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Somali people who have settled in U.S. ‘toughest ones of all’

Abdirizak Mahboub speaks to students Thursday at Ridgewater College about Somalia. The program was part of a series being presented during the school’s Multicultural Month. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR — After two decades of civil war and years spent in refugee camps, the Somali refugees who have come to the United States are among “the toughest ones of all,” according to Abdirizak Mahboub.

Mahboub, director of New Minnesotan Community Development in Willmar, spoke at Ridgewater College this week. His speech on understanding the Somali population in Willmar was one of the college’s Multicultural Month events.

The Somalis who are here have survived a civil war and possibly years in refugee camps, said Mahboub, who came to the United States in 1981 as a student. They may have endured torture or seen others tortured, seen loved ones killed, experienced other human rights violations and suffered much grief and loss.

The Somali civil war started in 1991 and continues to this day, Mahboub said. More than 1 million people have fled the country and are now scattered all over the world.

“These Somalis you see now in Willmar have really endured a difficult situation,” Mahboub said Thursday. “The ones who came, I would consider them the toughest ones of all.”

Some of the effects of the civil war have been separated families, interrupted educations and a loss of status and financial independence.

The majority of Somalis in this country have come through a refugee process that treats everyone the same, though Somalis fall into three categories — city dwellers, nomads and farmers, he said.

The Somalis in Willmar are a mixture of all these types of people. Some have college degrees and have lived cosmopolitan lives, but they are unable to return to their professions while they lack English skills. Some of the former farmers or nomads may have never seen running water before or may have little education.

All of them have faced adjustment challenges in moving to the United States, Mahboub said.

Somalis started coming to Minnesota in the early 1990s for employment opportunities, public services and for the community support system provided by other Somalis. But they also encountered transportation problems, crime and language problems in an unfamiliar society.

They came to communities like Willmar for job opportunities in meatpacking, which doesn’t require a high skill level or English proficiency. There’s less crime, and it’s a quieter community. That appeals to many of them, too. They like that they can walk many places they need to go.

Somali people are predominantly Muslim. In talking about the religion, Mahboub displayed a photo of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center on 9/11.

“I show this, because this is a game-changer,” he said. Only a dozen people committed that crime, he said, “but it has affected all Muslims. … Islam is a religion of peace; it’s not about attack.”

Muslims believe in one, unique God, and they believe in angels, all revealed scripture, prophets and a day of judgment, Mahboub said. The Quran also tells them that all people were made of a “single soul” and their differences are there so that they can get to know each other, he said.

Of the world’s 1 billion Muslims, most live quietly and peacefully in developed countries, he said. Only a small minority is militant, but they are the ones people hear about most often, he added.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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