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ST. CLOUD — I am leaving St. Cloud. I say adieu to you all and thank you for your blessings. I want to say my goodbyes, give hugs, shed a few tears, some disappointments, reminiscences about my time here, and – when ready – gently and quietly close the door behind me.
I had roots here. I graduated from St. Cloud State University. My three lovely children were born at St. Cloud Hospital by the mighty Mississippi, a river that gripped me at a young age in Africa when I first read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
As a local activist, I worked to ease racial and religious tensions and build a community welcoming to immigrants. But national politics and toxic local media have poisoned the town over the past few years.
Despite the best efforts of some St. Cloud leaders, incidents over the past few years, and the election of President Trump, have emboldened the haters to the point where I’ve come to feel like a stranger.
Prejudice finds its voice
For me, it began in the summer of 2015 in the search for Hamza Elmi, a 6-year-old autistic boy who’d gone missing. The search led us to door knock on the doors of Hamza’s neighbors, asking if they’d seen him.
Many were helpful and volunteered to search. Others were outright hateful with comments like, “A good Somali is a dead one.” Such comments shook me to my core. I resolved to speak and educate against the hate. Hamza was later found drowned in the Mississippi.
Tragedy struck again in September 2016 when Dahir Ahmed Adan, dressed in a security guard uniform, stabbed 10 people at Crossroads Center shopping mall in St. Cloud before he was shot by an off-duty police officer.
I remember receiving frenzied calls from the public, a community with a worried voice. Against the advice of my wife, I rushed out to try and help, and also be an eyewitness.
The attack shocked all our communities, ratcheting up tensions in St. Cloud. Anti-immigrant, anti-Islam sentiments grew louder in the days after the attack. Some people drove around flying Confederate flags. Social media buzzed with hateful comments and physical threats.
Global media descended, looking for a terrorism angle. (Three years later, investigators have yet to connect Adan with terrorism, only claiming he might have been inspired by radical groups.)
In the chaos, I remember St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson as a bright light, telling a Fox News reporter the “vast majority of our ordinary citizens, no matter their ethnicity, are fine hard-working people. Now is not the time for us to be divisive.”
That same year, President Donald Trump came to the Twin Cities area as part of his presidential campaign to fan the flames, attacking the state’s Somali community.
“Here in Minnesota, you’ve seen first-hand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with very large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval,” he told a crowd, adding, “Some of them [are] joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world … Everybody’s reading about the disaster taking place in Minnesota.”
It felt like a nuclear blast of hate.
In St. Cloud, KNSI radio took over after Trump left, inviting and supporting guests and political candidates who were extremely Islamophobic and anti-immigrant. KNSI radio hosts often pointed a finger at central Minnesota Muslim communities whenever there was a terror attack all the while downplaying the race or religion white nationalists committing acts of terror in the U.S.
Trump’s victory in November made it clear where many in central Minnesota stood. Trump’s message was well-received here, torpedoing efforts to bring communities together and empowering anti-refugee groups, including Concerned Community Citizens (C-Cubed).
Things haven’t improved in the years since. Problems remain but aren’t discussed in a way that helps make things better. Local news organizations seem more comfortable talking to white leaders than speaking directly with people of color affected by racial or religious tensions.
A path forward
Hatred and bigotry, if unchecked, can lead to disaster. Visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, I read of the Nazi propaganda leading to the creation of concentration camps in occupied Poland.
One exhibit — “Some Were Neighbors” — told of a divided Poland where some people were protective of their Jewish neighbors while others were indifferent, or succumbed to Nazi intimidations and threats, or were motivated to betray their neighbors in exchange for the Nazis rewarding them with confiscated Jewish property.
Given what we’ve seen the past few years, I worry the lessons of the Holocaust haven’t been learned. It’s clear our places of worship, our places of sanctuary, our mosques, our churches, and our synagogues are no longer safe.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Despite all that’s happened, it’s still possible for St. Cloud to defeat the hate.
First, a conversation must start outside the city in surrounding communities, small towns and farmsteads with support from institutions like schools, hospitals, clinics, and churches. We must find people skilled at facilitating hard discussions and get elected leaders to support and participate in community meetings — and not just around the time for elections.
Second, we must invite greater participation by members of the Somali community, not only on issues that affect them directly but on those focused on the greater well-being of all our communities.
I still have hope that an organization will emerge in St. Cloud that will help solve issues pertaining to racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Palestine, anti-LGBTQ, and many other forms of discrimination in our area.
Although, I will not be in St. Cloud, I will remain in Minnesota, and will remain engaged in efforts to increase our diverse and collective strength together as a state where people will want to come to be a part of our commitment to one another.