Why so many Somalis in Minneapolis?

Update February 22, 2015:  I see many readers visiting this old post this morning, be sure to see our news today that we are admitting over 800 Somalis A MONTH to the US right now.  The largest percentage of those will either be resettled directly to Minnesota or will eventually end up there as they become what the US State Dept. calls “secondary migrants” (refugees resettled elsewhere who then move to MN).

That is the question asked by CBS Minnesota in Minneapolis this week. Hat tip: Lynn.  The story, here, pretty much has it correct.  First, there are a bunch of volags (silly name, voluntary agencies) paid by the federal government to resettle refugees. If you have a bunch of those in your town (or one aggressive one), you will have a larger number of refugees.   And, the second reason is that the welfare benefits in Minnesota are  so good.

Digressing slightly, I meant to post on the welfare magnet that is Maine awhile back where the new governor plans to limit services after 5 years to those on welfare.  Maine has been a magnet to Somalis as well, most notably the city of Lewiston.

[Governor Paul] LePage supports 5-year lifetime limits on welfare programs and a tiered system to transition welfare recipients into the work force.

Back to Minneapolis and the WCCO report which begins:

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It is perhaps the least likely place to find tens of thousands of African refugees: the cold, snowy, middle of America. So why are there so many Somalis in Minnesota?

Reason number 1: Church “volags” brought them to welcoming Minnesota.

The Somalis are here as legal refugees, largely. The Somalis Minnesota story tracks to 1991, when civil war broke out in Somalia. Millions fled to refugee camps, many in Kenya.

Two years later, the first wave of Somali refugees were sent to Minnesota.

“In the beginning the U.S. federal government assigns people,” said Samatar [Dr. Ahmed Samatar, dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College].

To qualify as a refugee, there is a process. The U.S. State Department ultimately decides where refugees will live, but it has to do with the voluntary agencies, called VOLAGS, that contract with the State Department. [The volags play the largest role in deciding where refugees go, there is no careful analysis of your city, resettlement locations are just determined with pressure from the volags.  If there is a problem and people in the community make waves, the State Dept. may step in and stop the resettlement to that city.—ed]

Minnesota has very active ones like Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, and World Relief Minnesota.

Those agencies agree [and are paid by the US taxpayer—ed] to help the refugees get settled, to learn English, find housing, get health care, and begin a new life.

Reason number 2, and why refugees stay and more come, is that Minnesota, like Maine, provides handsome welfare programs.

But the Somalis have largely stayed, somewhere around 30,000 of them, partially because of the strength of the non-governmental VOLAGS, and partially because of the strength of governmental programs to help refugees begin a new life, according to Samatar.  [Note how delicately this is worded, LOL!, “strength of governmental programs.”—ed]

After the first wave is assigned here, the second wave of relatives and friends soon followed.

“As Somalis settle down, find a life, the good news spreads: ‘Hey this is a good place, you can find a life here,’” said Samatar.

Over the past 25 years, the United States has admitted about 84,000 Somali refugees [they’ve got that figure about right, but they don’t include all those who got in through other immigration programs or who came in illegally and have disappeared—ed]. Close to 40 percent live in Minnesota.

“The institutions of this state, private or public, have an important place in the mind of Somalis,” he noted.

This is long but do not stop reading! The best part of this story from CBS is the comment section.  I am posting one entire comment from a reader named Random Reader because I doubt it will be available for too long.

Random Reader:

I live in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, which is immediately adjacent to the Cedar Riverside neighborhood where the majority of the Somali population lives. We also have high-rise public housing that is predominantly Somali, along with many Somali businesses and the main public elementary school serving the Somali population. I regularly take my child to play in parks where we are the only non-Somali people, shop in the halal markets, and try to keep up with issues of importance to the Somali community by following the local and national websites catering to the Somali Diaspora (i.e. Bartamaha, Hiiraan, Camel Milk Threads…). All in all I would say that as an outsider I have about as much exposure to the Somali population as possible without being a social worker.

And I must say that I am very worried by what I see.

While many Somalis are hard working, law abiding, good citizens, there appears to be a significant percentage who maintain their clan ties and animosities, make no attempt at integrating themselves into the general population, and are prone to violence. Some of the violence is Somali vs. Somali- for example the triple murder at the Seward Market in 2010 and the daytime shooting a few weeks ago on Franklin Ave. But a lot of it is more akin to the piracy which takes place off the Somali coast: gangs of Somalis have been mugging area bicyclists for years and the trail that follows the light rail. Residents of Minneapolis will also likely remember the youtube video posted by young Somali gangsters a year or two back showing them assaulting random pedestrians and bicyclists with no apparent motive other than laughs.

In addition to the violence, there seems to be other major “quality of life” issue with the Somali population. For example, rampant littering, uninsured driving, treatment of Somali women as chattel and sex slaves by the men, welfare fraud. Even little actions show great disrespect: II can say honestly that every person I have seen but into a line in the last few years has been a young Somali.

While it would be worrying enough that there is a group in the state with this apparent love of violence and disrespect of social conventions, what makes me even more scared is the growth of the community. Although I have never been able to find any firm numbers, it appears that the local Somali community is maintaining the fertility rate of their homeland- somewhere around 5 or 6 kids per family. And likewise- although official numbers are not available a huge percentage of the Somali population relies on public money and social services for almost every facet of their lives (i.e. subsidized housing, food stamps, use of our public county hospital…). Honestly, I do not see how Minnesota (and Minneapolis/Hennepin County in particular) will be able to support this population in the future. And if public support ever goes away, the muggings seem sure to get even more frequent.

I welcome the fact that CBS opened a comment section on this story. Our local papers, the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press will almost never allow comments on articles related to the Somali community, and when they do the comments are heavily censured. Likewise the local community email list, e-democracy.org, will kill any thread which talks about crime related to the Somali community. While I understand not wanting to provide a space for ignorant racial ranting it also means that there is not a single open forum in Minneapolis where issues surrounding this issue can be discussed.

As a lifelong resident of Minnesota I have seen waves of immigrants come to our state, due to the work of Lutheran Social Services. And I welcome (for example) the Liberians, Hmong, Laotians, Cambodians and Ethiopians who arrived ready to work hard and make a better live. But being close to the heart of the Somali community, I think I am starting to understand why Somalia has not been able to maintain a government since 1991.

Note: this is an edited version of a comment submitted and published on the NYT website in regards to another article on the Somali Minnesota Population.