Abubakar Abdi skipped his usual after-work stop to visit friends at the local Somali mall on Thursday, heading to his Minneapolis home instead to catch President Donald Trump’s speech.
As he watched, the 22-year-old IT specialist said he was taken aback by the loud boos at the packed campaign rally when Trump mentioned Somalis.
“As you know, for many years, leaders in Washington brought large numbers of refugees to your state from Somalia without considering the impact on schools and communities and taxpayers,” Trump said at the rally. “I promise you that as president, I would give local communities a greater say in refugee policy and put in place enhanced vetting and responsible immigration control, and I’ve done that since coming into office.”
Abdi, born and raised in Minnesota, said the president’s words and the crowd’s reaction left him wondering: “What if my former classmates were among the ones booing? What if it was my former teachers booing?”
“I didn’t know we were hated like that,” he said. “Donald Trump is one man, but what scares me is the amount of support he has.”
Minnesota is home to the nation’s largest Somali population, numbering 57,000 in the latest census, though the current number is believed to be higher. Trump’s remarks about refugee resettlement and about U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, whom he called “a disgrace to our country” during his speech, stung and angered many Somali-Minnesotans, with some using words such as “dangerous,” “disgusting,” and “racist.”
The negative portrayal of people of Somali descent is making it harder for some to go about their lives without fear, and they want answers from Minnesota Republican leaders about whether they agreed with Trump’s comments.
On Friday, the state’s GOP leaders largely stood behind Trump.
“He is not against immigrants, he is not against refugees coming into this country,” said Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, who said she supports Trump’s comment in Thursday’s speech about giving cities and states greater say over refugee resettlement.
“He is just simply saying that he understands there are some challenges, especially that Minnesota has had, around … taking in a significant number of refugees but not thinking about the impacts — and how it impacts [things] like schools, education, jobs, housing.”
Members of the audience at the Trump rally booed at his first mention of Somali refugees. Carnahan said she believes those boos were targeted at Omar.
“People just can’t identify with her negativity. And it’s unfortunate, but she really has propped herself up as the voice and the face for an entire community,” Carnahan said.
She added that she has gotten to know many Somali refugees, including some involved with the Republican Party, and that Omar’s negativity “sort of gives a bad perception when it really doesn’t need to be that way.”
Somali-American police officers in Minneapolis also voiced their concern over the president’s comments and their union’s involvement in the rally, saying the union’s unflinching support for the president is troubling and a major setback to community policing efforts.
The Minneapolis Police Officers Federation designed the red “Cops for Trump” T-shirts many wore at the rally, and the union president, Lt. Bob Kroll, spoke at the rally in support of Trump. The Somali officers said they oppose the slogan “Cops for Trump” and argue that the episode has strained their relationship with the union.
“The union is supposed to speak for all officers. But when they side with the president who always says hateful things about the Somali community it’s problematic and it creates a lot of mistrust in the community,” said Haissan Hussein, president of the Somali American Police Association, a national organization working to bridge the gap between the Somali community and police and recruit Somali-Americans to the force. “Now, we look like sellouts.”
Mukhtar Yusuf, assistant principal at Best Academy in north Minneapolis, said school leaders were bracing for the reaction from Somali parents and students Monday. Roughly 30% of the school’s students are Somali-American.
“The president ignores the fact that Somalis are impacting Minnesota in a positive way,” Yusuf said.
Haji Yusuf helped build bridges between St. Cloud’s Somali community and their neighbors as director of UniteCloud. He said he stopped watching after Trump’s comments about Somalis and Omar.
Yusuf recently launched a podcast called “Minnesota Experience” sharing “the good, the bad and the ugly” experiences of Somali immigrants.
“It hurts me, especially now that I have children who were born in this country,” Yusuf said of Trump’s comments.
Meanwhile, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group blasted Republican lawmakers for standing by the president’s “bigotry” and condemned the “overt racism” at the rally.
“It is all the more disturbing that the almost all-white audience welcomed this overt racism and that Republican political leaders remain silent or even support such bigotry,” said Nihad Awad, national director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he supports the president’s stance that cities and states should have a say on accepting refugees.
“I thought it was reasonable, that a city or state could say, ‘I want or don’t want different groups of people,’ ” he said.
Each city’s situation is different, Gazelka added, saying some cities “might decide they cannot accept more refugees because they already have a large percentage of their population that needs help from the welfare system.”
Gazelka noted that Trump called Omar anti-Semitic.
“A lot of people could relate to the fact that she has said some things about different people that they find offensive. And I think that’s where [Trump is] different, in that he’s not afraid to when, you know, somebody swings, he swings back,” Gazelka said.
“We have been a nation that works with refugees and legal immigration and that process will continue,” Gazelka said. “And we want to encourage people that want to be a part of Minnesota, a part of America, and want to assimilate into our culture. Any group that wants to do that, we want to welcome, we want them to be here. It’s when they don’t, they don’t appreciate the culture, they don’t appreciate being here, that it becomes more frustrating for the people of Minnesota.”
But state Rep. Rod Hamilton, a moderate Republican from Mountain Lake, struck a different tone on Twitter Friday.
“I have met many wonderful immigrants and refugees. Take the time to get to know one another and you will find beauty all around you,” he wrote.