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.
Very excellent and informative post. I’m sure your presence next to this woman was a positive beginning for her and brightened her day!. Sitting beside her was one of those coincidences of fate that can lead to good things in many directions when people recognize them and act, as you have done. Thanks in behalf of her and all the others in her situation.
Thanks! My daughter has befriended a little girl whose parents are from Somalia. It will be really nice to connect more with our Somalian community here in MN.
Very nice read! I really like your curiosity and eagerness to learn more about this women and her heritage. Being from the midwest and fortunate enough to travel to Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Korea and Europe has opened my view to the world and given me a better understanding of how the rest of the world looks at America as the land of opportunity; this lady surely sees it that way. What an amazing experience to be next to an immigrant with lots of high hopes. I see you attended the 2013 Social Good Summit. How was it? Do you have a project you are working on? My girlfriend and I have started a blog and are looking for ways to do more good. Cheers, MrandMrAdventure
Thanks! This was my second year at the Social Good Summit and it is amazing. The best conference I’ve attended and plan to continue going. Would love to learn more about your blog!
Really, really well done, Nicole! I had heard about the number of Somali’s in Minnesota in the aftermath of the Kenya mall attack. There’s some speculation that Somali’s living form your town were involved. Don’t know if that turned out to be the case. But how fascinating to see this woman in the process of immigrating.
Hugs from Ecuador,
Thanks. Yes it was pretty amazing. My kids have a few Somali children in their class so I am really interested in learning more about their culture and heritage. THe world is such a global melting pot.
I’ve just been indirectly researching the Somali population in Minnesota… I’m writing my Master’s thesis at the moment on FGC and US law/asylum policy (FGC rates are high among Somalis). It’s another interesting aspect to think about, when Somalis immigrate they often have to confront a lot of choices between tradition and this new way of life that can be troubling, while at the same time ostracizing. A recent article I was reading was explaining that US health practitioners sometimes treat already-cut women as pathological specimens, and it can be really confusing or troubling to women who simply have not known any other way of life. Of course, I’m not supporting the practice, but it is hard to think about what it must be like to go through that in addition to the already apparent difficulties of immigrating to a new country. This was a really great article, and I agree that it is quite amazing to come face-to-face with a woman making such a huge leap in her own life. Just imagine what must be going through her head on that flight!!
Thanks for great writing 🙂
Cool! Where are you studying? Sounds like a great topic. I’ve read a lot about it and have friends who are nurses and have had to treat these women during childbirth. Not a pretty situation. Hopefully with increased education FGM will end. Good luck with your thesis!
Thanks! Yeah, it’s especially complicated on the legal side. Some grassroots organizations like MYWO and Path have had large success by working with the women first (rather than taking a top down approach) and introducing alternative ceremonial rites–Ntaniro na Mugambo, which means ‘circumcision with words.’ I study through Webster University (which is based in STL), but I have done my studies mainly in Vienna, London, and now Bangkok.
How cool! Lucky you to be traveling like that! 🙂
Excellent post, Nicole! Informative and educational. We are indeed a land of immigrants.
Thanks Angeline! 🙂
I would have been beside myself wanting to ask questions about where she had been living, what was her day like, and things about her children. Wonder if she knew anyone in America or was she going to be totally on her own. It would have been fascinating to learn about her and welcome her to America.
Thanks for the comment. Me too! I have read some books on the situation in Somalia and it would have been very interesting to talk to her!
Great post! World Relief MN is glad that you were able to use the content on our website! 🙂
Thanks! I did a google search to find more information and World Relief came up. It is a great and informative site. I will be sure to use it more as a reference as I research future posts! 🙂
Thanks for this informative post Nicole. I believe there are no coincidences in life, as I suspect you may also believe. You were meant to make this connection. 🙂
Me too! 🙂
I’m a Delta flight attendant and a supporter of World Relief. I am so sorry for what that flight attendant said.
No worries at all! I love Delta airlines (as I live in Minne and it connects me to the world). 🙂 Keep flying!
I worked with immigrants and refugees when I lived back in the States…set up apartments, found and distributed winter clothes, helped with employment possibilities, provided moral support and did “whatever needed doing.” I learned so much about the US policies re: refugee status in the States and how difficult life can be/is for recent and not so recent arrivals. I marveled at the resiliency of each and every refugee I met. I’m sure there are similar agencies in Minnesota and I bet they’d love to have you. It’s a gift that gives both ways. Now I’ll go to bed wondering about this sweet woman and what life holds for her and her family 🙂
Thanks for the comment! My daughter has just befriended a little girl at school whose parents are Somali. I look forward to their developing friendship and learning more about their culture.