With help from farmer-training programs, more Minnesota Somalis are putting down roots — literally

On a recent afternoon, as Naima Dhore wandered around her organic farm in Marine on St. Croix, she recalled how far she came to find her niche three years ago as one of a handful of Somali farmers in Minnesota.

Long before the breakthrough, Dhore had yearned for a space where she could grow produce with her husband and their two young sons, a space she could use to encourage a healthy lifestyle among her friends and members of the East African community.

Back then, Dhore was thinking of participating in one of the community garden initiatives that provide immigrants and other underrepresented groups with opportunities to grow food in the Twin Cities with the help of nonprofit organizations.

So to familiarize herself with the urban farming system, Dhore turned to YouTube to see how people — especially immigrants from Somalia — grow their gardens and what they have to say about the experience.

On YouTube, Dhore came across more than she had expected. She didn’t just find someone to explain their experience at a nonprofit-funded community garden in Minneapolis or St. Paul — she found the inspiring story of Mohamed Gaabane, a Somali and proud owner of a 40-acre farm in Silver Lake, Minnesota.

From there, Dhore discovered the Big River Farms, an initiative of the Minnesota Food Association (MFA), which has exposed Gaabane and other immigrants, refugees and underserved Americans in the state to doing actual farming, not gardening.

So three years ago, Dhore decided to participate in MFA’s farmer training program. Today, she operates a small piece of land in Marine on St. Croix, located a 45-minute drive northeast of Minneapolis, growing organic vegetables, including kale, cabbage, carrots, Swiss chard and tomatoes.

Among the Somali-American community in Minnesota, Dhore is more than just a farmer; she’s the face of Somali farmers in the U.S. and inspiration for those who see a future in agriculture.

For that reason, she’s been receiving invitations to speak to East African immigrants at high schools, career fairs and community centers across the state.

“There are a lot of people that reached out to me and they’re interested in farming,” she said. “A lot of times, we’re stuck in high-rise buildings in the cities. So it’s really good to see so many people wanting to come here to learn where our food comes from.”

How MFA helps new farmers

Dhore isn’t the only one responding to a surge of interest in farming. Laura Hedeen, a manager with MFA, said that the association has been getting more questions about its training initiative, which is tailored to help participants develop farming skills.

Among the people calling — and visiting — the association are Somali immigrants who are interested in becoming farmers. Some of them came to the U.S. with decades-long farming experience; others, like Dhore, want to try it out here for the first time.

MFA, which has been around since in the early 1980s and owns farmland in Marine on St. Croix, connects immigrants, refugees and other historically underrepresented communities to affordable land and technical assistance as well as mentorship to start and maintain a farm.

Aside from that, those who are considered eligible for the program must also be willing to learn how to operate an organic vegetable farm and have enough money to maintain the farm.

Swiss chard

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Dhore grows organic vegetables, including kale, cabbage, carrots, Swiss chard and tomatoes.

For those people, MFA does several things. First, the association offers free classes before the participants start growing. Second, it provides subsidized farmland rental and ongoing assistance with plot maintenance in the growing season.

Further, MFA also purchases some produce from the participating farmers to ease the pressure of finding a market for their products right away. “It’s a full-time farming,” Hedeen said. “But also it’s another full-time job to be able to find a market for what you’re growing. So we’re doing some aggregation of the produce that farmers are selling.”

If the participants have no prior farming experience, they share a plot, cost and work with others, while receiving ongoing support from MFA. If they come with some existing knowledge in farming, however, they could start an independent project with limited assistance from the association.

That means that in a given year, MFA serves between five and 20 teams. This year, it’s working with 17 groups, including immigrant farmers from Somalia, Burma, Ethiopia, Laos and India.

Though MFA offers needed assistance, participating farmers still need to invest — in addition to the hours they have to work at the farm — between $500 and $1,500 to rent land, purchase supplies and maintain the farm.

“Our goal,” Hedeen said, “is to ultimately help people move on and independently lease or buy land on their own.”

Connecting more Somalis to farming

Gaabane, the Silver Lake farmer whom Dhore first discovered on YouTube, is one of the immigrant participants who bought 40 acres of farmland after training with MFA for three years.

In the video, he talks about raising hundreds of chickens and goats, while also growing sweet corn and vegetables and fruits like watermelon, tomatoes, cabbages, garlic and onions.

Farming is nothing new to Minnesota’s Somalis. In the East African country they came from, agriculture has long remained crucial to economic development and poverty reduction.

In fact, according to a recent report by the World Bank Group and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, nearly half the Somali population still lives in rural areas. More than 45 percent of those employed in Somalia are in agriculture, a field that represents 93 percent of the total exports.

In Minnesota, where Somali refugees started arriving three decades ago, there haven’t been a lot of people in the community talking about going into farming. That isn’t because people don’t want to farm; it’s just that the prospect of securing land, growing crops and finding a profitable market to sell the products remains out of reach for many.

For example, when Dhore — who grew up eating from her family’s house garden in Somalia — first started to think about the idea of establishing a farm in Minnesota, she thought it would be impossible to get there. “I never thought that maintaining a farm would be possible for an immigrant person,” she said.

But three years ago, when Dhore reached out to MFA, she realized that it was possible to be both a Somali and a farmer in Minnesota. So she applied for the association’s Big River Farms training program to gain the skills needed to maintain an organic farm.

After weeks-long classroom training, the association offered her subsidized farmland where Dhore has been growing vegetables with her husband and their 9- and 7-year-old sons.

After harvest, the family sells the produce to MFA, at farmers markets in the Twin Cities and through small-scale contracts and companies that carry organic foods.

Beyond that, Dhore said, the experience has given her not just the opportunity to help her family, but also to inspire members of the East African community in Minnesota that they, too, can become farmers. To spread that message, she has been speaking in classrooms, at career events and community centers about her experience as a farmer.

“The most important piece in the process for me has been letting them know where their food is coming from and what their responsibilities are in terms of taking care of this planet that we all share,” she said. “That’s the biggest takeaway.”

By Ibrahim Hirsi

Source: www.minnpost.com/new-americans/2018/06/help-farmer-training-programs-more-minnesota-somalis-are-putting-down-roots-li

New Somali + Minnesota exhibit teaches — and inspires

On the 3rd floor of the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, a 9 year-old boy stands in front of an aqal, a nomadic Somali home. He taps a camel bell and smiles at his father, who leans in to explain. “They’ve never been to Somalia,” says their father, Rople Hussein, who is originally from the country. “I wanted them to see this.”

He wasn’t alone. Over 2,000 people came to the opening of the Somalis + Minnesota exhibit last weekend. The new exhibit spans three rooms that focus on “Traditional Life,” “History,” and “Life in Minnesota.” The rooms are well-stocked with photos and artifacts, some of which were recently brought from Somalia specifically for this exhibit. “This scale, in terms of Somali history exhibits, is new for the Minnesota History Center and for the state,” says exhibit developer Kate Roberts.

Visitors are encouraged to walk through to the “Traditional Life” room and work their way forward to “Life in Minnesota.” Most eye-catching in the “Traditional Life” section are two houses: one is a model of a Modul, or wood-and-mud hut in a style often seen on farms and in small towns; the other is an aqal, which is favored by nomads. The woven mats that make up the aqal were shipped in pieces from Somalia, where 25 percent of people are nomads today. And the massive mural by Twin Cities visual artist Abdiaziz Osman depicting a brilliant blue sky and land dotted with trees and livestock makes the space feel open and warm.

There’s plenty to learn as visitors move through the short history section, all presented in easily digestible segments. Headings in both English and Somali guide visitors succinctly from ancient times through colonization and civil war, to today. Those who have only seen images of Somalia in the news, if at all, might appreciate the plentiful photographs. Indeed, a highlight in this section is a display of contemporary photographer Abdulkadir Mohamed’s work, which aims to show “the positive side of the country and the resiliency of the people.”

Each room has something interesting to offer, but the jewel of the exhibit might well be the Minnesota room, which highlights individuals who have made contributions to their community and the state. They are entrepreneurs and politicians, artists and athletes, educators and social workers and more. Each panel has photos, quotes, and people’s stories, some printed front-and-back.

Dennis Mickelson of Maple Grove reads about nomadic life.

MinnPost photo by Emily K. Bright
Dennis Mickelson of Maple Grove reads about nomadic life.

“It’s beautiful” says Imam Hassan Jama about the colorful display of faces in the exhibit. “I believe Minnesota has acknowledged the existence of Somalis. I feel inclusiveness.” Jama advised on the religion section of the exhibit, and he says he knows most of the faces on display.

What Jama finds most moving, he says, is the timing of the exhibit. Four days after it opened, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the so-called travel ban, which — among other things — suspends entry to the U.S. for immigrants from Somalia, a decision that Jama calls “offensive to the Somali Community.”

Coming to this exhibit, he says, “it’s good timing. I feel relieved seeing this. It a little bit minimizes the load of Islamophobia that I live with. I’m grateful and thankful.”

The Somalis + Minnesota Exhibit began as a conversation four years ago, and the exhibit itself has been a year in the making, said Osman Ali, Founder and Executive Director of the Somali Museum of Minnesota, which contributed many of the artifacts on display.

Ali, who says the response to the exhibit has been “amazing” so far, hopes that by highlighting the positive contributions Somalis have made to Minnesota, the exhibit will inspire the next generation of Somali-Americans to do the same.

Photographs by Abdulkadir Mohamed

MinnPost photo by Emily K. Bright
Photographs by Abdulkadir Mohamed offer a window into modern day Mogadishu.

For non-Somalis, it’s an opportunity to learn more about the community. The exhibit is staffed with Somali speakers most of the time in order in order to answer the questions of both English and Somali speakers.

“What are your hopes and dreams for the Minnesota Somali community?” asks the final panel before visitors leave the exhibit. A drop box awaits their answers, and some early responses are tacked to a bulletin board. Says one: “That they find peace and prosperity here in Minnesota and feel as much at home here as all the other immigrant groups who’ve become part of the fabric of our state.”

The Somalis + Minnesota exhibit remains open through June 9, 2019.

By Emily K. Bright | 06/29/18

Source: www.minnpost.com/community-sketchbook/2018/06/new-somali-minnesota-exhibit-teaches-and-inspires

Immigrants often have a lot to learn when they come to the U.S. — including, for some, how to ride a bike

News headlines these days are filled with dark stories about immigration: children separated from their migrant parents, refugees barred from entering the U.S. and undocumented residents returned to countries they barely know.

But on the tennis court of Matthews Park in Minneapolis, there’s a different kind of story unfolding: half a dozen immigrants from Bosnia, India, Russia and Somalia are catching up on a missed-out childhood experience: riding a bike.

Even in their 30s, 40s and 50s, the student cyclists participate in a month-long program, Learn to Ride, which teaches adults how to bike. It’s a popular program of the Twin Cities-based nonprofit Cycles for Change, which is aimed at increasing diversity among bicyclists in the Twin Cities.

On a recent late morning, Nima Abdirahman, a Somali-born participating in the Learn to Ride program, walked into the training field with a helmet, adjusted the seat of a waiting bike and hopped on it as she examined how students around her biked.

It was the last day of the class, but Abdirahman and some of the student cyclists weren’t exactly where they needed to be to continue biking on their own after completing the program — at least during the first 15 minutes of the hour-and-a-half class.

So when Abdirahman first jumped on the bike, she just couldn’t pedal for five consecutive seconds without wobbling, hitting the brake or resting her feet on the ground.

But each time this happened, she was quick to get back to practice — determined to acquire the skills and the confidence needed to successfully handle a bike. “The most challenging part of the training is that I’m afraid of falling,” Abdirahman said with a laugh. “It’s also kind of intimidating and embarrassing that you don’t know how to bike at this age.”

Creating Learn to Ride

To give people like Abdirahman the confidence and skills they need to learn how to bike was the reason that the program was started six summers ago in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood, home to a large population of East African immigrants.

The Spokes bike center, which merged with Cycles for Change in 2015, initially founded the Learn to Ride initiative after a number of local immigrants and refugees expressed an interest in learning to ride bikes for various reasons, including recreation and transportation.

In its first year, said Cycles for Change Program Coordinator Azul Kmiecik, between 40 and 50 people participated in the program. In the second year, that number nearly doubled; and last summer, Learn to Ride graduated more than 100 students.

Though participants include some native-born Americans, most of them are immigrants and refugees from Brazil, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Iran, Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Romania, Somalia, South Africa, Turkey and Uganda.

There are different explanations for why these individuals didn’t get to ride bikes as children. For some, they had fear of bicycles; for some, they were too poor to afford them; and for others, cycling wasn’t common in their communities.

Auntara De

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
When Nima Abdirahman spotted Auntara De, above, another trainee who for the first time managed to pedal around in circles without braking or dragging her feet on the ground, she couldn’t hold back her excitement. “Look at you!” Abdirahman cheered on De. “You’re doing great.”

“I didn’t have a community that was interested in biking,” Abdirahman noted. “It’s just that we don’t put a lot of emphasis on biking — especially when you’re a woman.”

Now as adults, a growing number of people like Abdirahman are turning to Cycles for Change.

The Learn to Ride program is offered from May through September Minneapolis’ Matthew Park and St. Paul’s West Minnehaha Park. Each class takes 13 students, who spend four weeks learning to ride. This means the program graduates at least 100 bicyclists over a period of five months.

“There’s some stigma and shame around being an adult and not knowing how to bike,” Kmiecik said. “So it’s important for us to get them together in one place where they can learn from each other.”

Becoming independent cyclists

At the tennis court that morning, the student cyclists gave one another tips to improve their pedaling skills — and cheered on when a student glided along without difficulties.

When Abdirahman spotted Auntara De, another trainee who for the first time managed to pedal around in circles without braking or dragging her feet on the ground, she couldn’t hold back her excitement.

“Look at you!” Abdirahman cheered on De. “You’re doing great.”

As a child, De tried to bike a couple of times. But each time she did, she would lose her confidence and experience a sudden breakdown. “I just didn’t trust it,” she said. “I don’t know why I was like that.”

Then recently, when De moved into a bike-friendly residential neighborhood in Plymouth, she started thinking about biking again. But she wasn’t sure where to start until she learned about Cycles for Change on the internet.

She then signed up for the Learn to Ride program, making her bike debut in the first week of June. “Here we have a comfortable environment where everybody starts almost at the same level,” she said.

On June 30, the final day of the class, De reached the goal she set to achieve: she mastered riding a bicycle in four weeks. In addition, De learned how to adjust the bike saddle, check the air pressure in the tires and keep a bike in good condition.

Cycles for Change Program Coordinator Azul Kmiecik, trainee Auntara De

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Cycles for Change Program Coordinator Azul Kmiecik looking on as trainee Auntara De adjusts her bike saddle.

Among other trainees who also achieved a similar milestone on that day was Elena Oruc, an immigrant from Russia who had never tried biking until she attended the Learn to Ride class this summer.

Now, after four weeks of training, Oruc feels comfortable biking on the tennis courts. But in the weeks to come, she plans to take her newfound hobby to the streets. “This is my last week,” she said. “I can ride the bike in my neighborhood after today.”

Like De and Oruc, Abdirahman was no longer wobbling or dragging her feet on the ground during the final hour of training on the tennis court. As instructed, she was finally able to look ahead, maintain balance and pedal with ease as maneuvered her way around the field.

But Abdirahman isn’t yet done. Next, she plans to teach her 13-year-old daughter how to ride and encourage other Somali women, who didn’t get to bike as children, to sign up for the class. Which is the reason she’s been posting on social media about her experience with Learn to Ride in the hope of inspiring some to try biking.

“People are sometimes embarrassed to admit that they can’t bike,” she said. “But I tell them, ‘Hey, I might be cool, but I don’t know how to bike. If you’re like me, here’s the link, go learn how to ride.’”

By Ibrahim Hirsi | 07/06/18

Source: www.minnpost.com/new-americans/2018/07/immigrants-often-have-lot-learn-when-they-come-us-including-some-how-ride-bike

Federal lawsuit alleges that Faribault targeted Somalis with housing restrictions

In a letter, a lawyer representing the city vigorously denied the allegations, calling them “unsubstantiated, inaccurate and contrary to law.”

Concerns about an influx of immigrants in Faribault, Minn., prompted the city to pass a rental housing law aimed at driving Somalis and other black residents out of town, the American Civil Liberties Union argued in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Six Faribault residents, along with Somali Community Resettlement Services, allege in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court that the city’s rental licensing ordinance is unconstitutional and “aimed at reducing the number of people of color living in rental housing within its borders.”

The suit was filed by lawyers for the national ACLU and its Minnesota branch.

In a letter to ACLU officials, a lawyer representing the city vigorously denied the allegations, calling them “unsubstantiated, inaccurate and contrary to law,” adding that demands to repeal the rental housing law were a “strong arm tactic.”

Faribault City Administrator Tim Murray said Wednesday that the city hadn’t had a chance to review the complaint and will consult with its lawyers before replying.

The rental licensing law, passed in 2014 and revised last year, requires landlords to get a rental license from the city. To get and keep the license, landlords must take part in the city’s Crime Free Housing Program.

According to the lawsuit, that program allows the city to evict renters if any member of the household or a guest engages in what police deem to be criminal activity, even if no arrest is made or charge filed. That means renters could be evicted, for example, if neighbors call police with complaints of excessive noise.

“It puts tremendous power in the hands of neighbors,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU in Minnesota.

One of the named black plaintiffs in the suit, Thelma Jones, was harassed by white neighbors “who would call the police about really petty things,” Nelson said.

Jones was forced to move in 2016 after repeated calls to the police by white neighbors about such things as family barbecues and children playing on a trampoline in the yard, according to court documents. She was never convicted of a crime, the lawsuit said.

“The City of Faribault labeled Ms. Jones and her family as problem tenants not as a result of confirmed criminal activity on her property, but as a result of harassing calls to the police from her white neighbors,” according to the lawsuit.

The rental housing law and the Crime Free Housing Program coincide with demographic changes Faribault has seen in recent years, the suit alleges. In 2000, the city’s population was 2.7 percent black, according to U.S. Census figures. By 2016, nearly 10 percent of Faribault residents were black.

The suit alleges that city officials became concerned after receiving complaints from residents about groups of Somalis congregating on downtown streets and sidewalks. According to the suit, one City Council member said in a local TV interview that Faribault needed to attract more high-income people “or we are going to flip like Detroit in a few years.”

Another part of the rental law limits the number of residents to twice the number of bedrooms, plus one, the suit said. That means no more than five people could rent a two-bedroom home or apartment.

The suit claims that clause unfairly targets Somali families, who tend to have larger families than average Minnesotans. Several Somali plaintiffs in the lawsuit were evicted from their rental homes when the birth of a new baby put them over the limit, according to court documents.

The city maintains that its housing law applies to all residents, no matter their race or nationality, according to the letter sent to the ACLU on behalf of the city from Robert Alsop, a Minneapolis attorney.

Alsop called claims of discrimination “deficient and unfounded.”

By Star Tribune | June 13, 2018 — 8:01pm

Source: www.startribune.com/federal-lawsuit-alleges-that-faribault-targeted-somalis-with-housing-restrictions/485447561/