The complicated reality behind the story of the Somali community's success in Minnesota
When Abdirahman Kahin came to the U.S. two decades ago, one of the first things he noticed about Minnesotans was their love for restaurants, especially those offering ethnic cuisine. He also noticed that though there were a lot of ethnic eateries in the Twin Cities, many tended to fall into one of several groups: Italian, Thai, Indian, Mexican or Middle Eastern. There were few, if any, places to get decent Somali food. So Kahin decided to try his luck in the restaurant business, and in 2010, he opened Afro Deli and Catering, serving East African and American themed dishes out of a location in Minneapolis. With a few years, Kahin made Afro Deli into one of the most successful immigrant-owned businesses in the state. Today, it features two Twin Cities locations (a third is planned) and a thriving catering business that counts the likes of General Mills and Target among its corporate clients. advertisements “Minneapolis is viewed around the world, particularly in Scandinavian countries where the Somali diaspora is growing, as a model for Somali integration,” writes Stefanie Chambers, a political science professor at Trinity College, in her recently published book comparing the Somali-American communities in Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio. “Other American mayors, such as the mayor of Portland, Oregon, have visited Minneapolis to learn about policies that can help their cities better address the needs of Somali immigrants.” For all the talk of success and integration, however, the more common reality for Somali-Americans in Minnesota is more complicated, if less comforting. “From outside, the community seems to be doing really great,” said Ahmed Yusuf, a Minneapolis Public Schools teacher who’s written about Somalis in Minnesota. “But when you look deep down, we’re struggling big time, except for a few individuals who have risen above as the cream of the crop.” The story of a success story
Tuesday August 15, 2017
By Ibrahim Hirsi
Abdirahman Kahin made Afro Deli into one of the most successful immigrant-owned businesses in the state.
When Abdirahman Kahin came to the U.S. two decades ago, one of the first things he noticed about Minnesotans was their love for restaurants, especially those offering ethnic cuisine.
He also noticed that though there were a lot of ethnic eateries in the Twin Cities, many tended to fall into one of several groups: Italian, Thai, Indian, Mexican or Middle Eastern. There were few, if any, places to get decent Somali food.
So Kahin decided to try his luck in the restaurant business, and in 2010, he opened Afro Deli and Catering, serving East African and American themed dishes out of a location in Minneapolis.
With a few years, Kahin made Afro Deli into one of the most successful immigrant-owned businesses in the state. Today, it features two Twin Cities locations (a third is planned) and a thriving catering business that counts the likes of General Mills and Target among its corporate clients.
“Minneapolis is viewed around the world, particularly in Scandinavian countries where the Somali diaspora is growing, as a model for Somali integration,” writes Stefanie Chambers, a political science professor at Trinity College, in her recently published book comparing the Somali-American communities in Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio. “Other American mayors, such as the mayor of Portland, Oregon, have visited Minneapolis to learn about policies that can help their cities better address the needs of Somali immigrants.”
For all the talk of success and integration, however, the more common reality for Somali-Americans in Minnesota is more complicated, if less comforting. “From outside, the community seems to be doing really great,” said Ahmed Yusuf, a Minneapolis Public Schools teacher who’s written about Somalis in Minnesota. “But when you look deep down, we’re struggling big time, except for a few individuals who have risen above as the cream of the crop.”
The story of a success story
The history of the Somali-Americans in Minnesota echoes that of many immigrant communities in the United States. When the first waves of Somalis arrived in Minnesota, in the early 1990s, many entered the workforce via unskilled jobs at meatpacking plants, where the work didn’t require prior work experience, advanced degrees or fluency in English.
But as the community grew, and as more Somali immigrants improved their English skills and earned career credentials, they branched out into more industries and professions — including work helping local and state government agencies bridge the cultural gap between service providers and the growing number of Somali clients in Minnesota.
Fabrics for sale at the Riverside Mall in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis. MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
They also started small businesses. Today, though Somali-Americans are in almost every sector of Minnesota’s workforce — and are particularly well-represented in the health, education and financial-services industries — perhaps their most conspicuous presence in Minnesota, especially in Minneapolis, to due to small businesses: the myriad restaurants, coffee shops and clothing stores that tend to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods where Somalis work, live and socialize.
At the same time, Somali-Americans have also found their way in local politics. In 2013, Minneapolis elected its first Somali-American City Council member, Abdi Warsame. The next year, Siad Ali was elected the Minneapolis school board; and last year, Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American to be elected to a state Legislature.
Those two factors — the community’s entrepreneurship and growing political clout — has formed a major part of the narrative about Somali success, especially among those who compare Somalis in Minnesota to those in other parts of the world.
When officials from Sweden started visiting Minnesota, for example, they made a point of connecting with entrepreneurs to understand how they managed to establish their shops. One of the entrepreneurs they met was Kahin, the Afro Deli owner, who told the group that many in the community go into business trying to serve the Somali population in a place where it’s relatively easy to start a business, which isn’t the case in Sweden.
“This is a problem that we need to address in our government in order for the Somalis to have the freedom to establish businesses, like here,” Kurt Eliasson, an official from the Swedish Association of Public Housing, told me in 2012. “If this becomes possible, then they don’t have to be dependent on government assistance.”
Downplaying more widespread problems
Yusuf, the MPS teacher, said it’s understandable why many — including many Somali Americans in Minnesota — want to focus on the community’s economic contributions and political muscle. But he, like many others, takes issue with the fact that people are looking at the community’s “unique” experiences that highlight achievement while downplaying more widespread problems.
“Yes, there are some successful entrepreneurs,” Yusuf said. “Yes, there are some Somali elected officials. But there are also many living in poverty; there are people who are still dealing with language barriers.”
In fact, according to a 2016 report by the Minnesota State Demographic Center, most Somali-Americans remain at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Nearly 57 percent of Somalis live in poverty, according to the report, while 26 percent live in near-poverty. Other measures also show how many Somali-Americans are struggling, even compared to other minority groups in the state. Somalis currently have the lowest median household income among immigrant and minority groups in Minnesota, as well as the lowest rates of educational attainment and home ownership.
What’s more, even some of the signs of success can be misleading. Many of the community’s small business owners, especially those in Minneapolis malls, are struggling to keep their doors open, said Kahin. Most are owned and operated by elderly women who, because of their limited English proficiency, aren’t able to participate in the traditional labor market. “Almost all of the stores in these malls sell identical clothes,” Kahin said. “Many owners barely secure the monthly rent income of their shops, let alone making profits.”
Better days ahead
Ryan Allen, an immigration expert at the University of Minnesota, says the socioeconomic challenges that Somali-Americans face aren't unique. In fact, they tend to mirror the experience of several groups, most notable Italian-Americans. “They were highly discriminated against because of their religion, and many people considered them to be a different race,” said Allen. “So they had to become entrepreneurs to survive economically.”
With time, the economic status of Italian immigrants improved as they gradually became more proficient in English and integrated into society — a pattern that he now sees in the Somali-American community.
Allen predicts that the second-generation of Somali immigrants, who, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, now make up nearly 40 percent of the community, can expect to do much better than their parents, both economically and socially. “The second generation of refugees have outcomes that look a whole like native-born children,” he says. “They go to college at the same rate and their economic outcomes look a lot like native-born children.”
It’s a sentiment Yusuf agrees with. He says that many second-generation Somalis in the Twin Cities metro area are serving as engineers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, educators, law-enforcement officers, artists and designers. “They have assimilated into the mainstream America,” he says.
All that said, the backgrounds and experiences of Somali-Americans who immigrate to the U.S. can vary widely. And different people in the community have adjusted to life in Minnesota at different paces. Some, for example, have managed to quickly climb the rungs of the socioeconomic ladder; others are struggling to make ends meet.
Whatever the case, says Hamse Warfa, an author and entrepreneur, it’s important not to treat the community’s economic status as an intractable issue, but as a Minnesota problem that must be confronted.
“The Somali-American community is part of the future workforce of the state,” he says. “The implications of these high poverty rates will potentially create a barrier to the economic mobility of the state.”
Why are Somalis successful? ›
Somali culture drives success
In social circles, loans are made interest free according to Islamic law — often without contracts. The community works together and supports one another financially. When natural disasters or social unrest affect individuals, members are ready to provide a helping hand where needed.
Somalis make up one of the largest Muslim communities in Minnesota, a state that has been largely comprised of Protestant (especially Lutheran) and Catholic communities for most of its history. When Somalis arrived in the 1990s, many in Minnesota were not familiar with Islam or the religious practices of Muslims.What state has the most Somali people? ›
Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the United States with 64,354 Somalis, making up 1.12% of the state's total population. Ohio is home to the second-largest Somali population with 21,051 individuals, comprising 0.18% of the state's population.What city is home to the largest Somali community in the US? ›
The state of Minnesota has the largest Somali community in the country, mostly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.Have Somali pirates ever been successful? ›
Somali pirates have attacked hundreds of vessels in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean region, though most attacks do not result in a successful hijacking. In 2008, there were 111 attacks which included 42 successful hijackings.What are Somalis most known for? ›
Somalis are distinguished by their traditional clan system, Somali language and Sunni Islamic beliefs. Daily life and culture can differ significantly across Somalia as many regions experience varying levels of poverty, governance and safety.Which US cities have the most Somali? ›
Somalis are the second largest ethnic group from the Horn of Africa, after Ethiopians. According to US Census Bureau estimates for 2008–2012, the largest concentration of Somalia-born people in the United States is in the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington area (17,320) of Minnesota.What are the Somali tribes in Minnesota? ›
The Minnesota Somali community is made up of numerous confederations of qabil, or clans, the most prevalent being the Darod, Dir, Hawiye and Isaaq.What is important in Somali culture? ›
Family is extremely important in the Somali community. The focus of Somali culture is on the family; family is more important than the individual in all aspects of life. Somalis will live with their parents until they get married.Where is Little Mogadishu in Minneapolis? ›
|Cedar-Riverside West Bank|
|Nickname: Little Mogadishu|
|Location of Cedar-Riverside within the U.S. city of Minneapolis|
|Coordinates: 44°58′00″N 93°14′36″W|
Where do most Somalis move to? ›
They were primarily seamen and New York City was their destination. In the late 1970s, more Somali immigrants followed. Not until the 1990s when the civil war broke out in Somalia did the majority of Somalis come to the US. The heaviest concentrations are in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St.Is Somali the poorest country? ›
In the world, the poorest countries are mostly located in Africa and Asia, with Burundi being the poorest country followed by Somalia, Mozambique, Central African Republic, and Madagascar.How many Somalis are in MN? ›
Mogadishu which is the capital city.How many Somali people are in Eden Prairie MN? ›
Now, nearly two decades later, Eden Prairie has the third-largest Somali population in the Twin Cities, next to Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to the city, with an estimated 3,500 to 5,000 residents. The Somali language is second only to English in Eden Prairie schools.Who stops Somali pirates? ›
The U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy both support the actions of the Combined Task Force 151 in their anti-piracy missions in the area.What do Somalian pirates want? ›
Coast of Somalia and the Business of Piracy
Adversity prompted the Somalis to test new ways of making money to support their livelihoods. Hence, former fishermen joined hands with the militia and unemployed youth to hijack vessels and demand ransom. This was the start of piracy in Somalia.
Somali pirates have the ability to win support from, among many others, government officials, businessmen, clan elders and mem- bers, militia and religious leaders, and members of local communi- ties.What were Somalis originally called? ›
Increasingly, evidence places the Somalis within a wide family of peoples called Eastern Cushites by modern linguists and described earlier in some instances as Hamites. From a broader cultural-linguistic perspective, the Cushite family belongs to a vast stock of languages and peoples considered Afro-Asiatic.Do Somali men have multiple wives? ›
Polygamy may be practised in some areas of Somalia, whereby a man may have up to four wives. However, a man is only allowed to take multiple wives if he can afford to provide for each of them properly (such as providing them their own individual living quarters and kitchen).
How do Somalis make a living? ›
Agriculture is the most important sector, with livestock normally accounting for about 40% of GDP and more than 50% of export earnings. Nomads and semi-pastoralists, who are dependent upon livestock for their livelihood, make up a large portion of the population.How many Somalis are in the US? ›
“It's like the cultural hub of the Somali diaspora, you could say.” Around 150,000 Somalis, both refugees and nonrefugees, live in the United States, according to U.N.What religion are Somali Americans? ›
Islam is the official state religion of Somalia and the vast majority of the Somali population identifies as Muslim. Most belong to the Sunni branch of Islam and the Shafi'i school of Islamic jurisprudence.How many Somalis are on earth? ›
|Regions with significant populations|
|Horn of Africa|
This study has found that the frequency of ABO and D blood groups among the Somalia population was O > A > B > AB which was similar to those reported from most East African populations. Similar studies are needed across the country.What is the oldest Somali clan? ›
The Dir (Somali: Dir) is one of the largest and most prominent Somali clans in the Horn of Africa. They are also considered to be the oldest Somali stock to have inhabited the region.What are the 4 Somali clans? ›
The five noble clans are the Hawiye, Dir, Darod, Rahanweyn and Isaaq. Of these, the Dir and Hawiye are regarded as descended from Irir Samaale, the likely source of the ethnonym Somali (soomaali).What are 5 facts about Somalia? ›
- (from the CIA World Fact Book) ...
- Population: 12,386,248 (2022 est.)
- Median age: 18.5 years.
- Capital: Mogadishu.
- Ethnic groups: Somali 85%, Bantu and other non-Somali 15% (including 30,000 Arabs)
- Religion: Sunni Muslim (Islam)
A: The most common way that Somalis greet each other is by saying "As-salamu alaykum," which means "Peace and blessing be upon you." The phonetic pronunciation is "ah-salam-ooh all-eye-koom."Why do Somalis cover their hair? ›
We are a primarily Islamic society, which requires that the women cover their heads. With that being said, this depends on the parents and how strict they are when it comes to their faith.
Which clan owns Mogadishu? ›
Mogadishu is traditionally inhabited by four clans. These are the Moorshe, Iskashato, DhabarWeyne, and the Bandawow. And with Moorshe being regarded as the oldest group in Mogadishu and is considered to be a sub-clan of Ajuran who established one of the most powerful medieval kingdoms in Africa called Ajuran Sultanate.What city was Black Hawk Down based on? ›
Battle of Mogadishu (1993)
|Date||3–4 October 1993|
|Location||Mogadishu, Somalia 2°03′09″N 45°19′29″E|
|Result||Inconclusive, see Aftermath|
The Hawiye (Somali: Hawiye, Arabic: بنو هوية, Italian: Hauija) is the largest Somali clan family.Where are Somalis from originally? ›
The Somali people are believed to have their origins in the North of Somalia. With the longest coastline on the continent, Somalia holds an important place in the history of global maritime trade with ancient Egypt, Rome, Persia, Greece, Phoenicia, China and other empires.Are Somalis Arabs? ›
Somalis are not 'Arab' or 'Middle Eastern'. They follow similar Islamic practices and customs to other majority Muslim countries. However, they are not located in the Middle East and are ethnically Somali, not Arab. Be aware that the northern region of Somaliland is self-declared as an independent breakaway republic.Are Somalis rare? ›
Somalis are a relatively rare breed, but the Somali Breed Council maintains a directory of reputable breeders.Are Somalis friendly? ›
Somalis are extremely open, friendly and hospitable. Strangers become friends before they become acquaintances. Returning the warmth and friendliness is an excellent way to gain trust.Which country has zero poverty? ›
Iceland stands at the top of countries with the lowest poverty rates with a poverty rate of 4.9% in 2021.Is Somalia richer than Nigeria? ›
Nigeria has a GDP per capita of $4,900 as of 2020, while in Somalia, the GDP per capita is $800 as of 2020.What city in Minnesota has the most Somalis? ›
Somalis are an ethnic group in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metropolitan area that makes up the largest Somali diasporas in the United States.
Which immigrant group is the largest in Minnesota? ›
Minnesota's largest immigrant groups
Mexican immigrants remain Minnesota's largest immigrant group, but the number of Mexican immigrants living in the state declined over the past decade.
Minnesota's first large groups of immigrants arrived from Europe, primarily Norway, Sweden, Ireland, and Germany. Today, the majority of Minnesota's immigrants arrive from Mexico, Somalia, India, and Laos.Who is Somali billionaire? ›
Following the aftermath of civil war and prolonged conflict, Somalia is now one of the most impoverished nations in the world. This is largely due to the collapse of the Somali Democratic Republic in 1991, an event that divided the country. War waged, killing thousands of native Somalis.Who is the richest Somali woman in the world? ›
Amina Moghe Hersi - Wikipedia.What US state has the most Somali population? ›
Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the United States with 64,354 Somalis, making up 1.12% of the state's total population. Ohio is home to the second-largest Somali population with 21,051 individuals, comprising 0.18% of the state's population.How do Somalis make money? ›
Somalia has a large trade deficit. Its chief export commodities are livestock and bananas, which are mainly sent to Arab countries. Other exports include hides and skins, fish, and frankincense and myrrh.What is Somalia's biggest source of income? ›
Somalia is the world's fourth-most country dependent on remittances. Most remittances are sent by Somalis-based abroad to relatives in Somalia. This accounts for 20%-50% of the Somali economy.Is Somalia a successful country? ›
Amid repeated shocks, growth in GDP averaged only 2% from 2013 to 2020. Owing to the multiple crises, GDP contracted by 0.2% in 2020. GDP growth recovered to 2.9% in 2021 but is projected to have fallen to 1.7% in 2022 under the regional drought and worsening global economic conditions.
The U.S. has contributed $2.5 billion in humanitarian aid for the Horn of Africa since Oct. 1, 2021, $1.3 billion of it for Somalia, according to American officials. UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, credited American aid for saving 460,000 Somali children last year.
How much money does Somalia owe? ›
Details of the Debt Relief Operation
At the start of the HIPC process, Somalia's public- and publicly guaranteed external debt was estimated at US$5.2 billion in NPV terms. Application of traditional debt relief mechanisms reduces this debt to US$3.7 billion.
Polygamy may be practised in some areas of Somalia, whereby a man may have up to four wives. However, a man is only allowed to take multiple wives if he can afford to provide for each of them properly (such as providing them their own individual living quarters and kitchen).What is the most common job in Somalia? ›
The most important sector is agriculture, employing around 70% of the workforce, with livestock comprising approximately 40% of the country's GDP.What do Somalis do for work? ›
Many Somalis are nomadic or semi-nomadic herders, some are fishermen, and some farmers.What are Somalis called? ›
`Somalian', also used as both a noun and an adjective, refers to the citizens of the Democratic Republic of Somalia. It should be noted that almost all Somalians are also ethnic Somalis.What makes Somalia poor? ›
The main reason for the poverty of Somalia is its weak economy and the lack of import-export in the country. Almost every government has failed to deal with these challenges during its tenure. Despite the fact that most of the people in Somalia engaged in agriculture, the country has crossed the door of poverty.Is the United States helping Somalia? ›
In the decades since, the United States has become one of Somalia's largest international assistance donors and its largest provider of humanitarian aid.How powerful is Somalia? ›
The nation holds a PwrIndx* score of 4.0196 (a score of 0.0000 is considered 'perfect'). This entry last reviewed on 01/01/2023. *PwrIndx: Each nation is assessed on individual and collective values processed through an in-house formula to generate its 'PwrIndx' (Power Index) score.