With the nation hotly debating President Trump’s executive order temporarily prohibiting the entry of all refugees as well as travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations, which is currently on hold as it works its way through the federal courts, the Star Tribune wanted to find out what former refugees currently living in the Twin Cities had to say about the travel ban and their experiences with the refugee process.
We visited the Somali American-owned Capitol Café in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood one morning last week to speak with the owners and some of their customers. The following is a lightly edited transcript of some of those conversations.
Burhan "Scot Isqoox" Elmi, owner of Capitol Café
What do you wish President Trump knew about you or your community?
I wish he knows that we’re all fighting one enemy. The enemy is ISIS or Al-Shabab. I wish he knows that because they’re killing more Muslims every single day around the world … In Somalia, they’re killing every single day.
What would you say to the president about his travel ban?
I would say that’s really wrong. I believe this is going to create more people to join ISIS.
Were you a refugee?
Can you tell us about the process you went through to come to America?
It’s not easy. You go through a lot of interviews, a lot of screening. It is not easy to come. Even today, I’m a U.S. citizen. If I go back to Somalia, or Africa, when I’m coming in America - maybe I’m in transit in Netherlands, or Paris, or London - I go through a lot of questions. Why did I go there? What is the reason I visit? There’s a lot of things going on. It’s not easy to come here.
How long did it take you to come to the U.S.?
I think three years waiting, for all the process.
What was your experience like as a newcomer to Minnesota?
When I come to United States, I was with my family … my aunt, my cousin, everyone was here. The good thing is, when I going to school, my school paid for my first driver license and that was the biggest thing ever for me. Today, I have a business. I never dreamed I could have a business like this.
What would you say to people who want to come to America?
I would say if America is your dream, don’t give it up. Still come. If you want to come, don’t give it up. This is still a great country, still good people here. Trump, whatever he’s doing, is wrong, but a lot of people don’t believe it. There are Americans who support immigrants.
Do you have family who are trying to come here?
Yes, I still have family that want to come here. Even my sister, she lives in Kenya. She goes through all the process. She was waiting for a flight to come here and now … I don’t know what’s next.
She was a refugee for a long time, many years. She got married ... she had three kids, she’s divorced. The United States accepted her. She go through all the process. She was going to fly to come here and now everything is shut down.
Where is she?
She’s in Kenya. Refugee camp. ... What happened to her was, her flight to come to Arizona, they delayed. Because of the delay, her medical check-up expired. They delayed everything. That’s why she missed the flight. Then this thing happens.
What is she doing now?
Mustafa Diriye, St. Paul
Were you a refugee?
Yes, I was a refugee, four years in a refugee camp in Mombasa, Kenya, and then I come here and I have a beautiful life. I work hard for it. I didn’t get anything for free. I get visa and they told me to go. I’m earning a living. I make myself somebody. All the way through the university, I pay myself. I was myself a refugee and there’s a lot of people, they just need opportunity. They don’t want to beg anybody. They don’t want handouts. They just want opportunity and acceptance. And they will make a beautiful country. This country is a country of immigrants, and everybody come here in some way, except the natives. We’re all immigrants except the native. This is the land of opportunity and only we claim that if we’re all treated equally.
Can you talk about what the refugee process was like for you?
It’s really, really a long process. And sometimes it offended me when people that have no refugee background, don’t know anything about the refugee process, they sit down at the table and discuss the future of the refugees. It’s one of the toughest process you can go through. You get, like, unstoppable questioning, you get like three, four rounds of interviews. You get fingerprints. If you leave the refugee camp, you go to next town, if you come back they will question. They know [everything] about yourself, even more than you know yourself. It’s very, very, long and hard process. They don’t accept everybody easily. There is people when I left in 1996, they’re still in the refugee camp and waiting [for] the process. So some people, they might take 10, 20 years. Some of them, they passed away without even get that interview. It’s a long, long and hard process. I hope the people understand, and visit the refugee camp and see how the process go for themself before they judge it.
What message do you think the executive order sends to the people in these camps, and the rest of the world?
America do not accept the Muslims. I have to be honest with this because the message is Muslims are not welcome in this country. That’s the only [interpretation] that I can give you, and so many other people will give you. We build the wall, we don’t accept the people of Latino communities. Muslim ban is just because of the Muslim is a threat to America. That’s what they believe in, which is not true. Every study and every research show that Muslims are least committing crime in America. … Basically it is a refusal of Muslims because of the religion, that’s what I believe this is all about.
Would you say anything to Donald Trump about refugees or your experience?
My message to him is that, I know that you don’t like me. I know you don’t like my community. I know that you don’t like people of color in general. It’s fine. You have a right to do that. But at least remember one thing. You’re only gonna be in that office at least four or eight years. But what is your legacy will be? What kind of legacy your children will have? How are they going to perceive the rest of the world? Because this is not about only you. It’s about your legacy, your family, the rest of your kids. … So far, the way your legacy is going, it’s not a good one. It’s a dark one.
Assad Omar, Fridley
What do you wish President Trump knew about you or your community?
There are people, other Americans, who came [as] refugees. They are hardworking, they are participating in the American workforce. They go to schools, they have business, they are in the military, they are in the health care. They are everywhere. They are kind of like every other people that has been here before. So I want to [him to know], the Somali communities are part of the fabric of the American community.
Were you a refugee?
Yeah, I was a refugee. I flee from Somalia in 1990. I came to Kenya refugee camp. I know how being a refugee is very tough. I came to the United States in 2004. I went to school, I graduated from day school. I work as a nurse. I’m a taxpayer. I’m contributing to the American society. It’s really pretty tough to be refugees, but people have dreams. When you are a refugee, dreams are different. There’s a difference, because you don’t have a choice. There’s no school, there’s no education, there’s no safe place to sleep. But here, the opportunity is unlimited. The sky is open for you. Please do not stop the refugees. The refugees in the camp can be people who can contribute to the American agriculture, American economic, American education. Any person can do something for America. Please do not stop the refugees… especially if they are in very dire situations at this moment.
Can you talk about the process you went through as a refugee?
There was a lot of process. There was vetting. There was interviews, there was clearances. We had been waiting almost three years to come to America. So the process is already tough. It’s getting more and more difficult now. In 2004 it was a little bit maybe easier. It takes like four years. Now it takes the families almost 10 years. There’s refugees that have been approved to be in the United States but they’re still being held because of these processes. It doesn’t matter, the Bush administration, the Obama administration, they were putting more restrictive measures on the refugees to come to the United States. And now Trump says he’s banning, it’s getting worse. The refugees are getting hopeless. They’re being turned away. They don’t have any choice, they’re going back to Somalia and ISIS and Al-Shabab are taking advantage of them.
What was it like being a newcomer in Minnesota?
It’s really day and night. It’s totally different. Because in Somalia, or in the camp, we don’t have any hope at all. Because [there are] no schools, there’s no work, there’s no career where you can go to school and help your family. But here, in the United States, especially in Minnesota, they welcome us, they help us … and then we work, and go to schools, and now we’re here.
What message do you think the travel ban sends to the refugees and the rest of the world?
I think it sends a wrong message to the other societies. Everybody, no matter where they are, people held a high position for American government, American society, American culture, because that’s where people feel there is democracy. There is opportunity for everybody no matter what color, what religion, what faith you have. … I think it sends a very bad signal to other communities in the world.
What would you say to people who want to go to America?
I would say be patient, things will change and become normal. So please take patience. America is still America. No matter Trump. The president comes and goes. So please be patient and do not change your perception of American culture.
What would you say to Americans who are worried about refugees?
I would say, the refugees are refugees. They don’t cause any problems. They are here to change their lives, not here to cause harm to anybody. I have been here, I’ve never been arrested. Never been given a warning. I have never participated in any bad activity. I don’t do drugs. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I’m just helping my family. That’s all I care. That’s who I am. ... The refugees are needy at this time. They come here, they’re just going to pursue their dreams.