Integration Center coffee encourages communication
WILLMAR — Members of Willmar's different ethnic communities came together Saturday morning to talk about communication over sambusa, fruit and coffee.
More than 60 people, mostly from the Anglo and Somali communities, crowded into the Community Integration Center in downtown Willmar for the center's first Coffee with the Community gathering.
Abdirahman Ahmed, one of the center's founders, said he was amazed at the number of people who attended. "This is a success," he said.
The CIC is a nonprofit organization that opened a few months ago with the goals of helping newcomers adjust to their new home and helping everyone in the community grow to know and understand different cultures.
While it's founders are Somali-Americans, the name was intentionally kept neutral to show that everyone is welcome, Ahmed told the crowd.
He invited anyone who had questions about the Somali community to stop in at the center and bring their friends along so they can ask questions. The center, cicenter.org, is open daily and located at 201 Fifth St. S.W.
"We want to talk to each other, we want to interact," Ahmed said. "Together, we are strong."
A group of speakers told the Saturday gathering about the center and what it does. They talked about the Somali community in the area. They also referred to reports that a member of the Willmar City Council apparently expressed approval for anti-Somali and anti-immigrant sentiments on social media.
Ahmed said he has often been asked if he's angry about the comments.
He's not, he told the group. "I didn't get angry because I know we have a lot of good people here," he said.
Islamic Society of Willmar Imam Bishar Yusuf, who is also called Abdirahman, told the group, "I know that's not the Willmar I know. ... I know we are one community, under one umbrella."
Several speakers talked about their families being forced to flee Somali during a long civil war and living in refugee camps.
"We came here to be safe and also to have the American Dream," said Omar Jama, CIC health program director. He arrived in Willmar as a middle school student 11 years ago, he said, and he's grateful to the good and generous teachers who provided the education he needed to be successful.
Nagi Abdullahi, an employee of the Willmar Public Schools, spoke about the contributions of the Somali community in the community. "We all have jobs; we all go to school," she said. "We are an important component of the Willmar community."
Whether people have jobs as laborers or professionals, she said, they pay taxes and contribute to the economy in many ways.
Abdullahi also urged people not to overlook Somali women, who are equal partners with Somali men.
Hudda Ibrahim, a businesswoman and author from St. Cloud, said people should not let their traditional dress be a barrier to speaking with Somali women. Her book, "From Somali to Snow: How Central Minnesota Became Home to Somalis," was available at the gathering.
Ibrahim also addressed some rumors. One is that refugees have free cars. She shook her head and laughed along with others in the room: "Where? Where can I get one?"
No free cars, she said, and no interest in imposing Sharia law.
"I am a proud American" who respects the Constitution, she said. "We're not here to overtake America, because we love America."
Everyone wants the same things — family, friendship and faith, Ibrahim said. "We value those, too."
One person in the crowd was Marlys Larsen of Spicer. She said she had presented a paper about Swedish history and had learned that Scandinavian countries still feel the effect of losing all the "movers and shakers" who left for other countries years ago.
"Our immigrant history is why we have such a strong country," she said. Earlier immigrants had "similar DNA" to today's newcomers, she said, because it takes a certain kind of brave person to move to an unfamiliar country and start over.
Ahmed said he thought the gathering had gone well. After the speakers finished, many people stayed for a time, talking in small groups that included people from different cultures.
The center has nearly 120 students learning English on weekends. It offers a class for people who want to learn Somali each Thursday.
"Our mission is to educate people," Hamdi Kosar, a co-founder, said. "Once we educate ourselves, we can get out of the dark. ... When we acknowledge differences, it breaks down barriers."