In Minneapolis, Somali-Americans Find Unwelcome Echoes of Strife at Home


MINNEAPOLIS — As a child in Somalia, Ali Yusuf dreamed of joining the United States Air Force.

That dream, nourished by Hollywood movies like “Top Gun,” featuring indomitable American heroes representing freedom and justice, motivated him to flee his home in a tattered, war-torn failed state where violence and abuses of power were part of everyday life.

In 2014, he finally made it to Baltimore, where he worked on a janitorial crew, arriving a few months ahead of the meltdown of race and law enforcement that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a black man close to his age, at the hands of the police. Worn out by his own experiences with the police, he moved again about seven months ago to a place that seemed more peaceful and where he imagined the police to be more restrained — the liberal-leaning city of Minneapolis.

Now, at 33, the America of fighter pilots keeping the world safe for democracy seems long in the past. And like many people he is trying to find his footing in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the searing issues of race, justice and police violence he has seen almost since his arrival in this country.

“See, I love America, but I’m scared” said Mr. Yusuf, who works as an Uber driver. He started to cry. “Being a black man, I feel it’s not only that you have to die, but when you die, you will not get justice unless you have evidence of video. And then you have to take it to the next level, with protests. And then still you have to destroy properties just to get justice.”

Somali refugees like Mr. Yusuf, facing war and conflict at home, have been emigrating to the United States in large numbers since the 1990s and the country is home to about 7 percent of the Somali diaspora. Minnesota is home to more than 57,000 Somalis, the largest concentration in the country.

Somalia collapsed into anarchy after the military regime led by Mohammed Siad Barre was overturned in 1991. Rival warlords vying for power threw the country into a civil war, and a centralized, unified government struggled to form, even with external aid. Since 2012, some stability has been restored because of a new, internationally backed government, but it still faces threats from Al Shabab militants aligned with Al Qaeda. Mogadishu, the capital, suffers from frequent roadside bombings that kill hundreds of civilians each year.

Somali immigrants are dispersed throughout Minnesota, but most live in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In Minneapolis, they are clustered in neighborhoods like Cedar-Riverside, where a large number of them live in high-rises. Last year, a fire in one of the public housing complexes killed five older Somali-Americans. The building’s management was accused of not installing sprinklers, said Suud Olat, 29, who is running for a seat on the Minneapolis City Council, arguing that the city has neglected the needs of its immigrant community.

One area in Cedar-Riverside is known as Little Mogadishu. A small Somali mall, nestled among the more traditional houses of Minneapolis, has a labyrinthine market inside where women wearing thick, colored veils shop for traditional clothes and iPhones. Men sit outside on plastic chairs, sipping tea and eating Somali samosas.

Given the chaos and danger back home, many Somali immigrants in the Minneapolis area said they were grateful to rebuild their lives here in relative peace. Still, the cavalier way that Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes and the aggressive crackdown on protesters are tough to reconcile with the America they had expected. Instead, they are reminders of the incremental abuses of power that eventually led to the breakdown of civil society back home.

-Newyor Times