Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Between immigrants, new and old

Somali families share stories at now annual Tower dinner

Jodi Summit
Posted 11/7/18

TOWER- “I think it would be pretty cool to live in a small town,” Naima Abdi told me at a gathering at the Tower Civic Center last month. A senior in high school, this was Naima’s first trip to …

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Between immigrants, new and old

Somali families share stories at now annual Tower dinner


TOWER- “I think it would be pretty cool to live in a small town,” Naima Abdi told me at a gathering at the Tower Civic Center last month. A senior in high school, this was Naima’s first trip to northern Minnesota. The two big things on her mind were seeing wildlife besides pigeons and being able to see the stars at night. I shared photos of black bears at the birdfeeders outside my home’s windows, and amazement flashed across her face.

She and her friend Ayan Abdi were full of questions. The two girls were both born in Minnesota, but are from families who had all emigrated from the Horn of Africa. Fluent in both English and Somali, they easily bridged the two cultures, the first generation of Minnesota’s newest immigrant neighbors.

“It is so quiet here,” she said. “There are not a lot of people. We didn’t see anybody on the sidewalks.”

The two wanted to know all about Tower-Soudan. What kind of houses people lived in, what jobs people had, what were the schools like, and what everyone, especially teens, did for fun.

They wanted to know if there were any big events in our area, so of course I told them about the Fourth of July. Neither had ever seen a small-town parade.

They were both very impressed after their tour of the Soudan Underground Mine

“It was mind-blowing,” said Naima. “How they built it. The engineering. How they worked in the dark and had to buy their own candles.”

But what impressed them the most about their mine visit was learning that the workers were all immigrants, just like their families.

The two friends live in the bustling Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. They attend different high schools, but both have plans to study medicine after graduating from college. They are active in their community and spend a lot of time with their extended families. They are also devout Muslims, which may seem foreign for those in Tower-Soudan. They dress modestly and cover their heads with a scarf. They pray five times a day, and explained about their big holiday, Eid, which follows the end of Ramadan, a period where they fast from sunrise to sunset.

I asked if it was hard to fast while going to school, but Ayan said it was easier because they were so busy learning stuff all day.

During Ramadan, the girls said they must follow the tenets of their religion. They are not supposed to swear or argue and are expected to be kind to others and give gifts.

But while the two girls were proud of their Muslim faith, they were also most definitely American teenagers. Eid was celebrated with a large family gathering, but then a shopping trip to the Mall of America with their friends.

“Marvel or DC?” Naima asked me, testing me on my superhero proclivities, with a follow-up question of Batman or Superman. My answers elicited a smile, and while I chose Batman, I noted that since Clark Kent was also a journalist, it was a tough choice.

Naima and Ayan were with a group of about 30 Somali and East African (mostly Ethiopian) Minnesotans who took a day trip to Tower and Soudan. The group all attend the same mosque in their Minneapolis neighborhood.

For Ayan’s mother ,Nasro Hassan, this was her second trip to Tower-Soudan. Nasro is truly enamored of the area and hopes to make a trip up north in the summer, with all her children.

Bus trip

The Somali and Ethiopian guests traveled on a charter bus, a trip arranged once again by Paul Winkelaar and Mike VanKeulen, who both have strong ties to the East African community in Minnesota. The two arranged the first trip in the fall of 2017, at the request of Paul’s father Karel, an immigrant himself who wanted his community to get to know some of our state’s newest immigrants. Last year’s trip included Minnesota State Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American who is poised to become the first Somali-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Omar was busy campaigning the day of the trip, but politics did make an appearance at the dinner, with Minnesota State Rep. Erin Murphy, who was the DFL-endorsed candidate for governor this year. She was out campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz, and stopped by for the meal.

VanKeulen is the director of Open Path Resources, a family support center that is based in the Islamic Civic Society of America in Minneapolis. These groups organized the trip to Tower-Soudan, with crowd-funding providing most of the money for the bus, meals, and mine tour.

After their afternoon tour at the mine, the group gathered with many area residents at the Tower Civic Center to share a potluck meal that featured Somali delicacies such as sambusas, a hand-held, deep-fried, spiced meat pie, a Somali specialty featured at most East African family celebrations, rice flavored with saffron, and a selection of seasoned lamb, chicken, and beef. The locals brought plenty of northern Minnesota regional favorites, including wild rice hotdish, something most of the East Africans had never seen before.

After the meal, Iron Range musicians Pete and Kaija Pellinen played a variety of traditional music that highlighted the ethnic roots of the area. Then Adbisalam Adam, a high school principal, who also is a leader in the Somali community, gave a brief presentation on Somali and Ethiopian Oromiya history, as well as the diaspora that brought so many of their community to the Twin Cities area.

Adam noted the connections that are now growing between the two communities.

“The state of our relationship is strong,” he said. “We can see the connections and the sharing.”

Before the meal, community members spent over an hour visiting with the East African visitors.

“We are all part of a human story,” he said. He noted that the grandfather of Soudan Mine tour guide Pete Pellinen, who worked underground in Soudan, lived to give all Minnesotans a better life.

He said their community is hopeful that recent political changes in East Africa will lead to peace, after many decades of civil war. Adam visited Somalia this past summer and said people were optimistic about the future.

Somalis were traditionally nomadic peoples, living on the savannah and raising livestock.

“We are used to lions and hyenas,” he said, “not wolves and bears.”

Adam said growing up he would protect his family’s sheep from the lions. But he laughed out loud admitting he is afraid of dogs.

East African refugees ended up in Minnesota for many reasons, but stayed here because of the educational system, employment opportunities, and social services. There are five church-based organizations that worked with the U.S. State Department to help settle refugees in Minnesota, and once a community was established and felt accepted by other Minnesotans, many others chose to locate here.

“They never told us about the cold and snow in Minnesota,” said Wali Dirie, who runs the Islamic Civic Society. But Dirie said the weather was something they had grown used to, though the idea of ice fishing was still totally foreign to them.

Others talked about the long process of being settled in the United States as a refugee. It is estimated that there are about 100,000 East Africans now living in Minnesota.

“The East African community is willing to work,” said Adam. “We have a sense of adventure and are used to moving around because of our nomadic roots. Our community has come very far in the last 25 years.”

Adam talked about ties between Muslims and Christians that date back to 615 A.D.

After the presentation, there were lively rounds of questions and answers, which mostly affirmed the similarities, not the differences, between the two communities. And before the group left for the long drive back to Minneapolis, plans were already being made for a third visit to Tower-Soudan, next summer.

To find authentic East African food, you can visit Campus Café -Turkish Grill (Faruk and Mesude Cingilli owners) in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The restaurant provided the East African foods for the dinner, along with many of the gifts that were given to the hosts.

Make your own sambusas

The Star Tribune published Ilhan Omar’s recipe for sambusas back in 2010. The recipe uses egg roll wrappers as a shortcut, instead of making the dough from scratch.


Learn more about the work of Open Path Resources with the East African community at


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