It seems in every generation we have politicians willing to score political points by demonizing immigrants or the vulnerable of one form or another. Older residents who’ve lived on the Iron Range their whole lives may still remember when new immigrants fleeing war and poverty in places like Italy, Finland, or Ireland were subjected to the same kind of demonization as President Trump directs today against the desperate families fleeing those same circumstances in places like Honduras, Guatemala, or Syria.
One other group that has been targeted for some time, particularly here in Minnesota, are the Somali and other East Africa refugees who have made Minnesota their home after fleeing civil war and famine in their home countries. For Minnesotans, particularly those of who live in rural enclaves of whiteness, these new immigrants can appear foreign, maybe even frightening. And those are the emotions that some seek to exploit and inflame.
Building familiarity and friendship is the best way to fight back. And that’s why a continuing effort by Paul Winkelaar and Mike VanKeulen and members of the Somali community and residents of the Tower-Soudan area has been so valuable (see story page B1). Late last month, for the second year in a row, about 30 members of the Twin Cities Somali community put aside their own fears and misunderstanding of rural Minnesotans and ventured north to visit the Soudan Mine and meet and enjoy a meal with residents of the area. The most recent event was a potluck dinner at the Tower Civic Center and featured a wide range of Somali and Ethiopian dishes alongside the usual wild rice hotdish, sarmas, and other staples of Iron Range cuisine.
The event included ethnic music and a discussion of the history of Somali and Ethiopian unrest that pushed many in the Horn of Africa to leave their homes. That discussion was led by Abdisalam Adam, an assistant principal at Highland Park school in St. Paul.
The evening was engaging, thrilling, and heartwarming all at the same time, as barriers fell away instantly. There were stories and laughter and friendships made. Many had come to Tower-Soudan last year and were back to reconnect with friends they had made before and to lead a host of first-time visitors to the area. The Somali visitors were gracious, accomplished, and eager to learn more about life in rural Minnesota. Many had grown up in the vast hinterlands of Somalia or Ethiopia, farming and raising livestock and the possibility of returning to their agricultural roots still sparks a real interest for some of them.
The reality of their lives and their hopes and ambitions stands in stark contrast to the portrayal we too often see from those who want to exploit our unfamiliarity and fear. The Somalis and Ethiopians, as a community, are intelligent, hard-working, entrepreneurial, and, like most new immigrants, place tremendous value on education, which they recognize as the path to a better future for the next generation. They have already had a positive impact on the economy of the Twin Cities and other communities in the state where they have relocated in significant numbers and they are laying the groundwork for even greater success. And one of their own, Ilhan Omar, who was among the group that came to Tower-Soudan last year, was elected Tuesday to the U.S. Congress, representing Minnesota’s Fifth District.
Neal Kashkari, an economist who heads the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, calls immigration “the closest thing to a free lunch” for the country as you can find in America, and the East African diaspora who have made Minnesota their home are proof of that.
People don’t come to the U.S. to live on welfare, as some people falsely claim. That’s just myth propagated to divide people. They come to build a brighter future and they are willing to work hard to achieve it for themselves and their children. They work, they start businesses, and they contribute to the economy and to the vibrancy of our communities. Despite the virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from the White House in the lead-up to last Tuesday’s general election, immigration has and, hopefully will always be, one of the leading factors behind America’s continued economic success.