local leaders continue to help Somali youth adjust to life in the US.


Ilhan Omar is the first Somali American elected to the Minnesota State Legislature.