Life & StyleSomalis Abroad

“We are staying here, and putting down roots” – A Profile of Mustafa Diriye


I was in a refugee camp in Utanga in the Mombasa region of Kenya from 1991 to  1995. My sister was in San Jose, California, and sponsored us, so that is where we went first. My brother had a teaching degree. He came to Minnesota to see if he could get a job. The rest of us followed him. When he visited Minneapolis he was looking for three things: a Mosque, education opportunities, and coffee shops. He found them in the Twin Cities.

My first impression of Minneapolis? Cold! I had a t-shirt. That’s it. I almost lost my hearing going outside with only a t-shirt. It was November 1996.

The city has changed since I first came. I used to walk along 2nd Avenue — that area where the Guthrie Theater is now. It was mostly youth of color who hung out and lived there. Now it is it like the suburbs moved to the city. Fancy condos and white people.

I worked for American Express Corporation for 14 years in downtown Minneapolis. It was such a strange atmosphere at lunch time. The downtown  workers were more than 90 percent white. It was very different from other U.S. cities I have visited: Chicago, Philadelphia, Nashville. Even San Jose had more Asians and Latinos working downtown. It is strange because the neighborhoods surrounding downtown are mostly people of color, but they don’t have the jobs. It’s like downtown Minneapolis is a private district, and the owners only hire White.

In 2011 I lost my job. I was newly unemployed just as the Occupy Movement began. One of my friends was a union activist and he invited me to come down. It was really inspiring. I spent everyday there, from early morning to night, but I would not sleep there.  I thought about Tiananmen Square. I was afraid of the police, the FBI — especially being Muslim.

I still communicate with some of the people I met during Occupy. The movement didn’t die. People just got involved in other things. I have met some of the same people in Black Lives Matter, Minnesotans Against Islamophobia, and at the 4th precinct Occupation last fall.

Today I work with an education reform organization that focuses on getting parents involved, empowering them to help their kids get the best education. My colleagues are Puerto Rican, Black, and Hmong and we get along really well. The biggest obstacles to Somali parent involvement in the schools are a) working different shifts and several jobs; b) an attitude that if my kid is doing OK I don’t care what is happening to anyone else; c) a severe breakdown in trust. The parents don’t trust me, or their kid’s  teachers, or other parents. Part of that is the tribalism we did not leave at home. However the mistrust has grown, due to the  role of the FBI recruiting informants. No one trusts anyone.  Not even our religious leaders — the only ones who can really help us deal with the trauma and the internal divisions. The FBI is sowing distrust in the community. Now, when there is suffering within our families, people do not reach out for help. They just endure or get divorced. We have more and more single mothers.

Those young men accused and found guilty of being ISIS sympathizers were in their early 20s. They have experienced a lot of discrimination. The FBI informant was just 19 years old when he was paid $119,000 to set them up, get them high on marijuana, and egg them on.  Now they face life sentences. When Donald Trump talks about beating people up, when he says he could kill someone and not get arrested, well, he is right! It is the double standard that infuriates me.

The Somalis who came to Minnesota, spent years in refugee camps. Many never had a chance to finish high school. We suffer from the trauma of war. I was nine years old when a gun was put to my head. My brother was killed in Mogadishu 1990. I saw more than 100 dead people lying in a field. These experiences stay with you.

When we came everyone had four goals: get an education, own our own businesses, practice our faith, and go back home. Now, 30 years later, very few plan on going back home. There is little for us back home. We are staying here, and putting down roots. We are  getting college degrees —60% of Somali women and 30% of Somali men in Minnesota have college degrees. We have our own malls and whole neighborhoods dominated by Somalis. We are getting into politics.


How do we create healthy communities? We need homes people can afford. We need police to come from the communities they serve. We now have three Somali police who came from the neighborhood and crime has gone down to a trickle. I think instead of a two-year certificate, police should go to college for four years. One of those years should be spent engaging in community service, not as cops but as social service agents.

I think Bernie Sanders is putting forth the kind of agenda that Minneapolis needs. He has nearly unanimous Muslim support. African American Muslims, Asian Muslims, African Muslims Arab Muslims. We all support the White Jewish guy who is saying something different.  The other candidates are offering more of the same oppression for us. Islamophobia. If the pattern continues we will be like the Jews in Germany in 1940 .

Islamophobia is a daily trauma in my community. It is so normal that many stories are not even told anymore. We have the triple whammy. We are Black. We are Immigrants. We are Muslim. The women get picked on more. People drive by and yell, “Go back to where you came from.” Just today I heard from a mother whose daughter is a crossing guard. A kid yelled “She is ISIS, run! “and all the kids ran away from her. The mom put the story on Facebook and her page was full of threats. These are everyday experiences for us.

Talking like this makes me hopeful. It is this kind of exchange of experiences that we need. But I am always hopeful. If people survived Hitler, humanity will survive.

— This Story was first published on 2016/06/10


All Things Somali
All Things Somali (ATS) was launched for one simple reason: to create a medium for content about Somalis in their daily lives and in their inspiring moments.

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