Somali refugee leader Abdi Daisane on organizing in white, small-city Minnesota

In St Cloud, Minnesota, we were fortunate to sit down with Abdi Daisane, a Somali refugee, community leader and recent city council candidate. St Cloud is a city of 67,000 that was profiled on its race relations last year by This American Life, after its residents called for a [Somali] refugee ban before Trump did. A local newspaper called the city “the worst place in Minnesota to be a Somali” (Daisane says the worst place to be Somali is Somalia).

Next month, a city councilor plans to propose a resolution “temporarily” banning refugees from St Cloud – though the mayor and other city councilors oppose it. There’s going to be a hearing tonight (Monday, Oct 23rd), that activists plan to pack in opposition.

We met Abdi in a modest storefront building where he’s building a new childcare business. Here’s part one of our interview, on some of his life story, and the state of Somali and ally organizing against white nationalism (our words, not his) in St Cloud.

How did you end up in St Cloud?

Well I was born in Somalia. When I was about two years old, we fled, because of the civil war in Somalia. I was in a refugee camp in Kenya. I lived there for 18 years before I got resettled to the United States. So I was in Omaha, Nebraska, and then I kept moving around. I went to a little town in Nebraska, it’s about two hours away from Mount Rushmore and Black Hills, and stuff like that. So I spent there almost ten months, got my GED and business diploma.

That’s fast!

It was kind of a boarding school; they call it Job Corps. So I finished that, then I got to college in Grand Island, Nebraska. Then when I was still in college, I transferred here [to St Cloud University] as a student. My intention was to stay here – it wasn’t just that I came to be a college student; I moved with my whole family, my mom and my sister.

I visited during the spring break, and I liked it. I had a lot of childhood friends that already lived here, so I thought, “this is really nice.” It’s not like Nebraska, where you don’t have a lot of community members that you know. Where I went in high school was basically white, no immigrant communities and all that. I was new to that place, and sometimes you like to see community members that you can associate with, that you can relate to.

Yeah. Definitely.

But it was a really good experience too; it’s not that I run away from bad experience in Nebraska. It’s just, I couldn’t notice a lot of tension in there because I was the only Somali person in that community when I was going to high school there. So nobody noticed who I was. Sometimes people would think I’m African-American. It wasn’t a lot of problems there. And I wasn’t too involved; I was just getting my GED and diploma… No particular reason that I transferred; it’s just that I came here, and then I go around, and I find out hundreds of people that I know from here to Minneapolis. The whole tribe’s here! [laughs] So I gotta go there. And I investigate St Cloud University; I find out it’s a really good university.

So how’s it been since you moved here?

It’s really nice, really good. I mean, there’s a lot of things going on in St Cloud – it’s not as quiet as I was in Nebraska. Things are changing here, and I think mostly it’s because of the changing demographic. There are a lot of newcomers here; a lot of community of refugee background that are moving here, mostly Somali, but a lot of East Africans as well. Some of them are from Ethiopia. Mostly the Somalis that arrive here are either from Kenya or Ethiopia. We also have Oromos and Sudanese coming. Then we have some West Africans. We also have Middle Eastern, not a lot – we have few Iraqis who came here as refugees as well. They came here through social services. But mostly the resettlement is East African.

We’ve read about some of the really unfortunate tensions, and we’re curious how the Somali community has healed, organized and protected itself to get beyond that.

Honestly, Somali communities are not organized. We do have individuals that are active in the community, like myself. But we are not like an organized community, that actually have organizing and grassroots kinds of activities going on. But we do have allies, you know, community members, that when something happens, you see them more than you see Somalis. So if something happened that affects Somalis, you’re going to see a lot of allies: congregations, Latinos, African Americans, that came out to support the community. And you’re probably going to see five people, including me, that are Somali.

Why do you think that is?

I think we focus more on what we should do for ourselves. We focus more on how we should change our life. Because these people just moved here from refugee camps. They’re trying to be more self-sufficient; they’re trying to get their life together. They don’t have time to come out, and protest, and talk. And some of them are not even that active; they don’t know what’s going on. I know parents that have no idea what’s going on, until you go and tell them. It’s like, “did you know something like that happened?”

The mosques have been vandalized a couple times. And I know parents that had no idea. My mom had no idea that something was going on.

If you’re not on Facebook, you have no idea.

Yes! [laughs] That is right. So older people, parents, some younger parents, they just focus on: they bring their kids to school, and working. There are a lot of industrial kinds of jobs here. There are production companies, meat production companies especially, that a lot of immigrant communities work. So it’s a hard job. You work there, you come home, you might not even see your kid! You might not even really have time with your kid. So, you don’t have time to be active in your community. So it’s maybe that type of thing. But also, I don’t think we’re actually that kind of community. Because of where we came from – we weren’t an active community back in Somalia too. There was a dictator before the Somali collapse. People were not actively resisting what was going on. So when they come here, they see this as a piece of cake: It’s like, “Everything is good here!” You don’t have to complain. Now you can work. As long as someone is not attacking you physically, then you’re good. When they’re yelling it’s not like that, but, yeah.

Katie: I did a lot of work in Maryland with a community from El Salvador. A lot of people are undocumented; not everybody. I did tenant organizing in this giant apartment complex; it had horrible mold issues, rats, super disrespectful management. And I found really similar things, where people are running away from really violent civil war, gangs, things like that. And when they got to the US, they were like, “I’m just here to keep my head down.”

Yes. Yes, that’s true. And the thing is, you know, this is happening because you see people talking about, “What is going to happen to me?” A month ago, there was a guy who came and was talking at one of the churches here, spreading negative and deficient [lies about Somalis], and all that. And they said he was Muslim before, and now he’s [converted]. He’s from Iran, and he’s made a career out of saying bad things about Muslim people.

And there was a lot of organizing going on – there was a meeting at the library where I was the only Muslim, Somali person in there. And everyone else deciding what to do was from other communities. So my friend Justin, a really active guy, said, “Let’s ask Abdi what he thinks about that action! Because at the end of the day it’s the Muslim community, Somali community that it will affect.” I was the only voice. I said I wasn’t in favor of what the organizers were trying to do. And it wasn’t because I didn’t want to do that; it’s because I was thinking of the backlash that can happen to the community – how that will affect the community. And what we’re trying to build here. But nobody listened, because I was the only person. I was the only [Muslim, Somali] person in there.

Did they do it anyway?

They did it anyway! And there was a lot of conversation going on, so I was like… “Okay!”

That sucks. What was the action?

They wanted to protest in front of the church. Which sometimes is doable. But I personally didn’t want to do it. I personally didn’t see myself standing in front of church, protesting, just because somebody’s in there. There are several other ways that we can counter the narrative, we can tell the narrative, instead of that guy telling his own narrative.

Katie: A colleague of mine that works in congregational organizing in Boston told me a similar story, that after the election a congregation wanted to show its support for the Muslim community. So there was this group of white people that on Fridays wanted to hold hands in a big circle around the mosque. But a woman who was a community leader at the mosque, kept on telling these white people, “We don’t want you to do that.” Number one, it’s going to get in people’s way on a Friday; they want to be coming and going – it’ll just be annoying. And number two it’s going to attract a lot of attention that we don’t want right now. But people were so persistent that she just got worn down, and she was just exhausted and kind of scared and tired. And she was like, “Well, I don’t want to lose your support, just because you can’t do your thing.” So eventually they just went ahead and did it anyway.

It happens! Because I think there’s a lot of passionate activists and organizers in the community – and I love what they do. But sometimes you need to have some perspective on, okay, how should we proceed with this? When you have a community that was in the spotlight for a long time, and now Donald Trump is the president, and the hate groups are out there doing whatever they can. It’s just not easy things to do.

I am part of different organizations going into the community. I personally went to different churches and spoke to them about the Muslim faith, and who we are, and all that. And I feel like that changes a lot, because I have seen different people come to me, and say, “I didn’t know that. I had different perspectives about you guys. Now I know who you are.” And that’s powerful! But if I pull your hand, you pull mine – that’s not going to do anything good. That’s not going to do anything.

It can’t just be people on both sides yelling at each other.

Yes. And what I was campaigning was, I told them, let’s have a different approach. Let’s have our own kind of event, where we’re attracting a lot of positive things. When that guy is doing that. And let’s stop being reactive to when someone like that is coming into the community. Instead, let’s plan ahead. Let’s plan ahead and work that way. And create a lot of positive conversations in the community. And when that guy shows up, maybe he won’t have as many people showing up at his events.


Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Abdi.


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