Minneapolis’ first Somali-American City Council member had said only a few words about the city becoming the first in the U.S. to add a sister city in Somalia before he began to choke up.
Abdi Warsame paused and looked out into the council chambers, packed Thursday afternoon with Somali supporters who stood shoulder to shoulder and spilled out into the hallway and nearby rooms. Some carried Somali flags and several had pulled on T-shirts reading “I (heart) Minneapolis” and “I (heart) Bosaso”. Photographers and video crews from Somali media outlets jostled for position in the crowd, trying to capture the moment.
All seemed to be waiting anxiously for the kind of vote that usually goes by without much fuss. If approved by this council committee, Bosaso, Somalia, would be No. 12 on Minneapolis’ already long list of sister cities. But Warsame, clearing his throat, said this vote was different.
“What it means to Somalis is emotional for me to think about,” he said. “Because for over 25 years, Somalis have suffered a great deal. They’ve been isolated and we grew up in a very tough time. So what this means to us is it means that isolation — we have hope that isolation is going to be over.”
Other council members agreed, unanimously approving the proposal to make the port city of Bosaso a sister to a city that’s become home to thousands of Somalis.
Organizers of the effort said they hope the partnership will provide opportunities for cultural and business exchanges, noting that Bosaso is a telecommunications hub and already home to many businesses with Minnesota ties. The city sits in a region that has several leaders who were born or spent time in Minnesota, and Warsame said a large number of Somalis in Minneapolis are from the area. Over the past two decades, Bosaso has become a home to many Somalis fleeing other war-torn cities — much like Minneapolis.
Council Vice President Elizabeth Glidden recalled her work as an attorney in the 1990s, assisting Somali refugees trying to build new lives in Minnesota. She said many have stayed, put down roots and consider this city as their home.
“You have changed the city of Minneapolis,” Glidden told the crowd at Thursday’s meeting. “You have changed the state of Minnesota. It is a better city because of your contributions. It’s about time we have a sister city relationship.”
After the vote, supporters cheered and embraced. Some wiped away tears.
Khadija Ali, who runs an interpretive service company, said she was excited for her two young daughters, both born in the U.S. Ali said the sister city link will help show young people that Minneapolis is interested in Somalia — and all the people with ties to that country.
She said Somalis’ greater community involvement can provide important inspiration; her daughter, after learning Warsame had been elected to the City Council, ran for a council position at her school.
“It’s an exciting day in a way because it’s like the welcome we have felt has been extended beyond us, to the Somali people back home,” Ali said.
Degha Shabbeleh, a member of Minnesota Friends of Bosaso, the group that helped put together the sister city proposal, said the new relationship feels like a recognition of Somalis’ presence in the world.
“Today for me, it’s like I’m on the radar,” she said. “I’m here. You can see me now.”
Addressing concerns over terrorism, Warsame said he sees danger in avoiding new ties with Somalia. The way to build trust and support for the U.S., he said, is to make more Somalis feel welcomed, to build lives here and serve the community as members of the military or police and fire departments.
“I think this message is a positive message,” Warsame said of the sister city arrangement. “And it’s a message that I always kind of knew: The people in Minnesota are the best people in the world. And that’s why I was very emotional. I knew it couldn’t happen anywhere else. It could only happen in Minneapolis.”