“We’re the first wave of Somali Americans mixing in with American culture. We have a lot that we’re trying to adapt to, assimilate, figure out, in terms of just who we are and what our culture is.”
Nuzzled between downtown Minneapolis and the neighborhood of Midtown, the Riverside Plaza apartments are home to immigrant families of Ethiopian, Vietnamese, and Somali descent, along with other ethnicities. But it’s the Somali Americans, like me, who have become synonymous with the tall, blocky buildings and surrounding area, known as the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Statistically, we’re the most prominent minority group in the area. But ultimately, it’s less about metrics and more about our blackness and Muslimness: black and Muslim bodies are the most surveilled bodies in America.
“Mogadishu, Minnesota” and “Little Mogadishu” are just two of the well-intentioned but otherizing misnomers outsiders have for us, given the neighborhood. But Somali Americans don’t live exclusively in one insular pocket of South Minneapolis; the 70,000-plus Somali-born residents of the Twin Cities and the surrounding metro area are an integrated, everyday presence all over the city.
In 1991, a violent civil war in Somalia displaced millions of children, women, and men. The Somali diaspora began with many fleeing—often by foot or boat—to neighboring countries as a method of survival. As a result, my people are now scattered all over this planet; I have friends and relatives everywhere from New Zealand to Norway. Minnesota, with one of the most robust refugee resettlement programs in the United States, was an ideal, welcoming place for Somali refugees and asylees to resettle.
Many Somalis I know once lived with the expectation that they would return to Somalia, that their residence in America was only temporary. After all, Somalia was one of the safest, most tolerant, most culturally rich countries in Africa in the decades following independence from Britain. But, ultimately, Minnesota was not a short-term pitstop; Minnesota is home. And for younger Somali Americans, especially, a “return to Somalia” has never been in the cards because America is all we’ve ever known. It’s where we live, pay taxes, and consume hotdish. We’re not going anywhere because we simply love America.
Abdhulkadir, 74, Lyft Driver“When I first got here, I was 52 years old. I am now 74...I think. I’m not one of the kids who were born or grew up here. So I still dream of Somalia. That’s the country I was raised in and its memory will never leave me. And to America, I say thank you, because it’s the place that welcomed us.
Somalis are one of the most civically engaged new immigrant groups in the country. We produced Congress’s rising star, Ilhan Omar. Ms. Omar, a Minnesota resident, straddles the line between two distinct Somali American generations with different values and lived experiences—and differing portrayals in the media. Depictions of older Somali Americans emphasizing their religiosity are plentiful. So too are portraits of the misconduct of low-income male youth. The HBO series Mogadishu, Minnesota, produced by Kathryn Bigelow, was refused permission to film at the Riverside Plaza apartments because the script was rumored to depict a Somali terror cell in Minnesota. Minnesotans protested during filming, and, ultimately, HBO decided not to move forward with the show. But whether on television, film, digital media, or in print, very rarely is the “regular-ness” of Somali Americans (of someone like myself!) recognized, highlighted, or written about.
Abdi, 25, Lyft Driver“We’ve all read Catcher in the Rye in high school, we’ve all had to do all these things that every American has done. I’ve got cousins who play hockey like every day. And what’s more Minnesotan than playing hockey?
To remedy what I saw as a gap in media representation for younger Somali Americans like myself, I launched the first issue of a zine called 1991 last year. The title is a reference to the year Somalia’s civil war began, and I chose it because the civil war remains a phantom presence in the lives of many across the Somali diaspora. The year is jam-packed with historical and cultural significance, too. And while Somalis’ stories—especially the ones I want to tell—don’t start or end there, the year was a watershed moment for us globally. (Also, palindromes promote aesthetic symmetry, so I might have geeked out at the chance to design with the name of the publication being 1991 in mind.)
In the first issue’s “Letter from the Editor,” I listed the cultural changes I want to see happen in my lifetime: more art by Somalis; millennial and Gen Z Somali kids taking back the power from our elders; and Somali writers, cultural producers, and artists exerting great influence over our portrayal in wider American culture. The latter goal has inspired me to pivot my creative focus from journalism to film and television production; as dominant cultural mediums, these are where the images of Somalis are so often misrepresented.
But I’m not solely interested in positive imagery, as I don’t think representation exists strictly within the binary of “positive” and “negative.” I think the nuanced representation of people of color, particularly Somalis, starts with having the agency to tell our own stories. I’m usually one to wince at loaded buzzwords like representation and inclusion—especially when they’re employed in personal essays like this one. But I know firsthand of the material consequences of misrepresentation: impaired social mobility, discrimination in multiple forms, and self-image issues, to name a few. I’ve seen the material consequences of Hollywood’s sloppy portrayal of Somalis, from Black Hawk Down (starring Minnesota’s very own Josh Hartnett!) to Captain Phillips, and I’ve written about it for outlets like Shondaland and the New York Times. With every dehumanizing portrayal, a little piece of our living, breathing humanity is stripped away.
Maryam, 26, Lyft Driver“I’m Muslim first. It’s my guiding light to life. That’s the thing I like about Islam too, is because there’s no color in Islam. God first. And then I’m Somali, because that’s my blood. And then I’m American because I grew up here. And then I’m a woman.
As for 1991, I’m eager to continue our work. I’m also eager to parlay the experience of working on this project into writing and producing films via the creative studio and production company I founded last summer, Studio 91. Creating new images of Somalis—ones that aren’t interpolated with the white gaze or mired in racism—will be my life’s work, inshallah.
Every issue contributing to our current immigration crisis is interconnected. Your stories inspire us to continue to take a stand — when our community of riders and drivers is threatened, we’re encouraged to take action.
In honor of the Somali-American community, we are humbled to support the National Immigration Forum. For 30 years, the Forum has worked to advance sound federal immigration solutions through its policy expertise, communications outreach and coalition building work, which forges powerful alliances of diverse constituencies across the country to build consensus on the important role of immigrants in America.
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