Minnesota must battle against anti-Somali bigotry

  • Article by: HUSSEIN SAMATAR
  • Updated: January 3, 2012 - 7:30 PM

Somalis weren't involved in 9/11 but are bearing the brunt of the reaction.

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Hussein Samatar is a Minneapolis School Board member.

Photo: Hussein Samatar, Dml -

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I had just dropped off a first-grader at school and was headed to my job as a commercial banker in Minneapolis when the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York.

I vividly remember the words of Minnesota Public Radio's Gary Eichten as he explained that it was thought a small plane had hit one of the towers but that he was waiting for more information to share with all of us listening live at the time.

When I walked into my office, I joined my colleagues in front of a TV screen, on which I saw live footage of the next plane hitting the second tower. I had no idea -- and I'm sure most Somali-Minnesotans and other Muslim-Americans did not, either -- how our lives would be impacted by what was unfolding in front of our eyes.

At the time, the Somali-Minnesotan community was not as large as it is today. Being black, Muslim and immigrant seemed relatively normal (or at least acceptable) in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Countless Minnesotans had generously welcomed the Somali community and had helped in any way they could to create an effective integration into the social and economic life of the state.

The evidence of integration today can be found in the number of Somali-Minnesotan businesses in nearly every region of the state, in the number of students who are in or have graduated from every college and university in Minnesota, and in the recent trend of growing homeownership rates for this community.

All of these indicators would have not been possible without the generosity of the Minnesotans who created policies, organizations and institutions for all.

However, the fear and anger caused by Al-Qaida's act of terror on 9/11 has somehow brought the Somali-Minnesotan community to represent the face of Islam and Muslims for many people in Minnesota.

The irony of all of this is that not one 9/11 hijacker was of Somali ethnicity, nor was Al-Shabaab (the terrorist group that has killed more Somalis than anybody else) even around at the time.

Alas, Somali-Minnesotans immediately felt the impact of Al-Qaida's terroristic act, despite the fact that this is an organization led predominately by men from Middle Eastern countries with which our U.S. government maintains normal relations and conducts arms sales.

What Somali-Minnesotans cannot understand is why they have to take the brunt impact from the Patriot Act's expansion of the Secretary of the Treasury's authority to regulate financial transactions (signed on Oct. 26, 2001, by President George W. Bush and recently given a four-year extension by President Obama).

Somali-Minnesotans are Americans, and are law-abiding members of the community. Therefore, it is their right to conduct their banking business without the addition of these great difficulties.

However, since 2002, most Minnesota banks initiated the practice of not doing business with the Somali money-service businesses known as hawalas.

The hawalas are regulated by the state and are regularly audited, and over time they have improved their efficiency and compliance. Yet, since 2002, they have been struggling to find banking partners in Minnesota with which they can have reliable relationships.

Somali-Minnesotans are predominantly people of faith with a strong sense of helping those who are less fortunate-- whether they are here in Minnesota, in Somalia, or elsewhere. They fully understand what it means to be a refugee and to lack the daily necessities for survival.

Despite not having abundant means, many will often make the sacrifice of sending $50 or $100 to a family member to aid in their daily lives. Somali hawalas are the only reliable vehicle to send money into Somalia proper.

I am sure that if Western Union or any other money-wiring shops were able to send the money to this region of the world, Somali-Minnesotans would have used them instead.

I find it unfortunate that the most powerful country in the world cannot find acceptable and effective ways for this community to send money safely to Somalia while still denying terrorist organizations like Al Shabaab an opportunity to benefit from these transactions.

Finally, this is truly a wake-up call for Somali-Minnesotans and Somalis everywhere to set aside divisions and work hard toward ending the civil war in Somalia.

It is in everyone's self-interest to see a functioning government in Somalia that can defend its territory, maintain a healthy relationship with the international community and deny a haven for terrorists.

The Somali-Minnesotan community will need all Minnesotans' help in addressing this issue and in avoiding the unnecessary suffering of a people who have been anguishing for a long period of time.

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Hussein Samatar is the founding executive director of the African Development Center of Minnesota and is a member of the Minneapolis school board.

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