Somali Danes seek American spirit

Delegation of Somali Danes take a trip to Minneapolis for integration inspiration

MINNEAPOLIS — A delegation of six young Somali Danes, two Swedes and one Norwegian visited the American city of Minneapolis last week to break bread with their Somali immigrant counterparts and learn how this city has integrated them into civic and economic life. Minneapolis boasts the largest Somali population outside of Africa and became a haven for them when the country broke into civil war in the early 1990s.

The exchange was initiated by the American ambassador to Denmark, Laurie S Fulton, in conjunction with the Danish Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration. Fulton said that young Somalis have trouble feeling accepted into Danish society and a recent trip she took to Minnesota inspired her to initiate the programme. 

(Read related interview: From one diaspora to another)

“Danish integration minister Karen Hækkerup hosted a workshop several months ago for Somali Danes; I offered to host a reception that Karen attended and that’s how we talked about trying to get them together,” Fulton said. “One of the many common issues that Denmark and the US share is helping the Somali immigrants that come to our nations become successful citizens. And who in the US is doing the best job at helping the Somalis feel welcome, learn how to become Americans and be happy? It’s Minneapolis.”

Minneapolis’ thriving Cedar-Riverside neighbourhood, on the banks of the Mississippi River, is home to many of the estimated 30,000 Somali Minnesotans and was the ideal setting from which to draw inspiration. Hundreds of Somali Americans own businesses, and many young people have integrated themselves into civic and political affairs. The Somali Minnesotan community has fielded candidates for office, and has built a track record of working together with local and federal authorities.

“The most powerful thing I witnessed is the way people perceive themselves here,” said Yusra Oman, a 23-year-old who studies religion and science at the University of Copenhagen. “They see themselves as Somalis and as Americans. Not just the young people, but the elders of the community too. That's important, because in our culture we have great respect for the elders.”

During their three-day tour of Minneapolis, the Scandinavian delegation met with members of the City Council and learned about the city’s innovative STEP-UP Achieve Jobs program, which connects businesses with the next generation of diverse workers and provides hands-on job skills for young people. They toured the African Development Center and a local bank staffed largely by Somali Minnesotans. And they paired up with the Somali Action Alliance, which conducts voter outreach work with local community groups.

“You get what you earn here in Minneapolis,” said Ahmed Jama, a 25-year-old from Aarhus. “Everyone has personal responsibility here, because the government doesn’t do things for them. Here, people have their own identity.”

The youth delegation also visited a US Attorney’s office and spent time with representatives from the Minneapolis Police Department to learn how the city prevents youth violence by treating it not strictly as a crime issue but as a public health risk. Before returning to Scandinavia, they fit in a shopping trip to the Mall of America.

“The hope is that [the Somali-Scandinavian delegates] will go back to their community and tell people about their experiences in Minneapolis,” said Mutya Koudal, a consultant with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration, who joined the nine delegates along with a representative from the US Embassy and a journalist from Politiken newspaper. “Perhaps that means having a roundtable discussion; perhaps it means meeting with the local police chief. My role is to support them.”

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