Abdirahman "Abdi" Ahmed knows some see him as just "a Somali Muslim guy" with a funny accent.
Ahmed thinks of himself as an American businessman.
An accountant and systems analyst who has worked in IT and taught graduate school at St. Mary's University, Ahmed is a job creator and community volunteer.
He and his partners, Jamal Hashi and Sade Hashi, own booming Safari and Kilimanjaro restaurants. They also are leaders of the local Somali commercial community.
"Minnesota is my home, and this life is my dream," Ahmed said. "This is where I put down roots. I am a goodwill ambassador for America. At the same time, I must project a good image for Muslims and Somalis. I can't control what people see. ... I can control my actions, my words and my contributions.''
About 10 percent of Twin Cities-area residents are foreign-born, primarily from Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Immigrants and their kids, through resettlement, education and other services, initially cost taxpayers some money. But they soon become net economic contributors, according to ongoing research by the Wilder Foundation and Prof. Bruce Corrie, dean of the Concordia University School of Business.
In 2009, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce produced a report with the Minnesota Business Immigrant Coalition that concluded: "Unlike native-born Americans, who are aging rapidly and creating what some have called a 'silver tsunami,' immigrants are generally in their prime working years when they come to the United States, thus providing a crucial infusion to the workforce."
First-generation immigrants typically take tough, low-paying jobs: washing dishes, cleaning offices, roofing, working in meat-packing houses, driving cabs.
The single-biggest cost of any immigrant group is education. And many first-generation kids need help with language and math skills. Yet less than 5 percent of Minnesota K-12 students are immigrants. And most of them are concentrated in Minneapolis and St. Paul and commodity-processing towns such as Willmar and Worthington, according a 2010 study by the Minneapolis Foundation.
The Minneapolis Foundation study found that about 18,000 people immigrate to Minnesota annually. The study also found that hundreds of immigrant-owned, mostly small businesses employ 21,000 workers and generate sales of more than $2.2 billion
Corrie calculated that Asian-Americans and Latinos in Minnesota account for about $7 billion in purchases annually. He notes that Hmong who immigrated to Minnesota from southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s originally were viewed by critics as "nothing but a cost." Today, thousands of Hmong work and own businesses and pay millions in taxes.
"The data over the years has shown that our return on investment has been tremendous," Corrie said. "One can also see a new generation of professionals in all kinds of disciplines [from] legislators to foundation heads to professors and medical doctors and entrepreneurs."
Somalis are the most recent immigrant group. There are up to 100,000 first- and second-generation Somalis in Minnesota -- about one of every three Somalis in America.
Minnesota has always been an immigrant refuge. Minnesotans and our nonprofit agencies opened their arms. Smart politicians knew that first-generation immigrants work hard for little and their kids stoke a diverse and vital economy and dynamic culture.
But immigration also can be controversial. Much publicity has centered on the indicted Somali who lured young Minneapolis Somalis back to their homeland and to their deaths in that civil war. And there has been Somali crime and Muslim cultural differences that have sparked controversy.
Corrie, noting hundreds of Somali-owned businesses around the Twin Cities, also calls it one of the most entrepreneurial immigrant groups ever.
Daniel Wordsworth, CEO of Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee, said his agency was challenged by local Somalis in 2009 to help with relief work in their home country. Wordsworth said ARC already was overcommitted elsewhere in the refugee world.
"But we knew we should be there," Wordsworth recalled. "The local Somali folks came to us, challenged me and I said, 'Sure, but will you do this with us?' They formed a council to work with us. They focus on aid, not politics. They have stuck with us. These folks are not well-off, by any means. There are 400 active volunteers and businesses [who have raised hundreds of thousands for Somali relief]. They are Somali and Minnesotans. They have been a pleasure to work with."
Safari Restaurant, an outfit that hosts everything from neighborhood parties to YMCA receptions and Somali relief efforts, has become a source of pride as well as culinary commerce on a rebounding span of E. Lake Street. Ingebretsen's, founded by first-generation Norwegians a century ago, is just a mile east, nestled among shops founded by people born in Minnesota, Africa, Latin America and Scandinavia.
Ahmed recalls his first job 13 years ago, stocking shelves after hours at a Byerly's grocery.
"Now, I own a growing business," he said. "Only in America!"
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • email@example.com