Somalis in America: Irrational Exuberant - By Jamal Abdulahi
Somalis in America are excited again. They are hopeful and yearning for good news from Somalia. They want to hear Somalia is stabilizing and on its way to restoration. No one could deliver that news better than President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud after a trip to Washington, D.C. that included meeting with President Barack Obama and press conference with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reveal America’s recognition of Somalia government. Mohamud also met with members of congress particularly the DFL delegation from Minnesota eager to beam pictures back home hoping it will delight members of the Somalis community in their constituency. Side meetings included members of the Somali community in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area.
No place were the excitement and the exuberant more evident than Minnesota. Thousands packed Minneapolis convention to hear Mohamud deliver good news. Similar to those who came before him, Mohamud gave hope and encouraged Somalis to take part the stabilization and the restoration of Somalia. With the blessing of Obama, Mohamud’s delivery of the news had zing; something his predecessors lacked.
The reality is with the exception of the recognition (more on the recognition in a moment) Somalis experienced similar excitement before only to have their hopes dashed. This piece reviews the connection of Somali community in Minnesota to the politics of Somalia with a personal example. It provides alternative approach for Somalis to participate and contribute to an old homeland. Finally, the piece highlights what the American recognition of Somali government really means in the near future. The analysis here is intended to balance the connection to an old homeland and the absolute necessity to move forward in the adopted new homeland for Somalis living in America starting Minnesota.
Over 10 years ago, I was student leader at the University of Minnesota. The Somali student body at the University of Minnesota was small but very vibrant. We established an umbrella organization that brought together Somali students in other Minnesota colleges and universities with the sole purpose of academic support.
There were at least dozen gatherings attempting to form a government for Somalia and all of them ended up utter failure. The newest at the time was Arta Conference in Djibouti. My friends and I were genuinely hopeful that the model of bypassing warlords and bringing traditional tribal leaders and members of civil society together and installing two men with ‘Dr.” in front of their names as president and prime minister was going to bring a solution and help Somalia and its people to be dislodged from perpetual misery. I had specific plan of what I want to do as part of my contribution. I wanted to contribute the effort to restore Fanoole Hydro Generation Plant in Maleende as soon as I completed my studies. Everyone in the student body had similar individual plan. There is no need to tabulate what ensued but to quote David Kay, the lead investigator in the elusive Iraq weapon of mass destruction “we were all wrong”.
At least half dozen similar conferences followed. Each provided similar excitement albeit brief.
Each time the situation in Somalia somehow managed to get worse and the excitement
evaporated almost instantly. Everyone searched for explanation.
The common explanation revolved around clan so and so doing that and not doing that. The
common explanation was and continues to be unconvincing. But it is imperative to ask why
Somalis in Minnesota are unable to move on in new direction and adapt the new normal after 20
The new normal is that Somalis in Minnesota are here to stay. It is not surprising that people
want to go back Somalia. Some have visited more often than others depending on individual
financial circumstances but rarely anyone goes back permanently.
Rarely anyone goes back permanently to an old homeland in the American immigration
chronological. Almost every group that came before Somalis wanted to go back to an old
homeland. The Scandinavians and the Irish who made Minnesota their new home more than 150
years ago wanted to go back but only very small number of them went back permanently. There
is no reason to expect Somalis will be different.
However, each group maintained contact with ancestral land. Some provided financial support
and others provided technical know-how learned farming in the Minnesota prairies. Somalis
certainly could do similar.
The point here is new approach is needed for Somalis in Minnesota. That approach starts with
defining exact role in Somalia.
The most urgent task at hand in Somalia is the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. Somalis in
Minnesota could definitely help with the relief effort. Providing financial support and technical
know-how at the grass-root level is perfectly fitting.
Engaging high profile politics in Somalia is not. There are two reasons for this:
First, the engagement of high profile politics hinders the ability of the Somali community in
Minnesota to move forward. The foundation for Somali politics and system of government is
based on bizarre clan affinity (4.5). Lately Somalis had been trying to make the dogma more
sophisticated by wrapping it around geography but the outcome remains the same. When mixed
with ambitious individuals and groups with rigid ideologies, the outcome is long lasting
violence. The participation in that type of atmosphere results Somali community moving further
apart and risks political isolation from mainstream Minnesota.
Yes, thousands packed Minneapolis convention center and want to hear good news from the
president. But discussions leading to the event and after the event revolved around clan rooted
grievances which there are no process or language in Minnesota to resolve.
The second reason is that visits of Somali politicians to Minnesota are enormous distractions. These visits distract the community to engage what’s happening in the immediate vicinity. Minneapolis is scheduled to have city wide elections for council members and mayor in 2013. There are openings in numerous local and state boards. The 2013 state legislative process began January 8th. This is odd year which means biennium budget will be passed. All of these will have impact on the Somali community in Minnesota. Unfortunately, politicians visiting from Somalia distract attention from these critical issues and continue to feed false hope of going back to Somalia.
Some might think this implies betrayal of an old homeland. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not!
Instead it is disappointment with the slow progress the Somali community in Minnesota is making. Admission of Somali students in higher education intuitions like the University of Minnesota had slowed. Somalis starting mainstream businesses is virtually nonexistent. Somalis climbing the corporate ladder is negligible. Main stream political participation is also limited.
The single most contributing factor is divided attention based on false hope of going back to Somalia fed by visiting politicians. One might ask where the empirical evidence is.
The evidence lies in the stories of Somalis volunteering to be laid off so they could go back to Somalia and participate in the political process during the height of the economic crisis 2008-2009 in America. It is established fact that large number of Somalis work manufacturing jobs with paid at the lower end of the scale but come with benefits and potential for raises through seniority. Some of the benefits include healthcare, vacation, union membership and annual cost of living adjustments. These are the type of jobs that Americans have depend-on to raise families for generations. These jobs required commitment and stability.
Somalis leave these jobs sometimes after a decade of hard work and travel to Somalia as longs as an entire year at times. Then come back after spending all savings and ended up reapplying similar jobs starting even lower salary and with less benefit then decade earlier. This continues to feed the cycle of poverty, disappointment and sense of feeling defeated.
The alternative to this is to focus on adapting to the new normal. Accepting Minnesota as permanent home and establishing viable community from the bottom up is first. Becoming integrated into mainstream Minnesota both politically and economically [BUT] maintaining our unique culture that makes us who are come next. Maintaining our culture requires establishing common bond with one another and sense of urgency to succeed within larger Minnesota community. Visiting politicians from Somalia do not help in this effort.
Now to America’s recognition of Somalia government: This is not something happened overnight nor is it indicative of change of political atmosphere in Somalia. It is a status change. A change of political status in Somalia has been personal top priority for Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton. It was during President Clinton administration America experienced one of the worst foreign policy debacles. A clash between America’s premier fighting force and ragtag militia men poorly armed and trained led to the death of 18 Army Rangers and hundreds of Somalis.
The Pentagon never believed the episode was orchestrated by Somali militia. Pentagon always believed Al-Qaida had something to do with. What better way is there than to bring closure of that episode than the killing of Osama Bin Laden with Hillary Clinton in the situation room and introducing Somali president two days prior to leaving office.
Beyond the politics, the recognition has some marginal policy ramifications for both countries in the near future. This recognition means Somalis could travel to America with Somalia passport. It also means the Somalia government can apply loans with agencies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Whether Somalia’s application for loan will be approved or not is different matter.
For America, this recognition means that citizens of Somalia with Temporary Protection Status(TPS) and those who committed deportable criminal offenses could be removed without the public relations nightmare typically associated. It means America will have better political coverage for drone operations because missions will be supposedly coordinated with the Somalia government. It also means that Somalia will become part of the discussion of the global strategy to train local forces to battle groups linked to Al-Qaida like Al-Shabab.
President Mohamud delivered the news. The news was largely good. It is time to change the conversation to what’s happening at the community’s backyard and redouble our effort to build viable community in America starting with Minnesota.