Somalis AbroadSuccess Stories

Mustafa Jumale helps Black Immigrants Access Power

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I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia in December, 1989. I’m not sure of the day. I celebrate on the 20th. I’m the eleventh of twelve children. My father was a driver for the US embassy. When the war came, that made our migration from East Africa simpler than others. We spent a couple months in Kenya–not ten years like many people.

I was three years old when we left. We ended up in Kansas City, Missouri. I went to preschool there.  In 1993, my two older brothers heard about job opportunities in Minnesota. One brother got into immigration trouble. He was arrested and deported. He lives in Mogadishu.

The rest of us took a bus to San Diego. We were in California from 1993-99. My dad worked as a security guard. We had Somali and Latinx neighbors. I attended a very diverse elementary school. Every couple days the entire student body would go outside and sing Lean on Me.  It sounds corny, but I think it helped us kids build with each other in the long run.

Culture Shock in Mankato, Minnesota 

My mother would visit Minnesota as my brother’s trial progressed, until he was deported. Eventually my parents decided to move us to Minnesota. We had a section 8 housing voucher. The agency placed us in Mankato.

That was a huge cultural shock. We were one of the first few Black immigrant families in Mankato. The first week our house got TPed. My brother caught the kids who did it and made them take it down.

Other than a few of these instances, however, Mankato was good to us. The White folks that cared, were welcoming and intrigued. They had a lot of questions. We lived next to a cemetery, up the street from a KFC, which I loved. I hung out at the library a lot, opened my first email account there. I was in ELL classes. Other immigrant classmates were fun and very kind. We navigated rural White Minnesota together.

My dad worked at a factory in Mankato. One of my brothers also got a job there. We had a car — an old Mitsubishi. I got jealous about other kids having birthday parties. I asked my parents to throw me a party and they did. I got my first bike as a giftI tried to convince them to let me play a band instrument. They didn’t allow it in elementary school,  but in middle school I played the saxophone.

Some Muslims believe that music is considered “haram” and that you shouldn’t engage in it. I think that is a misinterpretation. My family comes from a Sufi tradition, in which chants and drums are part of the spiritual practice.

Navigating Systems in Eden Prairie and Edina 

When I started 5th grade, my family moved to Eden Prairie. You may ask yourself how immigrants, refugees, low income people of color, and poor White people, came to live in Eden Prairie, one of the richest cities in America.

Some housing and public policy leaders thought it was a good idea to move poor folks from the urban areas into rich suburbs because, in their eyes, our proximity to rich White people would increase our chances of upward mobility. We were the desegregators, living on West Wind Drive, in Prairie Meadows apartments, in a development filled with Somali, Asian and Russian immigrants. I enjoyed being around more Somalis and other people of color. It was a perfect community for me.

The city today is struggling with how to understand and support the growing Somali and African American populations, especially in the school system. In a few schools the majority of students are on free and reduced lunch. That, to me, is segregation. Recently, there was an effort to desegregate the schools. White parents created a coalition and hired lawyers to fight it. The Superintendent was fired, given a nice severance package.

I had challenges at Eden Prairie High school. I was discriminated against by staff and security.  I left school for a month, got into an alternative school, and then took it upon myself to petition Edina Public Schools to let me in.

(People who are 1.5 generation, have a lot of tension with their new homeland and their parents. Often times our parents side with authority because they don’t want to challenge them. I experienced that. As an immigrant child you have to know these systems (school, health care, housing, college process), and navigate them yourself. You help your parents navigate all of this, often times translating for them.  You grow up fast in some ways.)

Edina let me in.  My Dad would drop me off at school in the morning. I would ride my bike during warmer months. My senior year, my mom decided we should move to Edina. My last six months of high school I was in-district.

It was different in Edina. All these white saviors. It was great for me. They would give me gift cards on holidays because in their eyes I was the poorest person they knew. I never saw myself lacking any of my needs, but I didn’t turn down the gift cards. If I wanted to do a summer program or enroll in a Community College program, they would pay for it.

That attitude changed with open enrollment policy. Minneapolis students began to come. When there were just a few of us, white people embraced us.  When that shift happened, I was already on my way out, but I was there long enough to see how all of a sudden we became a “problem.” Today there is a MAGA hat group in that school. And rich parents, hiring lawyers…

Discrimination and Opportunity at the University of Minnesota

In fall of 2007 I started at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, as a Sociology and Afro Studies major. Overall, it was a wonderful experience. At the same time it was mind-fuck in terms of discrimination and systemic racism. As an incoming student, I received the emails — crime alerts that said the perpetrator was “Somali,”or “East African.” How could they tell?! Even I can’t always tell. I did a lot of organizing around those racist crime alerts.

I served on Somali Student Association board. We supported each other. We also had huge political differences. We challenged each other. I enjoyed the debates. Sometimes they were really heated. I remember there was a conversation about doing a Somali cultural event that would include a dantu dance. Some argued that men and women should not dance together. I said I would leave the association if that was imposed. A woman stood up and pointed at me and told my I was going to hell. I saw her recently at the Somali Independence event and reminded her. We laughed about it.

Negotiating Culture, Class, Gender, Race, and Sexuality on Two Continents.

Some in the Somali Student Association were anti-gay. I wasn’t out then. My process of coming out is ongoing. People want to know. To me it’s an open secret. Getting on Facebook and saying “I’m here, I’m queer” is a very White coming out story.

At the University I didn’t come out. I was not ready.  I was deeply depressed. I hung out and partied, but not much. I focused on school and organizing, and trying to figure out who I was. I became more and more supportive of LGBT rights — which was a way of acknowledging myself.

I became really good friends with a queer Black hip hop artist from Chicago named Verse. I think I came out to her, in a kind of subtle way. Verse and I were in a graduate school prep program together that included studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. In the Summer of 2009 we were interns for the Robben Island museum archives, and enrolled at the University of Western Capetown — a historical people of color institution. My research focused on studying racism in the U.S. and in South Africa. 

I was the only male in the group, and the only African immigrant, traveling to South Africa, with Hmong and African American women. This was their first time going to the continent and my first time since leaving Somalia as a toddler. The realities of the Global South hit us. We used lots of electricity and water. We all plugged in and lost power. My cohort found it difficult.

I loved being in Africa. As an immigrant, I raised myself in many ways. As a result, I can easily adapt to a new environment. I met amazing people in South Africa. I started opening up. I went back in December, 2018 when I really needed a break. It helped recenter me. I almost stayed and got married….

Negotiating the Academy and Nonprofits to Elevate Immigrants. 

I thought I would go to Cambridge for Graduate school, but I didn’t get the funding I needed. I got a fellowship with the Center for Human Rights at the University of Minnesota Law School. In my last two years of college, I had worked on two immigration projects, Minnesota 2.0  and Sheeko: Somali Youth Stories at the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC). IHRC provided us with a lot of resources to do our work.

The funding I got from the Law School, allowed me to go to England and interview Somali youth in London. I went with two Somali women who worked on the Sheeko project with me. We worked with organizations run by Somali youth. We met some awesome people, stayed with Somali families in housing projects in London for a month.

The Somali population in London has been there much longer than in the Twin Cities. There was a new infusion of immigrants in the 1990s, after the war, but they came into a Somali community that was long established, yet still cohesive.

We ended up not using those interviews because we needed to get the project done quickly and we lost some privacy release forms. Also, we all moved on with our lives as post-graduate students. But the experience was a good one. London is an international city. I liked getting off the train in the Jewish neighborhood and walking, watching the neighborhoods change. Each was a different culture, and the taste, smell, and feel of them were unique.

When I got back from the UK, I had a job at the Wilder Foundation, doing data collection, interviewing working poor people, about the services they received or needed. I was also a Teaching Assistant for my Japanese Afro Studies professor, Yuichi Onishi, for his Intro to US Race Relations class. Through that experience I made friends with Safy Farah, who was one of the students.  Her project, called 1991, is a magazine about our generation — the people who left Somalia in the early 1990s as children—creative people now living all over the world.

Electoral Politics

I was hired as an East African organizer for the Minnesota DFL. I honestly believed that the Minnesota DFL was an ally of my community and would always serve our interests. I was sooo wrong. I started, solo, organizing in every community that had East African voters:  Rochester, Mankato, Fairbult, Owatonna, and St. Cloud. I would pull data on a set of East African people in greater Minnesota, filtering by names (Halio, Dahabo, Farah, Amanne, etc.), get in the car with my friend Gerardo–the DFL Latinx organizer. We’d go and knock on doors.

We got no guidance or resources from the party.  I was already depressed. It was terrible to realize the DFL didn’t care. We were struggling just to find phones to call voters–basic campaign needs that they didn’t provide unless we called them out on it. Still, they were always happy to have us for a photo-op.

After the 2012 election cycle, I went to work at the MN House. They hired me and a couple others as tokens. I did do some interesting work there with Karen Clark around issues of housing and child care. But other then Karen, it was the worst work experience I have ever had—dealing with White racist Democrats and Republicans. I had a breakdown in the middle of it. I almost quit, but a friend of mine convinced me to stay on.

I was recruited to work for then Congressman Keith Ellison. I was on a train, paying my rent in the political machine. I had an entry-level staff position, tasked with dealing with the Somali community. I walked into spaces thinking everyone was collaborative.

Boy was I wrong. I experienced traumatic struggles within the Somali community. I didn’t know much about Somali clans. There were some toxic Somali men that were using clan identity politics to push their own agenda and play “kingmakers” in the Somali community. Some of these men had issues with Rep. Ellison. Their issues with him were not based on his politics or policy agenda. It was based on them not being centered or celebrated by the Congressman, in the ways they wanted to be. When I was hired for this position they were not happy I didn’t belong to their tribe. They wanted someone from their own to be hired. Most Somalis in Minnesota don’t use tribal identity in this toxic form, but some do, and it’s harmful to the collective good of our community.

Jubbaland State of Somalia was established the week I was hired. There was a celebration in Minnesota and they wanted Rep. Ellison to come. The invitation went into a spam file and the scheduler never answered it. They were so angry, they protested Ellison at the event. Ellison was also heated about the whole thing.

To mend fences, I ran around trying to schedule a meeting. When it happened, they wanted me to leave the room. I said I would leave. Rep. Ellison said, “No,” but eventually I left. I didn’t realize the magnitude of it. Their presentation was about how their tribe was the best, had all the elected officials in Minnesota, owned all the business, etc..

The news spread like wildfire and people were angry on my behalf. It began to hit me later exactly what happened. I was raised in the U.S. so I don’t have the same connection to tribal identity compared to other folks.  We didn’t talk about it at home.

After that experience, I started to focus on my own work as a Congressional Staffer. I discovered I enjoyed and was good at working on public policy. I focused on East African community issues, immigration, foreign affairs, public safety, arts, civil rights, civil liberties, and juridical matters.

One of my favorite groups I worked with was the Minnesota Peace Project. I worked on issues in Ukraine, North Korea, East Africa, and the Middle East.

I worked with my colleague Carol Wayman, on the right of immigrants to send remittances to their families in fragile nations like Somalia. I worked on an event where Somali actor, Brakad Abdi, joined us to talk about the need for the US Federal Government to not make it hard for Somalis to send remittances.

The Remittances Improvement Act of 2014 was passed in Congress and signed by President Obama. This bill didn’t solve our issues but it allowed federal and state regulators to share information.

I also worked on pushing against President Obama’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, which caused so much hardship in the Somali community in Minnesota, particularly for Somali youth. It created paranoia. I was on a conference call with the White House as we tried to understand and push back against this program.

The Obama White House sold this Islamophobic and xenophobic program to members of Congress. In Minnesota, U.S. Attorney Andy Luger and some Somali “leaders” pushed this CVE agenda. I was that staffer raising the red flag about this program.

In 2014, there were mass killings of Oromo people in Ethiopia. In Minneapolis, the family members of those who were being killed, requested meetings with me and asked Rep. Ellison to pressure the United States Government to pressure Ethiopia to stop the killing of protestors and activists.

I did some research and found out about a group called the Oakland Institute who were working with the Anuak community in Ethiopia because their land was being unlawfully taken and sold to multinational corporations. They also campaigned to release Anuak leader, Okello Ochalla. He had gotten asylum in a Scandinavian country, had gone to a meeting, and was extradited and imprisoned by the Ethiopian government. I joined their campaign to petition the Obama administration for his release and to uplift Ethiopian (particular Oromo) human rights issues.

In Minneapolis, I was meeting with Ethiopian constituents whose family members were being killed in Ethiopia. It was brilliant working with the experts themselves— those impacted — on a bill stripping non-humanitarian aid from Ethiopia, and a Congressional resolution advocating for human rights in Ethiopia. The resolution was passed last year by Congress. 

I believe it was the largest gathering of Ethiopians advocating for human rights in Ethiopia at the U.S. Capital. I coached the Oromo community on how to engage members of Congress. I helped organize a Congressional briefing, along with the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, on human rights in Ethiopia. 

The exposure empowered the Ethiopians. They told their stories in a packed room and then 2000 of them marched to the White House, shutting down the street. Of course that was a red flag for Capital police. It was beautiful to see people chanting in their languages for their rights. In the end the Capital police sent them a thank you note, saying how well the demonstration was carried out.

Last year Ochella was released and I cried tears of joy, I am so happy for him and his family.

Life Transition 

Around the time of Jamar Clark’s murder, I was in Somalia because my dad was dying. He had returned to spend the rest of his life in his homeland. That experience was a major shift in my life.

When I got back, Minneapolis was in deep turmoil.  I worked on judicial matters for the office, though not as much as I wanted to. It was really hard to watch how our leaders in Minneapolis and Minnesota responded to the Jamar Clark murder and the youth occupying the Minneapolis Police 5th precinct. 

That summer people were getting killed, literally a few blocks from our office in North Minneapolis. I remember this grandmother driving and being hit with a bullet not far from our office. I wanted to do more on local police issues than I was allowed to do within the confines of a Congressional office, but we did more than other offices did.

The experience of being with my father in Somalia and his passing really moved me. I felt like there was no reason for me to walk around the world without sharing my truth. I was deeply in love with someone and I could not share it. That was when I decided to come out. It is also when I left congressional work.

It was hard leaving Ellison’s office. I worked with some of the most passionate political/policy staffers in Minnesota. My family did not understand why I would leave without having a job lined up. But I knew it was the right time to transition into a different phase in my life.

I went to a week-long meditation retreat.

Becoming a Progressive Policy Consultant. 

I have moved on from the Minnesota DFL. I have no faith in their politics. I watch young people jumping into the work. I give them a heads up, let them know what to expect, give them advice on how to protect their hearts.

I realized that, while I was done with electoral politics, I saw value in working with people affected by policy to navigate changes. I had the connections and knowledge to help folks push progressive policy. With a friend, I opened a lobbying business called Khyre Solutions. Khyre is my grandfather’s name. The word means, “good work.”

We did a voter education project, registering people to vote with Minnesota Voice. We worked with Minnesota Housing Partnership, interviewing Somali elders in the Horn Towers on Lake Street, about how they viewed the neighborhood. Hanging out with elders, learning how they weave the social fabric of the community, was cool.

I got a lobbying contract to work with Minnesota Minority Childcare Alliance, empowering Somali women and children on health, equity and consent. I also worked with Isuroon. This organization, whose name means “self sufficient,” have an office on Lake street. They hired me to navigate how to deal with a female genital cutting bill before the Minnesota Senate.

While I was there, someone in Minnesota took their child to Illinois and had the procedure done. A doctor did it. The school found out. The person was Indian, not Somali, but in Minnesota when people think of Muslims, they think Somalis. (Interestingly, when they think of immigrants they don’t think Somalis…)

Republican Representative Mary Franzen, who is xenophobic and racist, introduced legislation that on paper looked good, but would criminalize families. They wanted to add a rider to the 1994 law that already outlawed FGC. It was one of those messaging bills that add nothing and go nowhere but serve as racist propaganda.

We had a delicate dance, fighting against this bill. My boss was passionate about the issue, but this was a hate bill that demonized Somalis. We argued, “Do you want to really help people? Provide money for reconstructive surgery for those impacted. This bill just demonizes people.”

The Republicans had control in both the House and Senate at that time.  The committee hearing on the bill was intense. Ultimately, they decided not to bring it up in the full Senate for a vote.

Black Immigrant Collective

Post Trump, a group of Black immigrant activists came together to confront the Muslim ban. We started connecting with national groups.  Black Alliance for Just Immigration, (BAJI) flew out their people to help us organize. BAJI is 13 years old. They engage, on a national level, in economic justice, labor rights, immigration and foreign policy.

Locally, a group of us formed the Black Immigrant Collective. The other organizers are Liberian and East African Women. I am the only male. The organization is led by women.

Our first event was with Ilhan Omar at Cedar Riverside apartments, doing public education and building solidarity concerning Trump’s ban. White progressives showed up strong. We had a harder time getting Black immigrants involved. Some people had their own Somali gathering at Brian Coyle Center.

In an effort to get Black immigrants involved, we met at Intermedia Arts and had a planning session. Our first meeting was big. A smaller group has continued.

We are working on Temporary Protective Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED). Liberians have been working on this for two decades. Originally they were on TPS. Bush ended the program and created DED — the same benefits, only less rights. Now there was no automatic extension. He made the change by executive order. It was a political move. Every year there has to be a campaign to get another year.

This work is hard on your capacity and your heart. The goals are not immediate. Black immigration work is on the ten-year plan, but the policies directly impact people today. We have been able to affect some changes to DED and TPS. And we have changed the talking points of the Democratic caucus this political season. Now Nancy Pelosi has added the terms “DED” and “HR6” to her critiques of Trump’s policies.

We are going through a strategic planning process. We are discussing how to balance local and national work. I think we need both. We can more easily affect change at the local level, taking on the local enforcement of the Muslim ban and labor rights–issues that impact Black migrants. These issues are easier to influence than federal immigration policy.

Recently, BAJI flew us to Washington for a Haitian TPS meeting. UndocuBlack helped us work on DED.  We have been running from one issue to another without a dollar, doing this work for two years. Just now we are starting to think about funding. Now we have some help nationally. Of course there is some drama over turf, but we are getting work done.

There is tension over creating a restorative justice process while people are being deported and raided. It is emotionalizing exhausting. That is why I went to South Africa.  I burned some political bridges advocating, I did some stupid stuff, like cussing out politicians on line, which is career-suicide for someone like myself. I was in this hotel room in DC breaking down crying, reading stories of people who will become undocumented if their status expires. I was so pissed at Minnesota Representatives. I had to backtrack and apologize. But it did get us to the table with our elected officials.

Our second DED fight was a bit easier, given our experience.

Me and my friend Julia both got hired. I am working as a policy manager for BAJI.  Julie and I convened one of the largest meetings of Black immigrants in DC, with TPSDED, and Dreamer status in February, 2019. We trained people on how to talk to Congress. I scheduled all 50 of their meetings. It was magical. I felt really fortunate, creating access for these communities. We organizers ran around, taking people to meetings, but it was actually the stories and the organizing of immigrants that made the difference. DED was renewed for another year.

This woman named Louise Stevens—kind of an Aunty of mine—met with Tina Smith. The Minnesota Senator started to cry when she heard her story. I almost started to cry, but I held back. If the person telling the story is not crying, I think—I can cry later.

I am trying to emotionally protect myself from the work. I have to make it sustainable. I am getting better and better at being up front, being less Minnesota nice, just telling people what I think, talking directly and not in innuendos. I hope to keep learning from my experiences. This year was better than last year.

Sometimes I dream about working for a Quaker group on general human rights—something that is not impacting my life so closely. But Black Immigrant Collective is wonderful. We show up for people.

What Kind of Immigration Policy Do We Need? 

People are not disposable. Green cards for everyone. We need Amnesty. No borders. Decriminalize people. It doesn’t matter that you got a DWI at some point, smoked pot someplace. Don’t deport people. We need health care and voting rights at the municipal level, for undocumented people who are paying taxes to support those institutions.

We are in an era when women, men, children are being separated and put in concentration camps. People are making historical connections to the Jewish experience in Europe, to Japanese Internment in the US. Regardless of the term we use, people are dying in these camps.

There are 20,000 Black migrants on the southern border. There is a Little Haiti in Mexico someplace; 7,000 Eritreans in Tijuana. We find ourselves reminding people that Black immigrants exist. In a place like Minnesota–and especially in the Twin Cities with a large Somali and other East and West African populations–we shouldn’t have to do that. We are constantly having to push organizations to acknowledge that we exist, and deal with their own racism and anti-blackness.

We are moving toward a crisis right now, because of US foreign policy and capitalism. The US has created so much instability around the world and this is the result. You have people coming from West Africa to somewhere in South America and then walking hundreds of miles to Tijuana.

And then we have to deal with Trump constantly inflaming the situation. When he was tweeting about raids in June of 2019, I was freaked out. Organizations were sending out emails, press releases, emergency calls. After I got off those calls I was crying. You could hear the terror in people’s voices. When I calmed down, I started sending emails to create a Black Task Force for this emergency work. I was trying to corral people. We had an informant on one of our calls. It was bad, but now a Black Task Force exists. We worked with Ilhan Omar to create Know Your Rights material and conduct meetings for her constituents. We are creating google documents in many languages, a hot-line, and video, which is important. I come from an oral tradition. That is how many East Africans consume information.

The Work in Minneapolis 

We need affordable housing, accessible transportation, health care for undocumented people. The city should have its own HMO. Undocumented people need the right to vote locally. We need to abolish the police department.

I think the way we fund our neighborhoods and create community-centered policies is good on paper, but what happens is the board chairs sometimes have economic interests in the neighborhoods, and they don’t engage POCI communities, so their perspective is focused on property values and gentrifying the city.

We need to work on our intersectionality. Work needs to be done between African Americans and Black immigrants. I am on the board of Minnesotans of African Heritage. The struggle is going on there. There is this mentality that Black immigrants–especially Somalis–are taking resources from the African American community. There is this new organization–American Descendants of Slaves. It is anti-immigrant and xenophobic, operating on the scarcity mentality. Our Black elders and young organizers can help us overcome these divisions.

I am fortunate to be working on issues I am passionate about. I am indebted to my biological family, my chosen family, my mentors and fellow comrades in the movement, for supporting me on this journey.

There are 20,000 Black migrants on the southern border. There is a Little Haiti in Mexico someplace; 7,000 Eritreans in Tijuana. We find ourselves reminding people that Black immigrants exist. In a place like Minnesota–especially the Twin Cities with its large Somali and other East and West African populations–we shouldn’t have to do that. 

Story first published on http://turtleroad.org/2019/11/16/mustafa-jumale/

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