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When I see images of Afghan refugees, I identify.
Watching the U.S. military withdrawal and humanitarian evacuation from Afghanistan reminded me of my experiences as a preteen refugee from Somalia. On the faces of the children, I saw a mix of hope for a better future and fear of leaving their only home. I had similar feelings when my family fled violence to seek a life of peace.
As a Minnesotan, I also identify with Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security advisor whose leadership provided for swift evacuation of so many of the military, U.S. citizens and Afghan refugees. Despite the enormous challenges, close to 130,000 were airlifted out of Afghanistan in one of the largest mass evacuations in U.S. history. Jake was educated in Minneapolis public schools, worked for Senator Amy Klobuchar, and is part of Minnesota’s great tradition of global diplomacy. With Jake’s example in mind, I ask: What is Minnesota’s role in welcoming those smiling, scared Afghan children, and in continuing to provide public service for global good?
The late Walter Mondale, former U.S. vice president, senator, and ambassador, was my teacher and mentor in this Minnesota legacy for global diplomacy. Like Jake Sullivan, Vice President Mondale responded to a refugee crisis following a long military intervention. In response to the plight of the “boat people” who fled in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the vice president helped lead an international rescue effort. His policies helped make Minnesota home for Southeast Asians, and also allowed my family to come to the United States in the early 1990s.
I became a peace activist in response to the tragic events of September 11. As an immigrant, a Muslim, and a Black man, I felt it was urgent that the voices of American foreign policy reflect the diversity of our country. In Minnesota, there are great examples of diverse voices for global peace. During the Jim Crow era, William T. Francis, a successful African American attorney in Saint Paul, represented the Coolidge administration as a minister to Liberia, and his research into slavery and forced labor ultimately led to the resignation of the Liberian president.
Minnesota women have played historic roles as ambassadors for peace and as advocates for women’s rights globally. The first woman to hold the rank of ambassador from the U.S. was Eugenie Moore Anderson of Red Wing, who served in Denmark for the Truman administration and in communist Bulgaria for the Kennedy administration.
Minnesota Democratic activists and feminists followed: Geraldine “Geri” Mack Joseph as U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands in the Carter administration and Arvonne Skelton Fraser as ambassador to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in the Clinton administration. I have been personally learning from Minneapolis political power couple Sam and Sylvia Kaplan, who represented President Obama in Morocco and built bridges as two of the few Jewish Americans to serve the U.S. in a predominately Muslim country.
Last month, President Joe Biden called for “a new era of relentless diplomacy” in his first address to the U.N. The president is calling for leadership on democracy, human rights and climate change. Actions taken now will reverberate for generations to come. Minnesotans have long provided global leadership for peace. To continue this tradition, new leaders, especially young people, are needed. Look for ways to get involved, be it in welcoming those hopeful, fearful Afghan children, or in the fight against climate change. It is from those efforts that the leaders of the future will come.
In 1938, Minnesota elected a 31-year-old “boy” Governor Harold Stassen, who went on to become a founding delegate to the United Nations and the “secretary of peace” for the Eisenhower administration.
To meet the moment, our diplomacy and global leadership also need new images, symbols, nuanced stories, and a new cadre of diverse leaders, including people who have lived and experienced global trauma. In the next decade, 70 percent of Minnesota’s population growth will come from communities of color. This is potentially a deep pool of talent for the State Department’s next generation of U.S. diplomats.
One of President Biden’s priorities is to create a stronger link between our foreign policy and the domestic economy by promoting democracy abroad and at home while growing the middle class. Inspired by its traditions, Minnesota can play a critical role in advancing this key priority.