Bridging the Gap

University of MinnesotaUniversity of Minnesota

Within the last year, two Minnesota school districts have reached agreements with the U.S. departments of Education and Justice to settle complaints of harassment brought by Somali-American parents and a civil rights group.

The complaints alleged that district officials failed to take action when students made “inflammatory and derogatory” comments about Somalis and Muslims in school and on social media. There also were allegations that a school bus driver refused to pick up Somali-American students.

The immigrant population in Minnesota from East Africa, and Somalia specifically, has burgeoned in recent years to the point that the state now has the largest Somali population in the U.S. — between 29,000 and 36,000 — according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released in October.

As Somali high school students move into higher education, campus leaders say they are reaching out to Somali communities to recruit students and to enhance their collegiate experiences once they enter college.

“Communities in Minnesota that have a new, sizable Somali population have struggled with their integration into the local societies,” says Anise McDowell, Coordinator of Student Engagement at the University of Minnesota’s Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence.

“However, this has been the case for most new immigrant populations. In this case, I think part of it is because their culture is very different from the communities they have moved into,” McDowell explains, adding that those communities are “predominantly White, Lutheran or Catholic and the Somalis are Black, and they are Muslim.”

She also says attire and language differences contribute to a lack of understanding.

McDowell and her counterparts on other campuses credit the Somali student associations at their institutions for offering a variety of programs and activities for prospective students and ongoing support once they enroll. “For freshmen, the Somali Student Association is very welcoming and it continues to offer mentorship helping students make the transition from high school to college,” says Mohamed Dirie, president of the University of Minnesota’s Somali Student Association.

The SSA receives high praise from staff and administrators. A recent College Day recruitment program on the Minneapolis campus attracted more than 300 high school students and their families. It is an annual event organized and carried out by the SSA with cooperation and assistance from other campus groups and the Multicultural Center.

But Dirie says the organization’s efforts are mainly geared toward the Somalis. “That’s where the university could do more. Who’s teaching the university community about Somali culture and heritage?” He added that programs aimed at breaking down stereotypes and correcting misinformation would be helpful.

“The university looks to the SSA to plan events, and that is what we do,” he says. “But they have offices and paid staff that could do more.”

Norma Gutierrez, assistant director of admissions at the University of Minnesota, says the university’s Office for Equity and Diversity hosts frequent diversity training workshops that are designed for that purpose.

But an official within that office agrees with Dirie. “I think nationally, not just in Minnesota, there is still too much misinformation out there about Muslims and Islam in general,” says Phillip Miner, interim director of the Multicultural Center, which is part of the Office for Equity and Diversity. “I agree that more education and awareness needs to happen. My hope is that with more understanding and appreciation we would be able to increase our ability to relate to one another.”

At Minnesota State Technical College at Moorhead, academic adviser Kate Johnson says some of the students there are taking it upon themselves to combat stereotyping and misconceptions about their culture. “A specific concern that Somali students raise is the current negative media attention the Somali population is receiving and how this impacts them as individuals.”

She says several students are starting a nonprofit organization to provide positive activities for Somali youth in the community, and others are becoming vocal advocates for social justice on and off campus.

Gutierrez points out that her office is attempting to exercise sensitivity and cultural awareness when planning activities for prospective students. “Typically in the office of admissions we are committed to multicultural recruitment,” she says. “We work closely with the Somali Student Association in planning our recruitment events.”

She also says the admissions staff pays close attention to cultural needs. “We have a prayer room available; we try to ensure that they have vegetarian options when food is served; and we check our calendars to stay clear of religious holidays,” she added. “We try to show the people attending our events that we have a welcoming environment.”

Former St. Cloud State University SSA President Zamzam Mumin, who graduated last year, had praise for the university located in the city where Somali public school students were allegedly harassed.

“I felt that there was an awareness for cultural differences [at St. Cloud State],” Mumin says. “Multicultural Student Services promoted multiple events relating to culture. It provided many opportunities … to learn about other cultures. I definitely felt welcomed within the St. Cloud State community in comparison to the hostile St. Cloud community.”

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations filed complaints on behalf of public school students in St. Cloud and Owatonna, which led to months of investigations by the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Education.

The two communities have seen significant increases in immigrants from Somalia as families have sought to escape civil war and poverty in that East African nation. The complaints included allegations of harassment by students, teachers and staff. The settlement stated that the districts did not violate civil right laws but that their training and policies did not sufficiently address the allegations.

The two districts, as part of the settlement, agreed to report future incidents to federal authorities and to work with the agencies to improve their anti-harassment

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Somali Population in U.S.: 103,117 (2009)

Minnesota: 28,450 (2009 American Community Survey estimate; other sources have placed the number closer to 60,000)

Somalia: 10,112,453 (2010 estimate derived from an official census taken in 1975 by the Somali Government; population counting in Somalia is complicated by the large number of nomads and by refugee movements in response to famine and clan warfare.)

Major Religion: Sunni Muslim

Ethnic Groups in Somalia: Somali 85 percent, Bantu and other non-Somali 15 percent (including Arabs 30,000)

Major Languages: Somali (official), Arabic, Italian, English. Swahili is common among refugees.

Current Government of Somalia: No permanent national government; transitional, parliamentary federal government. Other regional and local governing bodies control various regions of the country, including the self-declared Republic of Somaliland in northwestern Somalia and the semi-autonomous State of Puntland in northeastern Somalia.

Geography of Somalia: Strategic location on Horn of Africa along southern approaches to Bab el Mandeb and route through Red Sea and Suez Canal. Mostly flat to undulating plateau rising to hills in north. 

Climate of Somalia: Principally desert; northeast monsoon (December to February), moderate temperatures in north and hot in south; southwest monsoon (May to October), torrid in the north and hot in the south, irregular rainfall, hot and humid periods (tangambili) between monsoon.

SOURCE: CIA WORLD FACTBOOK 2010 AND AMERICAN COMMUNITY SURVEY 2009.