Wynfred Russell, a member of the Brooklyn Park City Council, sees American democracy as resilient: "With all of Trump’s excesses and unusual style of leadership, the system has been able to keep a check on him.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Wynfred Russell knows what it’s like to watch your country collapse around you. 

Decades before he won a seat on the Brooklyn Park City Council, Russell was a teenager growing up during a civil war in Liberia.  He saw the destruction firsthand: bombardments, bodies in the streets, hunger. 

“I still sometimes have nightmares about some of the things we had to go through to be able to survive,” Russell said. “Living in the bushes, living off roots. And coming here, hearing some of my friends’ stories–they had it even worse than I did.”

In many ways, Russell’s adopted country couldn’t be more different from the one he left. Most Americans have never experienced anything close to what Russell has. But the U.S. is increasingly frayed politically and prone to outbreaks of violence. 

President Donald J. Trump’s critics have called him an authoritarian–and much worse. He has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, sowed doubt about the legitimacy of the coming election, bolstered a white supremacist group by telling members to “stand by,” and stoked racist fears that Minnesota will become a “refugee camp.” 

Joachim Savelsberg, a German-born expert on human rights and genocide at the University of Minnesota, cites the aggressive emotions Trumps stirs up at his rallies, his scapegoating of minorities, and his comfort with authoritarian leaders. With no evidence and contrary to views of his own law enforcement officials, Trump argues that the greater threat comes from left-wing groups. 

Minnesota is home to more than 400,000 people born in other countries. For many like Russell, instability and political violence are not theoretical. They or their families have seen it firsthand in their native countries. So what can they tell friends and neighbors who are shaken by what they are seeing here and worried about the future of their country? 

Yes, there are worrying reminders of what these immigrants left behind when they came to the United States. But most say that institutions and democratic traditions are much stronger here, and many believe that the country that gave them refuge will get through this. 

‘As good as it gets’

Russell thinks every Liberian lost friends and family in the war he endured. Two consecutive civil wars killed some 250,000 people–about one in every eight people who lived in the country—from 1989 to 2003. 

But Trump has much less power than an African strongman, and Russell says that for the most part he and other Liberians feel that U.S. checks and balances still are working. 

The U.S. and Liberia have been connected since Liberia’s founding in the early 19th century by a group of white Americans intent on setting up a homeland in Africa for free Blacks. Liberia declared independence in 1847 and adopted a constitution modeled on that of the U.S. But much of its history has been marred by coups, wars, and minority rule. 

Former President Bill Clinton first granted Temporary Protected Status to Liberian refugees in 1991 because of the first civil war. Since then, each president extended temporary deportation protection measures. Trump threatened to end it, but Congress included a provision allowing permanent residency in a major defense authorization bill that the president signed last year.

Russell came to the United States in 1992, and after graduating from Northern Michigan University, worked in education and public health. In 2018, he became the first Black city council member in Brooklyn Park–a city where white people are in the minority. He worked with local members of Congress to get those permanent protections for Liberians passed. 

While Savelsberg says the U.S. political climate gives “many reasons for grave concern,” Russell said he feels that the system of government continues to function. 

“With everything that is going on, with all of Trump’s excesses and unusual style of leadership, the system has been able to keep a check on him,” Russell said. 

Many of the 35,000 Liberian refugees who call Minnesota home see Trump’s statements about the election as a bluff, according to Russell. The presidency here is much more limited than the imperial-style executive branches of many West African countries and there’s a clear separation between the military and the president. 

“It’s not a perfect system,” Russell said. “But it’s as good as it gets.”

When Tou Xiong hears Trump talk about “patriotic education,” he thinks of the labor camps where the Communist government of Laos held his Hmong relatives as political prisoners. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Wary of ‘patriotic education’

Minnesota state Representative Tou Xiong was alarmed when he heard Trump talking about “patriotic education.”

Hmong people are familiar with “patriotic education,” he said. That’s what the Communist government of Laos called what happened in the labor camps where Hmong people who collaborated with the CIA in Southeast Asia were tortured and killed in the 1970s.

He thought of his father, who escaped Laos, and his relatives who went to “education seminars” and never returned.

In September, Trump announced the creation of a commission to promote “patriotic education” and a grant to create a “pro-American curriculum.”

There is no evidence that Trump was talking about anything remotely similar to the camps in Laos. But the rhetoric around “patriotic education” brought up painful memories for refugees, Xiong said. 

Xiong’s politics are motivated by his culture. Born in the U.S. to refugee parents, he grew up in public housing surrounded by other Hmong families; in elementary school, he would translate government documents from English to Hmong for his parents and neighbors. In 2001, his grandfather was nearly deported to Laos, where his American ties meant his life would have been in danger. The lawyers who saved Xiong’s grandfather from deportation inspired Xiong to go to law school.

Law school led to a position on the Maplewood City Council, then a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. A member of the DFL, he represents District 53A.

Xiong also pointed to another event that stuck out to many Hmong Americans—Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. He said that refusing to hand over the presidency led to much of the instability in Laos in the 1960s and ’70s.

“That’s not the America that our elders have risked life and limb and ran through the jungles to come to,” Xiong said.

Armed officers in Venezuela pulled Guillermo Gorrín’s relative from a store and forced him to sign over rights to the property. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

‘Scary’ unmarked police vans

A video of federal officers arresting protesters in Portland and putting them in unmarked vans felt too familiar for Venezuelan political scientist Guillermo Gorrín.

“That’s scary,” Gorrín said. “And that reminds me of Venezuela, that reminds me of Cuba, that remind me of Nazi Germany, that reminds me of Italy in the ’40s.”

Gorrín fled Venezuela in 2011 after protesting a law that incorporated socialist messaging into school textbooks. Police arrested, tortured, and threatened protesters, so Gorrín started planning a way out. 

After two years of studying in Swaziland, he was accepted to St. Olaf College on a scholarship. There he studied political science. With the help of a former employer and other supporters, he was granted political asylum last year. 

He became a paralegal and worked with asylum seekers from all over the world, including his home country. Economic collapse and political instability in Venezuela have driven 5 million people from the country.

One who remained in Venezuela was a cousin of Gorrín’s mother. When a severe gas shortage hit Venezuela this year, the military started taking control of the country’s gas supply. Armed officers pulled Gorrín’s relative from the store and forced him to sign over rights to the property, Gorrin said, threatening him with death or jail.

Authorities also seized the home of his great-grandparents, Gorrín said, and turned it into a headquarters for the Socialist party. 

Gorrín acknowledges that some of Trump’s moves are reminiscent of the authoritarian system he grew up under. Yet many Venezuelan refugees see the U.S. president as a savior from the brand of socialism practiced by former President Hugo Chavez and his successor, which they associate with human rights violations, economic collapse, and instability. 

Gorrín said Trump has successfully tapped into this fear of socialism. A September poll found that 66 percent of eligible Venezuelan American voters in Florida support the president.

It goes the other way, too: a February ad campaign by a Democratic PAC featured Venezuelan and Cuban immigrants comparing Trump to former Venezuelan dictator and socialist Hugo Chavez. 

Joachim Savelsberg, a German-born expert on human rights and genocide at the University of Minnesota, cites the aggressive emotions of the president’s campaign rallies. “We focus too much on Trump,” he said. “But he got elected.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Savelsberg, the human rights and genocide expert, says it’s not just Venezuelans.  Large segments of the U.S. electorate are attracted to a leader like Trump, he said, whether because of protectionist economics or racist scapegoating. “We focus too much on Trump,” he said. “But he got elected.”

If there is a risk in the United States, Gorrín says, he expects it would involve a shift to the right rather than to a Venezuelan-style socialist populism. (He points to this country’s market economy and individualism.) In the meantime, it’s easier to politicize the problems in his home country than it is to find solutions to the humanitarian crisis there. 

‘Always a certain fear…but there’s always hope’

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, many young Somali Americans joined the calls for defunding the police. Older generations recognized the harm caused by police brutality and supported the Black Lives Matter protests, said Abdirizak Bihi, the director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center. 

However, the idea of abolishing the police force, along with the tension and looting that came with the protests, brought up memories of the country they left behind and made them more cautious.

“A lot of neighbors didn’t understand that it was because of the fear and the reasons we fled and what we have experienced,” Abdirizak said. “Brutality, murder. There are people in the community that actually witnessed rape of their family members, or who witnessed extrajudicial executions of their fathers or uncles.”

That fear leads many refugees to prioritize protecting their families and property, he added. Despite the ideological divide, Abdirizak said that the generations found ways to support each other. Young people organized to protect local businesses, and many parents and grandparents spent their days cooking food for people on the front lines.

Public heath professional Fartun Weli, the founder and executive director of Isuroon, an advocacy organization for Somali women and their families, said right-wing militias evoked fear by attacking Black Lives Matter demonstrators, storming the Michigan state capitol, and planning to kidnap Governor Gretchen Witmer.

“There’s real anxiety,” Fartun said. “But immigrants and refugees have a strong survival instinct and we need to think of solutions right away.”

For Fartun and many of the families she works with, civic engagement and voting are ways of working toward a solution. 

But Trump’s campaign against mail-in ballots is worrisome. Fartun said she knows women who have hand-delivered their ballots because they were scared their votes would not be counted.

The image of the United States as a protector of democracy and an untouchable world power is crumbling, Fartun said. The past several years have laid bare the fragility of U.S. democracy. 

Abdirizak said there have been plentiful conversations among his concerned neighbors about where the U.S. is heading. 

Somalis of his generation remember what happened to push their homeland into a nosedive. Abdirizak recalls the armed officers who showed up at his house on an October evening 51 years ago. They arrested his father, a politician and businessman, and several other men in the family. Abdirizak was 5 years old at the time.

In his middle school years, he would go straight to the jail after school, not stopping to change out of his uniform, in order to deliver food to his family members. In the meantime, after making some improvements in daily life, the military that took power increased repression and political violence escalated. His oldest brother was arrested because the military government feared officers like him would stage a coup.

Tired of the violence, Abdirizak left Somalia in 1983, eventually settling in Minnesota in 1989. 

Abdirizak founded the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center as a liaison between local governments and the Somali community. This year he ran unsuccessfully for the Ward 6 position on the Minneapolis City Council, losing the race to fellow Somali American social services provider Jamal Osman.

Despite Somali Americans’ fears about the polarization in American society, there’s no real comparison to what they experienced in Somalia, Abdirizak said. 

“There’s always a certain fear,” he said. “There’s always issues, but there’s always hope.” He has faith that elections, protests, community work, and other peaceful political activism will bring needed change. 

“I come from a country where violence is needed to change the system,” Abdirizak said. “This is a country where peace is an option. That’s democracy.”

Madison McVan is a freelance reporter based in Minneapolis. Before moving to Minnesota, she covered state government for the Columbia Missourian and the coronavirus pandemic for Missouri Info Corps.