The invitation sent to nine Somali refugees was vague. It told them only to come to a dinner and meet somebody interested in learning about their culture, somebody who has a mission to help people around the world and has a history of producing results.
Faisal Deri accepted the invitation with no idea that the special guest was Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg swooped into Minneapolis on Thursday night as part of a yearlong tour of the country with a stated goal to hit all 50 states.
Flanked by Somali women in their hijabs, Zuckerberg posted a photo on his Facebook page. He thanked his hosts for their hospitality and for sharing their stories of triumph and struggles with relocating to their new land.
“I left impressed by your strength and resilience to build a new life in an unfamiliar place,” he wrote. “You are a powerful reminder of why this country is so great.”
In a small room at the International Education Center at 12th Street and Harmon Place in Minneapolis, refugees ranging in age from 18 to 57 sat face to face with the man who built the world’s largest social networking site for a two-hour conversation that attendees said was as delicious as the Iftar dinner they shared.
“It was a thrilling experience,” said Deri, a consultant who has been in the Twin Cities for nearly 20 years. “It was overwhelming to meet him. He’s somebody who’s humble and encouraging and passionate to create a connective global community. He walks the talk.”
Most in attendance were much newer to America; some arrived as recently as six months ago.
David Gaither, executive director of the education center, the tiny school whose mission is to help equip refugees with tools they need to lead productive lives, reached out to Zuckerberg through a friend of his and asked him to come meet with the Somali students and refugees. He organized the meeting and assembled a cross-section of the community composed of six students, one former student and two community members, including Deri, who had never attended the school.
“The students appreciated the opportunity to ask questions of him and let him ask questions of them,” Gaither said. “It was moving and powerful, and I think it moved Mark. It’s rare when you introduce people who don’t know each other and both walk away and benefit. There was mutual respect. That’s rare.”
One man told Zuckerberg how he spent 26 years in a refugee camp but now feels like America is home. Others talked about what it has been like to come to a dark and cold place and having to learn English. Another shared her dream to become an engineer.
“I learned from the group, what some of these individuals go through,” Deri said. “Unanimously, they feel blessed to be here and find opportunities.”
Some didn’t know him
Gaither noted that Zuckerberg’s visit coincided with the end of the holy days of Ramadan, a time when people do good deeds for others.
Six of those who attended the dinner didn’t know Zuckerberg was the boss of Facebook, even though they are among the more than 1 billion people with accounts. Then the a-ha lights went on. That was “eye opening,” Gaither said. By the end of the night “it really makes you appreciate how lucky you are. It was compelling.”
Zuckerberg’s Minneapolis dinner is part of a yearlong national tour that has so far included visits with Trump voters in Ohio, a Wisconsin dairy farmer, and students at a high-achieving high school in Chicago. On Friday he posted photos from a Minnetonka hockey rink and reminisced about his own childhood.
“Growing up, I used to strap goalie pads on my sister so I could shoot pucks in our backyard,” he wrote. “No wonder she encouraged me to code computer games instead.”
The International Education Center opened in 1991 and serves students representing more than 70 countries and 35 languages. It offers basic adult education programs such as English-language learners, math and computer skills and GED preparation courses. The school’s enrollment is 40 percent Somali.
Deri said he was touched that Zuckerberg would come to such a place.
“I think it was a strong statement,” he said. “A very strong statement that he does care.”
Zuckerberg’s message about the Minneapolis dinner has garnered more than 260,000 reactions and been shared about 20,000 times on Facebook.