ST. CLOUD, Minn. – Almost every evening, Abdul Kulane walks the streets of modest houses near downtown, hopeful that when he rings doorbells he’ll get a warm reception from whoever answers.
“Hello,” he says cheerfully through his Somali accent. “My name is Abdul. I am running for City Council.”
Kulane, a 32-year-old graduate of St. John’s University, is one of two Somali council candidates this year, marking the first time that Somali-American citizens have filed for city election here. A third is running for school board. By all accounts, it’s a significant step in this central Minnesota town of about 65,000, which has had a history of cultural tension with the immigrant group.
“It’s a sign of the times,” said Stephen Philion, professor of sociology at St. Cloud State University and chair of the nonprofit Greater Minnesota Worker Center. “They’ve organized the way that other [immigrant] groups previously have organized. Now they’re looking for a seat at the table … They’re a group that should no longer be taken as outsiders. They are St. Cloud.”
Philion said the racial hostility they faced may have had unintended consequences of giving the Somali community “a greater sense of commitment to fighting for political power.”
Kulane, who has lived in the city’s Ward 1 since 2006, is careful not to campaign on issues of diversity. He talks to potential constituents about crime, about property values, rental properties and abandoned houses, about revitalizing St. Cloud’s core neighborhoods.
“It’s not a Somali issue, it’s a city issue,” he says.
But he acknowledges, too, that part of the reason he’s running is to try to bridge a gap of misunderstanding between the immigrant community and the larger community.
Last year, when leaders of the local Islamic Center tried to build a second and larger mosque on a vacant parcel of land in town, residents complained about traffic and parking, but city officials also were sent dozens of nasty e-mails and postings on the city’s website. Center leaders abandoned their building plans.
In 2010, incidents of harassment against Somali students led to a Department of Education’s civil rights investigation in the school district.
Also that year, a Somali grocery owner found red spray-painted graffiti saying “Go Home” on the front of his store; online, someone posted a threatening message about an upcoming Somali cultural event; cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in derogatory ways were posted in front of a mosque and Somali-owned store.
The racial strife dates to as early as 2002, a few years after Somalis began moving to the area in greater numbers.
Somali leaders say that the incidents were the work of a small number of people, and that they trust the hatred is not the sentiment of most people in the region.
Two of the three Somali candidates running for public office survived primary voting here in August: Kulane and incumbent Dave Masters survived a field of three to be on the November ballot; Hassan Yussuf remained in the top six — by one vote — out of seven original candidates for three school board spots.
City Council candidate Ahmed Said was the only candidate to file against incumbent John Libert in Ward 3.
New level of acceptance
Islamic Center of St. Cloud Imam Mohamed Dahir smiled brightly, his eyes sparkling when he talked about how excited and proud the Somali community is to see three candidates on the ballot, though the mosque doesn’t directly endorse candidates, he said.
Immigrants view it as a sign of a new level of acceptance, he said: “That gap will be eliminated because people will learn more about you.”
Jama Alimad, executive director of the nonprofit Community Grassroots Solution, which helps new immigrants write resumes and find jobs and housing, said the candidacies are “a big deal” in Somali circles, especially with two surviving primaries. The elections also are engaging the immigrant community to better understand democracy.
“Everywhere you go, they are talking about this, [asking] is it possible?” he said. “This is America … Whoever is a citizen of this country that can vote are game changers.”
Candidates know they won’t win on Somali votes alone. Though there are no credible statistics on how large the St. Cloud area Somali population might be, a common estimate is 8,000 to 10,000, Philion said. Some estimate more. Other estimates based on census data are as low as about 4,500 foreign-born people living here.
Nearly one in five students in the St. Cloud Area School District are Somali language speakers.
Yussuf, a tax preparer, said he decided to run for school board because education is important to him; he has a bachelor’s degree from St. Cloud State and a master’s from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
He said he wants to engage more parents in narrowing the achievement gap. Though he unsuccessfully ran for school board in 2010, he said, this time the larger community has seemed more welcoming.
“They respond better. They listen,” he said. “The fact that they listen to you shows that they care. I think the tension is dying.”
Said, a medical interpreter, said he hasn’t been to Somalia in decades, doesn’t have close family there anymore, and fully considers St. Cloud his home — his three children were born here and will have a future here, he said.
“It’s not about Somali-Americans running” for office, he said. “It’s about what’s good for this country.”
Stressing neighborhood ties
The first voter Kulane met on a recent afternoon was 85-year-old Billy Paschall, who has lived in his house for 36 years. Paschall looked skeptical when he opened the door, but quickly warmed up to Kulane.
“Do you have any questions of me?” Kulane asked, dressed in a bright turquoise dress shirt. “Do you know your neighbors? … Part of why I’m running is to make sure that we are a community. Make sure that we get together.”
Paschall, a stars-and-stripes baseball cap atop his head, nodded softly. He’d seen Kulane’s brochure, he said, and he liked Kulane’s ideas.
Yes, Paschall said, he could count on his vote in November.
Paschall, a retired sociology professor from St. Cloud State University, said later he was glad to see Somalis running for office.
“When I came here somebody told me that they called it ‘White Cloud,’ but there’s been a lot of change,” he said. “Even if [Kulane] doesn’t win, I think it’ll be a good experience for the city to get acquainted with a Somali and to see that his concerns are very much what a lot of other citizens’ are.”