The Muslim Experience in Minnesota project aims to capture and convey the Muslim experience in Minnesota through oral interviews and photographic portraits. This Minnesota Historical Society funded project documented 40 Minnesota Muslims chosen carefully to represent a diverse collection of experiences.
Continuing in the series of interviews from the Muslim Experience in Minnesota project, in this entry, I feature police officer Abdiwahab Ali.
Transcript of Abdiwahab Ali Interview:
My name is Abdiwahab Ali. I’m a police officer with the Minneapolis Police Department at this time and I have been a police officer working on the street for the past about three years and a couple months. Prior to that I worked for the police department as a community service officer for four years which civilian position before I became a police officer. I am originally from Somalia. Was born and grew up in Somalia and about twenty years ago when the civil war broke out as most Somalis did, you know, people immigrated to neighboring countries and other countries and I went to Nairobi, Kenya, lived there for a couple years and then had the opportunity to come to United States, December, 1995.
We are three Somali police officers at this time with the city of Minneapolis. I’m assigned to first precinct downtown and I’m assigned to what they call here different sector, I’m assigned to sector two which is South Minneapolis here where most the population is the Cedar-Riverside and most the population are Somalis and East-African peoples. I do work as, what they call, beat officers; so me and my partner who is also another Somali police officer we are assigned to Riverside beat and I’ve been doing that for the last year, about a year and couple months. They had both of us start working over there in the neighborhood where most Somalis work. And it helped the department, it helped the department and the Somali people in the neighborhood because they were a little bit high activities in the neighborhood before that. And when we started to work it opened up for other people to communicate a lot, much better with the department, especially the elders. When, I can see from their eyes when they saw us in the beat with two Somali police officers, you can see their attitude change, you can see them coming more, becoming more helpful as far as talking to us because they don’t need a translator anymore. They can come in. You can see the moms becoming more aggressive with their kids; becoming stronger because language is power.
When you know the language you can stand up for yourself. You can see the mom. When I’m dealing with a young male who is in trouble and I say, and his mom shows up and she sees me talking her language I can tell how her eyes and body, how aggressive she gets, and how she’s involved. And now she’s strong because she can speak the language. And she says, “Okay now he’s in trouble.” I mean, the youth feels now that he is in big trouble because she knows what he did wrong and she can tell me how I can help him later. And even the kid puts him in a bad situation where he has to be forward with us next time. So, it was very helpful. And the elders felt like sometimes they had some problems in the area, where some people robbing them or doing some other stuff, and then they felt like because they don’t know the language, they’re just keeping their mouth shut, just going. It’s kinda hassle for me to call 911 and get a translator and do this or give the description of the suspect or something like that.
But when they saw us in the neighborhood, it was like “Oh this is what’s happening,” and now they come forward. And it stopped or helped, you know, it changed the whole neighborhood a lot better which is very helpful for both of us as being a police officer and for the neighborhood it’s very great. And then the young kids also when they see us as a Somali police officer, it opens up and they kind of get the feel that they kinda closer and can come and talk to us while they are not in trouble. And then they kind of can get education from us. What do you need to do? Kind of get advice from us which sometimes, you know, if you don’t know other person’s language you cannot communicate that well.
I was about seventeen when the civil war broke out I was in Mogadishu that time when the civil war broke and it was a tough life. I mean it was like first when you see what’s happening and you want, oh you wanna, you have to run away for your life. You just run from your house looking for some place safe. You take whatever you can with your hands, you know. The whole family will just grab their sheet on the bed, put things on top of it and then take whatever they can together and then go couple miles, four miles thinking that ‘Hey a bad thing is happening. A civil is breaking out, people are killing each other.’ You’re going to go run away and hide couple miles in the bushes and then hoping that ‘Oh, it’s going to be over in a few, maybe few days’, you’ll come back. That’s what we did, you know, with my family. Went out there a couple miles, four miles, stayed in the bushes then come back after like four, five days. Nothing is happening, you know, it’s not changing, and then we came back and then we had to run away again after a few months and then come back.
And then, we couldn’t take it anymore later when you witness a lot of horror with civil war and then all you can do is, you know, you feel hopeless. You have to find someplace safe for you to run. And we had the opportunity to get sponsored from a family member that lived here in the United States. So we get accepted to come over here. And then being thrown in Minneapolis because my family that sponsored us lived in Minneapolis. Then we came to Minneapolis and here is different world. We had to get used to it, you know. At that time I didn’t know diversity. But [pauses] then I came to United States where whether you’re ready or not, here is diversity, here are different people and different cultures, so different religions. And [pauses] for me it was [pauses], it was something I have to get used to.
Somali people are populated Cedar-Riverside. That’s where I first moved in and stayed there for almost fifteen years.
Interviewer: So was that, was that a good thing for you to be surrounded by the East-African community so that people had had maybe similar experience to you? Do you think that helped?
I believe it kind of helped at the beginning because when you first come in and you see same people like you and you’re not gonna to feel homesick right away. You’re able to speak your language with a lot of people and then you can relate to them. Make it easy for you to teach you, you know, how to live in this different country. How to live, how life is and everything to help you. It really was helpful, but when you learn everything, you get used to everything, it can be a little bit isolation from other world if you keep staying here and you wanna to do the same thing over and over without not going out, out of the box. Going to other people and then learning and you learn from other religions, you start learning and you realize ‘Oh, there is other religions. Christianity, Judaism, other things’ and you learn from. So, living as a Muslim in the United States is a little bit different, it is, but in a positive way because you learn from other people. You got to take time to get to know other religions.
With the Muslim community I meet my other Muslim brothers in the mosque and specially the Friday prayer and then I go to different mosques. I don’t belong to one mosque because that’s how I was in my entire life. In the Muslim religion it’s kind of like a little bit different than Christian and Judaism religions, I believe. I don’t know that much, but I see some other Christian friends that say, “Oh I go to this church. I belong to that church.” And for me if I saw someone who practice Muslim, you know, I go join them. It doesn’t matter, you know, what mosque they go to or what area they’re from. So, I go to a mosque that I can go to, a closer one or most of the time it happens to be that Cedar-Riverside, most people over there are Somali Muslims. And sometimes I go to North side Masjid An-Nur over there. And now, Columbia Heights there’s another mosque.
When I came into United States before two thousand, before the 9/11, the attack, nobody cared about your religion. It’s like you’re a Muslim, but it won’t come out or people wouldn’t even notice your religion. So, it was not an issue. Back home, you hear what’s called adhan. Adhan is like the mosque’s call for prayer and you can hear it from anywhere you’re at. And you can hear the adhan calling you, ‘Go pray.’ So it was easy for me to remember and pray five times a day. Here you come to United States where you don’t hear anything and then it becomes tough for you to get a schedule where you say, “Oh now you got to be more disciplined yourself.” You got to pray five times a day on your own, get your clock set on your own.
And then you are in a busy life in the United States where it’s completely different. So, even my first job I had was like a couple of months after I came in, a colleague that I was working with saw me going and praying. And then the first day he looked at me, he’s kinda, he didn’t want to say anything. Next day I told him, “Hey I pray. I pray five times.” He said, “How many times? You pray five times a day?” “I pray five times a day.” He said, “Wow! You’re gonna pray five times a day!” I said, “Yeah.” And then I was working with him and I’m asking him , “Hey I’m gonnao go pray.” I’ll leave and then I come back. And then in a few hours then “I’m gonna go pray.” And he, he told me, he was kind of honest, you know, he just told me and he said, “Ali, you know what if you wanna pray like this, five times a day like this, I don’t think you’ll be able to live in the United States.” I said, “What! Why are you saying that?” because he said, “Because we work here, eight hours, ten hours shift you, you’re just so busy with your life, you’re not gonna be able to do it. I said, “Wow. That’s what you think. Okay, let’s find out.
What, you know, when the terrorists attacked the United States, and this bad tragedy happened and my colleagues, my friends started asking me questions about, “Hey what’s your religion like? You pray five, five times a day. What else do you do?” I mean, “What is this people that are, are killing the Americans?” You know. Terrorists, I mean. Then you have to explain yourself, you know. We are not a terrorist. I mean, we don’t believe this. And for me personally, I mean, people live different life based on their experience.
For me before 9/11, I was not thinking even of being a police officer. I was just doing some other work. I wasn’t even going to school for law enforcement. But the incident that happened of 9/11 it kinda of lead me to the fact to consider about the work of police or law enforcement. When I saw people, police officers, firefighters, going to the buildings that were collapsing to help other people, and I was watching them on T.V. I mean, it kind of encouraged me to be like one of them, to be a police officer because when bad things happen in my country personally I did nothing because I was a young man. All the option I had was to feel hopeless, just go and run away.
But when I first saw what happened in 9/11, and I, first it was people were thinking in their mind differently, but my mind, I was thinking about, ‘Wow! Now what you gonna do? Ali, yourself what are you gonna do? When bad things happened in Somalia in the civil war, you run away. Now, what are your options when your own country now as an American in the United States being attacked. Are you gonna run away? Or what are the other people gonna do?’ Cause I didn’t even know what other Americans will do when, when I saw on the news, it’s Muslim people doing this. I was very concerned saying like. Now is it gonna be like what you experienced in Somalia, like tribe against tribe? That other tribes were accusing other tribes like they are the one who are doing something bad to us. Let’s go do something to them. And I was thinking the same thing here in my mind. It’s like now over here are all Muslim people gonna be in trouble? Are they gonna be attacked? Do they have to run away? You know. Then I realized, I was getting, I was getting calls from everywhere in the world, I mean, people, Somalis like, “Hey, are you guys safe?” You know. What is going to happen right now in the United States? Are the Muslims gonna be in trouble? And luckily, the neighbors and everybody, you know, they come out of it as being Americans. They come out of it telling us that, “Hey, it is not the Muslims. It is the terrorists.”
But the other thing that I did not mention was after September 11th the challenge that we go through. Yeah. After 9/11 the challenge that Somali Muslims go through that I witnessed it’s like we have to go through the system that after 9/11 what happened, it changed our all security ways of the way we do things. I mean, when you go out and travel, you go through harsh and tough security system, you know, screening than different people. So, when you are Muslim and when you are Somali and when you are a young male, when we travel we witness that we are pulled aside and questioned more than other people, you know, more than the person who is white.
And, and when we travel with other non-Muslims, whites, it happens that our friends or colleagues in the United States when we’re travelling going to overseas or something, it happens that our friends go through security as easily as it could be. [laughs] And you Somali, you’re gonna bet pulled over. Let me ask you these questions. And then you see your friends over there standing on the other side looking at you like, “What are you doing?” You know, ‘I’m waiting for you over here.’ And sometimes there are some other white Americans, non-Muslim friend you’re travelling. And then you’re the only Somali and then everybody goes through security and they easily get their passes, boarding pass and stuff. And you go over there sometimes on the computer and then you’re trying to get your boarding pass from the computer. Everybody gets his [laughs] boarding pass, but you don’t get it. And then you say, “What’s going on? Oh no, we have to go to that office and get my boarding pass.” You know, things like that happen. And it happen because, you know, the world have changed, it has changed for us as a Muslims, you know, because of the terrorist thing that’s going on which for me it is not fair to me, you know, to deal with all that kind of stuff that I have nothing to do with it.
I think we can change as Muslims. And the way we can change is challenge the system because it’s not right and that’s not fair for us. So whenever we experience something like that it is for us to realize and recognize that what is happening is not right. If you’re being pulled over just because of your name and you’re being questioned and you think you’re being discriminated because of your religion, you got to challenge it and then talk to whoever is in charge in that area and then there is a way with Homeland Security that you can complain.
I will conclude that as a Muslim we have to face the reality that we are Americans, we are the product of where we live. And we need to make sure that we know our neighbors. So it is up to us as a Muslims to get to know our neighbors, to tell them that, I mean, we are immigrants. I mean, any other immigrants had to deal with a challenge when they come into this country. Luckily, we come to the best country in the world which is the United States, which is like a land of immigrants.