Last Tuesday on my flight home from LaGuardia I had the most exceptional experience. In fact, days later after an incredibly inspiring three-day visit to New York City where I attended the 2013 Social Good Summit, I still cannot stop thinking about my plane ride home. Sitting next to me on the window seat was a new American.
For all that I’ve traveled, I have never actually been on a plane with someone immigrating to the United States. Seeing this middle-aged Somali woman sitting tentatively next to me wearing her U.S. Immigration Tag and holding her white plastic U.S. Immigration bag, simply blew me away. I couldn’t stop thinking it was a strange coincidence that she happened to not only be on my flight but was sitting right next to me after I had just spent three extremely intense days at the Social Good Summit learning about a vast array of global issues.
I looked over at her tired eyes and watched her out of the corner of my eye. She sat in her seat peacefully with a look of part apprehension and part joy. She carefully toyed with the U.S. Immigration tag she wore proudly around her neck touching it, looking at it and perhaps wondering what it really said.
Slowly I made eye contact with her and gave her a smile. She smiled back and looked into my eyes with hope and excitement. She could hardly speak a word of English and we communicated through gestures and smiles. She pointed to her badge and her airline ticket showing where she came from and where she was going. If only she spoke English, I could have talked to her and uncovered her story. I’m certain her life back in Somalia was one that was hard to imagine. But I did manage to find out that she is a mother like me and her two teenage sons were on the plane as well.
Finally she closed her eyes and tried to sleep. I sat there marveling at the moment I was witnessing.
This was most likely her first time ever outside of Somalia and on a plane. She was coming to America where she would soon be starting an entirely new life. She would be learning a new language, culture and way of life. Everything would be new to her. Would it be difficult? Of course. I’m sure she would be lonely and miss her homeland, and would face many struggles and challenges along the way. Would she live in poverty? Most likely she would. Yet she would also live in something that money can’t buy. Freedom and safety. She would no longer fear persecution and her life. Instead, she would have hope and opportunity.
Here in Minnesota, we have the largest population of Somalis outside of Somalia. The Somali diaspora has resulted in 60,000 – 70,000 Somalis now making Minnesota their home and this number is expected to grow. Growing up in Minnesota, the state was a completely different place. Most of the traditional Minnesotan heritage is German and Scandinavian. The phone book is loaded with “sons” and my maiden name is Anderson. Even my best childhood friend was Swedish.
Yet slowly, over time the population and makeup of Minnesota began to change. In the mid-70s and 80s, Minnesota began to welcome immigrants from Asian countries. The Hmong population (an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand) began to flock to Minnesota and start their lives here. Today, Minnesota has an estimated 66,181 Hmong who call Minnesota their home. Following, came the Mexicans and others from Latin America. In the 1990s as Somalia fell into chaos, we began to welcome the Somali people and others from East Africa such as Ethiopia and Kenya. Looking back now, it is amazing to see how diverse Minnesota has become and how much the make up of the population has changed since my childhood.
Of course there are enormous challenges with immigration, and there are many Americans who are for and against it. Accepting immigrants into our nation places a heavy strain on already tight financial and social resources. We need to invest a lot in immigrants and their families to ensure they will succeed. Some do truly amazing and achieve the American Dream while others end up straining resources by being stuck inside housing projects, on welfare, and even worse becoming terrorists. The recent attack at the Watergate Mall in Kenya proves that terrorism has its reach. There are beliefs that two Somali Americans from Minnesota were recruited by the extremist group Al-Shabab and participated in this horrendous act of violence.
Yet, our country has been founded on freedom and immigration. We have always been and probably always will be a nation of immigrants. We cannot close the door to all. It is a delicate balance and one that is extremely complex. No matter what your views are on immigration, it is something to deeply contemplate and try to understand. My children are part of this new Minnesota and have children with African, Asian and Mexican heritage in their class. As a parent, it is critical I teach them cultural understanding and sensitivity as well as acceptance and love for their world and their children’s world will be an even much different, more diverse place than it is today.
Author’s note: I was inspired to write this post after being completely shocked on my flight from New York to be speaking to the Delta flight attendant who asked point blank, “Well, why would she want to come to Minnesota and why does Minnesota have so many Somalis?” Apparently the flight attendant had no idea about the gruesome, horrific violence in Somalia and did not know why so many Somalis were trying to escape.
Since Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the United States, I wanted to share some additional information I found from the following resources about the Somali people and why they are coming to Minnesota.
Somalis in Minnesota:
All information below from The World Relief Minnesota website. Click here for link.
Somalia is a country on the eastern edge of Africa, often called the “Horn of Africa”. The population of the country was between 7-10 million (before 1991). Somali’s speak the same language by and large, which is Somali.
During colonial times, Somalia was divided into Italian Somaliland (southern Somalia), British Somaliland (northern Somalia), and French Somaliland (Djibouti). The north and the south gained independence in the early 1960’s and united to form one country, Somalia. This country had a democratic government until there was a military coup in 1969, led by Siad Barre. He maintained power until a revolt within the country started in the late ‘80’s in the north and eventually led to him fleeing the country in the early 1990’s.
Different clans fought among themselves to gain control of the country, which led to civil war and anarchy. A resulting famine, exacerbated by the civil strife gained world attention, leading to U.N. and finally U.S. military involvement. After the killing of U.S. troops, they all pulled out of Somalia.
From that time to the present, Somalis have fled the country and many have lived in refugee camps in Kenya. Many Somalis were resettled in Europe, Canada, and the U.S. Currently, Minnesota has the largest number of Somali’s in the U.S, estimated to be around 50,000 or more. Why here? Somalis originally came to Minnesota because of the good economy and low unemployment. More recently they have come because there is a recognized community here — Somali shops, businesses and restaurants.
Immigration in Minnesota: A few more facts about the make-up of Minnesota per The Minneapolis Foundation.
- 10.3% of the Twin Cities’ population in 2008 was foreign born.
- 18,020 individuals emigrated to Minnesota from other countries in 2009.
- Immigrant-owned businesses in Minnesota employ approximately 21,000 workers and generate sales and receipts of $2.2 billion.
- Concordia University economist Bruce Corrie has calculated that Asian-Americans and Latinos in Minnesota account for approximately $7 billion in purchases annually.
- By country of origin, the 15 largest groups of foreign born residents in Minnesota are: Mexico, Laos (including Hmong), India, Somalia, Vietnam, Canada, Ethiopia, Korea, Liberia, China, Thailand, Germany, former USSR/Russia, Kenya, and the Philippines.
I also found this publication to be very informative when discussing the challenges and opportunities with immigration to Minnesota. Here are a few screen shots of the report that I found particularly interesting.