Farhiya Iman is carving out a daily existence familiar to many Minnesotans: family life, job, true crime podcasts. With her husband, this mother of two young children lives in St. Cloud, where she works as a social worker and occasional entrepreneur.
Farhiya shoulders an extra responsibility, though, that might weigh down other people: “My goal in life is to always work and dispel all of the misconceptions about refugees, Muslims, or Somalis,” Farhiya, 31, said.
This added role involves confronting resentment in a part of central Minnesota that in recent years has seen more outward hostility toward immigrants and refugees. However, her approach isn’t a direct response to the backlash.
Instead, a group of advocates around St. Cloud has resolved to ignore the anti-immigrant sentiment and instead build understanding and communication with those who possess an open mind about their new neighbors.
Farhiya is helping to lead that charge in St. Cloud by educating the community about Somali language and culture. This year, her work won her an Outstanding Refugee Award, an honor granted to 10 recipients by the Minnesota Department of Human Services
Farhiya’s effort was born out of changing demographics in the area. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, nearly 1,400 refugees were placed for resettlement in Stearns County between 2009 and 2018. More than 90 percent came from Somalia.
Coinciding with the growth is a long list of nativist actions and incidents meant to convey that people like Farhiya are not welcome in the area. In 2017, some local politicians led an unsuccessful campaign to place a moratorium on resettlement. Other locals led forums that spread misinformation about the impact of Somalis settling in the area. The anti-immigration group Concerned Community Citizens has been behind efforts to pressure elected officials into curbing refugees from coming into the city.
But other civic leaders, including Mayor Dave Kleis, have said those views don’t reflect the community. He reiterated those thoughts in a Facebook live post last year in response to a New York Times report on the CCC’s presence in St. Cloud.
“It saddens so much when I see in an article, hate–when I read on social media, hate,” Kleiss said in 2019.
While these arguments are waged in the political arena, Farhiya and her partners have come to the realization that it’s better to appeal to people who already express some interest in engaging with newcomers.
However, it wasn’t always easy for her to take this approach.
‘Our parents couldn’t really understand what we were experiencing’
In 2001, amid the broader violence in East Africa, Farhiya’s mother led her and her eight siblings on a journey to America, after spending a decade in a refugee camp in Uganda. Her father, a truck driver, wasn’t able to join them initially, because the conflict in her homeland had separated him from the family.
Before they could reunite, the family settled in Marshall, Minnesota. The U.S. was still reeling from the 9/11 attack and anti-Muslim sentiment had been brewing. Some Americans not only blamed the attackers and al-Qaeda, but also anyone associated with Islam.
Even though St. Cloud seemed tense and hostile in some ways, Farhiya’s mother saw a better chance for job stability there. After two years, she moved the family north.
“We were one of the first maybe 20 families to have lived in St. Cloud at the time,” Farhiya said of her Somali peers. “It was a pretty big shock to the community to have somebody that looks different, that talks different, that dresses different.”
While her mother and some older siblings took on jobs at local meat processing plants, Farhiya, who was 14 at the time, enrolled at St. Cloud’s Technical High School. During her teenage years, she dealt with a number of microaggressions or outright racist incidents. Most were typical, like other teens telling her to go back to her home country.
She looks back on that period as if she were living two separate lives. “When we came home, we were expected to be as culturally Somali as we could. And when we were in school, we were expected to be as culturally American as we could be,” Farhiya recalled.
Given the challenges her family faced in building a new life, Farhiya didn’t always have an outlet to express what she was feeling and going through. “We were essentially our own parent, because of the fact that our parents couldn’t really understand what we were experiencing,” she said.
It wasn’t just the cultural chasm she and her family were learning to cross. Familiar elements from the Somali community were absent, too. For example, a formal mosque hadn’t been built in St. Cloud yet, so the family attended prayers in a converted house.
Over time, and with some guidance from her older siblings, Farhiya learned to block out the noise and focus on her ambitions. She studied at St. Cloud State University and later earned a master’s degree in social work. She’s now employed by Stearns County as a social worker with a focus on child protection cases.
In her spare time, she joined her mother and sisters to open a restaurant west of downtown St. Cloud, Nori Cafe and Creamery. After roughly a year-and-a-half in business, it closed down earlier this spring because of the pandemic.
Finding her voice
Even after spending the better part of 15 years in St. Cloud, Farhiya said she still encounters instances of hate and unwelcomeness. She recalls a moment at an outdoor family gathering where her young daughter gravitated toward a young white child and mother who were nearby. The children seemed interested in playing together and were sharing a toy. But then the boy’s mother grabbed the toy away from Farhiya’s daughter, displaying a look of disgust.
“That shattered my world, because that was the first time I experienced any discrimination with my child,” she said.
She admits there have been times when she pondered leaving the area, not wanting her kids to endure more of those situations.
But having made it through the difficulties of her teenage years, Farhiya now believes that giving an inch to discrimination means letting other people control the situation. And that means she wouldn’t be living her best life.
“It’s easy for us to get consumed by that and feel we have to defend our culture and defend our religion,” Farhiya said. “But at one point, the person has to realize what is important for them.”
That conclusion inspired her to choose a different path: making connections with established locals who see St. Cloud’s growing Somali population as a positive for the community.
The cafe she helped run was only around for a short while. But it sparked a movement within the area–and changed the way she felt about sharing her Somali culture.
Before the cafe closed, she would get questions from customers about the Somali language and social customs. She took those curiosity connections as a prompt to host Somali culture classes, starting in July 2019. The initial focus was on language.
“Very conversational language skills–like something as simple as learning to say ‘Hi, how are you?” in Somali, she said.
She added a cultural segment as well, after hearing questions about other facets of Somali life, including manners.
Speaking to people who are willing to listen
As the pandemic unfolded, the cafe closed. But that didn’t put an end to the cultural bridge Farhiya was building.
She now offers classes via Zoom with the help of #UniteCloud, a non-profit that seeks to diffuse the tension surrounding race and religion in the area.
Executive director Natalie Ringsmuth explains that these sessions–which have a limit between 20 and 30 people and usually run at full capacity–give longtime residents an opening to fully understand the background of newcomers to the community. She says they don’t have to rely on whispers or misinformation from those who’d close the door on immigrants and refugees.
She says Farhiya’s family story helps attendees connect to a true picture of refugees.
Ringsmuth can see that identification occurring, she said, “when she talks about what her mom was like when they were in the refugee camp. And her mom was able to pay for her education because she was an entrepreneur.”
Those skills and determination were passed on to Farhiya and her sisters, and they’ve all now made contributions to the community.
Ringsmuth admits these sessions probably won’t reach people–like those with Concerned Community Citizens–in St. Cloud who publicly oppose refugee resettlement. For the most part, UniteCloud no longer directly responds to claims made by these groups because it says it emboldens opponents.
She breaks down the local mood surrounding immigrants and refugees into thirds: those who are strongly opposed, those in the middle who are unsure, and those who are supportive. It’s that middle group she feels the group needs to reach to establish a more welcoming environment.
“They might even be among the hostile crowd, but they might at least be willing to listen,” Ringsmuth said.
#UniteCloud offers a different form of outreach to that middle crowd: offering trained speakers, for instance, who deliver credible information about immigrants and refugees.
Ringsmuth says if participants open their minds enough, a more intimate class like the one hosted by Farhiya is a perfect opportunity to learn about Somali culture without any rhetoric clouding the conversations.
Because of the popularity of the initial classes from last summer, the group was able to secure a $5,000 grant from the Minnesota Humanities Center to keep them going online. A second grant of $20,000 will underwrite more classes–offered at no charge–into 2021.
Beyond neighborly greetings
Each session runs for 90 minutes and sees Farhiya teaching a Somali word or phrase to the more than 20 attendees. They then read what they’ve learned out loud to make sure they got the pronunciation down. She also addresses topics like Somali traditions, food, and music.
The original purpose behind these lessons was to establish one-on-one connections between Somalis and longtime residents. But some attendees say the classes have had an even greater impact.
Olivia Musser is a speech language pathologist at an elementary school in the Twin Cities. She says the lessons are helping her better connect with her students who are Somali.
“The information has been really helpful to me–the greetings, common questions, or phrases,” Musser said.
Connor Stark-Haws is another speech language pathologist who has been attending the class. He grew up in the St. Cloud area and hopes the sessions can help to eliminate the deep divisions there.
“I think this class has taught the members who participate how to be better allies for our Somali community members,” he said. “That could help to change minds.”
Farhiya says she plans to keep telling her story, while educating Minnesotans about the Somali way of life.
“Ultimately, I do this for my children because I do want them to grow up in an environment where they feel they belong,” she said.
The secret to creating the kind of welcoming culture that eluded Farhiya, she now believes, is sharing the Somali background she once kept private.