Refugees


We made it pretty clear that one of the things we were most excited about in moving to Minneapolis was the large African/International population based here.  With over 70,000 Somali refugees there are plenty of opportunities to talk and learn about Africa.

We have tried really hard to connect with and engage this population.  One way we did this was by connecting with a group that is teaching English to primarily Somali adult women.  This has been a great way for us to learn about the culture while providing a valuable service.  It has also given us, especially Christy, the opportunity to build friendships.

This resulted in us being invited, with some friends, to a student’s son’s wedding.  She is actually Oromo, which is a distinctive Muslim culture within Ethiopia.  On a side note, many of the local Oromo people have learned to speak and understand Somali. In part because they are often lumped together – even though traditionally there is an underlying conflict between the two people groups. So back to the story.

We were told to arrive at a banquet hall around noon for the wedding lunch which would go from 12-2.  Knowing the culture we showed up at 12:30 and were still the first people there.  We waited around for awhile and finally one of her son’s came to open the hall and he said we could come back at 6pm.  We questioned that and then he said between 2 and 3.  Long story short we ended up coming back to the banquet hall around 2:30.  There were many women around finishing up the food preparation.  They said, “She is coming, she is coming.”  So we waited…

We tried to be patient and the banquet hall was filling up.  We had almost given up (we did have other commitments) and were told that she was almost here, “maybe even in the parking lot.”  A few minutes later we decided to leave and almost missed her.  She came and was very excited to see us which was great – but she wanted us to sit and stay and eat.

Her English is very limited so we thanked her and tried to explain that we needed to leave soon. She kept insisting on us eating, but we didn’t want to be singled out to eat before everyone else.  We finally had to leave at 3:45 and were able to say goodbye, but everyone kept insisting on eating!  I finally realized that this was a HUGE deal for them and said we would go into the back room and eat. We had some great food. Injera, rice, chicken, and other special sauces. Yummy.

This was a great cross cultural learning experience.  I think we all wished we could have spent the whole day and actually gotten to enjoy the wedding and take part in that experience.  But it is so great to be able to have this experience within our city.  We drove 10 minutes and got to experience a part of Africa.

While we were waiting we discovered the Holy Land grocery store. There is a small one at the Global Market, but this was much larger and included random things like lamb heart, goat’s feet, beef tongue, and much more!

Another quick story that makes me happy and reminds us of our great life happened at work the other day.  You might recall that many of the students at the school  I work at are East African (Somali, Oromo, and Ethiopian). We also have a significant African-American population.

Last week was the last day of after-school classes, so for the last 15 or so minutes I took my group of kids outside to have some fun.  They mainly played basketball but there was also a girl’s soccer group outside playing soccer.  While standing around watching the kids I felt like I was back in Africa.  All of the kids (and other adults) were black, some wearing flowing multi-colored burqa’s or hijabs.  It was a great feeling.

Another really random story! I was taking a group of students that I work with to work a banquet for the volunteer department of the school district.  Again most of them were East African and inner-city students.  We got on the bus and started driving when the kids asked for the driver to turn the radio on.  They should have known better since the driver was wearing a cowboy hat.  He turned on country music!  The kids didn’t like it at all!  They kept yelling at him to turn it off and he would give them the thumbs up and turn it up! It was really funny to me since I grew up on a lot of country.

So there you go, a few stories about the great life we lead here in Minneapolis.

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Here are a few recent news articles about Sudan and Somalia.  I don’t want to turn into a spammy blog, just reposting news stories, so these reflect my passions and highlight two major crises in today’s world.  These stories are no joke.

The Star-Tribune reports (from an AP wire story) that with Sudan kicking out aid groups over 1 million will lose access to food:

The U.N.-Sudanese assessment team toured Darfur from March 11-19 after the groups were expelled.

About 1.1 million people now dependent on food aid will not receive their rations starting in May if the aid gaps aren’t filled, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Sudan, Ameerah Haq, said on behalf of the team.

She warned that money will run out within four weeks for spare parts and fuel needed to provide drinking water for 850,000 people.

And more than 600,000 people are in danger of not getting materials needed to build shelters before the upcoming rainy season, Haq said.

We allow this to continue in the name of national soverignty – even though international laws have been broken.

Change.org’s genocide section has a great article about the politics involved and Obama’s quandaries:

According to Gerson, the U.S. and the international community thus “faces a decision”: Do we take a soft-line with Bashir in hopes that aid groups are readmitted, or do we accept the short-term consequences likely to come from increased pressure on Sudan, but that also has the potential to break Bashir’s death grip on the region?

It’s a messy political calculus, any way you shake it— either caving to Bashir’s tactics in Darfur, which hold innocent lives hostage in a no-holds-barred international power struggle, and thus nearly guarantee that this upper-hand will be used again in the future, and to the detriment of millions, or (if you’re President Obama, in particular) taking the risks that come with stepping into the ring.

If one thing is clear, it’s that any attempt to deal with Bashir will not succeed with one foot in, and one out. The full “diplomatic toolkit” must be on the table, including the credible threat of military force. It’s not a simple question of black-and-white moral certitude: Consequences on the ground in Darfur will be grave (though, they already are), and on the international political scene, Obama has to weigh the cost of further angering the Arab world at a time when his agendas in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine also hang in the lurch.

It’s not a one-off — it’s a diplomatic package deal. So the decision comes down to: Are the lives of the millions current subjected to the whims of Bashir’s genocidal regime worth not only the political cost of action, but the on-the-ground consequences as well?

Gerson concludes:

“Not every global humanitarian crisis justifies this kind of commitment, or else America would be endlessly overextended. But if genocide does not justify such action, it will never be justified. And we would lose the right to say, ‘Never again.'”

I’d argue that we’ve already lost the right to say “Never Again,” but that does not lift our responsibility to answer the question, “What will we do, right here, right now?”

I’d agree.

Somalia is a strongly Muslim country where people are killed for being Christians or even just non-Muslim.  The 30 Days website offers some insight into life in Somalia.

God’s forgiveness filled him with hope! Libaan’s relatives heard that Libaan had become a Gal (Somali word for a pagan). Most Somalis can’t imagine that Christians may also be people who fear God, because they assume that Christians live a very worldly lifestyle (including drunkenness and immorality). Returning to see his family Libaan insisted that he not be called a Gal. In his view he was submitted to God, the Almighty. While his family received him well at first, later they rejected him. This experience broke his heart. Somali believers are few in number. They experience loneliness and rejection even from their most beloved family members. Only encouragement and comfort from God helps them to overcome.

Be sure to read the comments on that post.

Finally, Oxfam recent released a report on condition along the Kenyan-Somali border in the refugee camps.

According to inter-agency projections5 the most likely scenario given the continuing crisis inside Somalia is that an additional 9,000-10,000 new refugees will continue to arrive in Dadaab each month throughout 2009, even if the border remains closed and despite registration delays and shortage of adequate services. In a worst-case scenario, up to 200,000 people could arrive in a very short time period. In the current situation of extreme congestion none of these new arrivals will be allocated plots or materials to construct their own shelter, and will not have access to adequate sanitation facilities. They are likely to experience delays in obtaining access to food rations and health services. Competition over water resources will increase. Cholera is already present, and a serious outbreak remains a real risk in Dadaab. The ever-increasing overcrowding and poor sanitation and waste disposal facilities, as well as the lack of investment in hygiene promotion, are only exacerbating this risk. In short, a humanitarian emergency will unfold in 2009 in Dadaab unless at least 36,000 of the existing population are immediately served in a decongestion
site near to the existing camps and new camps are constructed to receive the 120,000 new arrivals projected for 2009.

Learn more and take action.

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From Mosque Visit

Last week we, along with the entire community, were invited to visit a mosque that is about 5 blocks from our house.  I run by this center almost every day but had never been inside.  For a variety of reasons I won’t mention the name in text but you can see their sign pictured below and in the news reports.

According to news reports well over 100 non-Muslim neighbors showed up for the opportunity to tour the Mosque, observe prayer time, eat good food, listen to a presentation, and meet some of our Somali neighbors. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a completely altruistic move on the Mosque’s part but a brazen attempt at crisis management.

From Mosque Visit

You see, in recent months this mosque has all but been accused of creating terrorists.  It is hard to really judge the facts for sure, but the FBI was convinced enough that it added the mosque’s Imam (spiritual leader) and youth director to the no-fly list and they were denied travel for haj or the pilgrimage.  There is some truth to the concern because in October a young Somali man from Minnesota traveled home to Somali and blew himself up as a suicide bomber,  (Newsweek reports) a fact that was recently confirmed by FBI Director Mueller.  The young man was a member of the mosque, although they adamantly deny helping radicalize or fund his trip to Somalia.  (A note that it is perfectly legitimate for Somalis to be traveling back and forth and many who attend this and other mosques are US citizens with no desire but to live here peacefully and obtain the American dream)

As you can imagine this created quite a bit of controversy within the Somali community as well as the broader Twin Cities metro area.  Admitted or not, this was the primary reason for the mosque opening its doors, inviting everyone inside (including the FBI Director).  They wanted to provide answers about Islam, their local teachings, and to build some community trust.

We embraced this opportunity to see the mosque and to meet some of our neighbors and hopefully be able to connect and begin building friendships.  Our initial reaction is mostly of disappointment and confusion.  This was a great publicity stunt and opportunity for some to learn more about Islam and to raise awareness of some of the mosque’s programs but only a few from our group really felt like we walked away from the experience with a more positive feeling about the mosque or their desire to befriend us.  My wife and I actually had a great conversation with a local business man but time will only tell if it was a superficial “hosting” experience or something more solid.

It is hard to make snap judgments and we hope and pray that our initial reactions are wrong and that this serves as a turning point for the mosque.  We would love to see it more involved in the inner-working of the neighborhood and that their continued promise of open doors would hold true.

We enjoyed our evening at the mosque and the generosity of their community.  I just wish they had made the effort long before the negative publicity had occurred.

I actually video taped the entire 30 minute presentation from mosque leaders which you can see here.  There was also a 15 minute Q&A session afterward that I captured as well.

New Results from the event:

Minneapolis Star-Tribune includes a picture of my Pastor’s wife and kids.

Pioneer Press (AP Story ran by many news sources)

WCCO Video and Print

Minnesota Public Radio

Fox 9 (video includes a clip of us!)

Twin City Daily Planet

Refugee Resettlement Watch (an ultra-conservative perspective)

MinneAfrica blog

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Refugee

That word conjures up a lot of different thoughts and feeling for different people.

Some say Jesus was a refugee, others think refugees are just another group of immigrants taking over our country. But to me, refugees are neighbors – both in a literal and figurative sense. We live in the most diverse neighborhood in Minneapolis. Minneapolis is home to the largest Somali population in the US and has a very large Hmong population as well.

Moving here has truly made the plight of refugees a part of my life. They are my co-workers, friends, neighbors, and if nothing else fellow humans on a journey seeking love and happiness.

Technical note: A refugee is a person who is fleeing their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution (for any reason) who is unable to seek protection from their own country.

I’d like to share a few stories about my refugee friends…

A Hmong student at my school recently came to the US to be with her family. She had not seen her dad in her 12 years of life. Like many other Hmong refugees her family was seeking safety after supporting the US during the Vietnam War. It had taken her father 12 years to secure the family visa’s to live in the US. This family helped our Army fight and we can’t let them be together?

A Somali co-worker has lived in the US for about 12 years. He is a well-respected man in his community and was fairly rich in Somalia before the civil war. He owned several banana farms and a large house. Now he serves as an Educational Assistant at my school helping with discipline and translation for our Somali student’s and their families. His wife and a couple of his children live with him in a suburb but are unable to gain citizenship, because they might be terrorists. He might send them to Canada so they can become citizens there and be safe to live here.

Some of the Somali women that we work with in our English tutoring were sexually abused before fleeing their homelands. Many saw their husbands and children killed. We can’t fully understand their story because of the language/culture barriers but also because the horror they experienced is too much to recount. We try to be their friends and help them navigate and understand more about the US so that they can feel more comfortable here.

I could share more stories but I think these give a glimpse into what it means to be a refugee. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have suffered through a horrible ordeal and relocating at great cost and pain, and then having to adjust to a new culture and the hurt and pain that can come with that.

Please take a second and pray for the individuals in the story I shared, a refugee you may know, or for refugees in general. If you want to do more there are many great organizations working with refugees around the world. World Vision, World Relief, Catholic Charities, Refugees International and the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children are just a few.

This post is a part of Bloggers Unite For Refugees.

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There hasn’t been a lot of good news coming out of Somalia lately as aid groups are contemplating pulling out their staff due to several aid workers being killed. Recently three elders were killed while distributing aid in a refugee camp outside Mogadishu.

Here are some stats provided in a recent e-mail from UNICEF’s USA Fund:

  • More than 100,000 displaced persons in Afgoye receive safe drinking water from UNICEF—over half a million liters a day.
  • One in six persons displaced from the capitol, Mogadishu, is a child under five, and UNICEF is there providing lifesaving, nutritious meals.
  • UNICEF provides aid to more than 40,000 persons west of Mogadishu, where the start of the rainy season has forced many families to crowd tiny shelters too small to lie down to sleep.

UNICEF is one of the few organizations working in this war torn country. You can read more about their work and hear from Clay Aiken’s perspective what is happening in the country.

I’ve recently been able to chat more with one of my Somali colleagues and I’ve been learning more about what led up to the civil war and how the crisis continues. I forget the exact number of years but he has been here between 15 and 20 years. He was a wealthy man in Somalia earning $1,000’s of dollars a week as a farmer and businessman. Now he is an associate educator at a middle school. He happened to be a part of the wrong clan when the civil war broke out – doing everything he could to ensure his family fled to safety. He holds no hopes of going back home. It is a sad story but he is making the most of it for himself and his family.

Pray for him and pray for those who aren’t able to flee the violence. And heck while you are at it why not pray for those perpetrating the violence!

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With my new found fondness for Somalia I have taken a greater interest in the oft-forgotten country.

Why the new Fondness?
I have always had a fondness for Africa, so that part isn’t new. Somali hasn’t been on the radar much but now is mostly due to the fact that we are now living in the metro area with the highest concentration of Somali Refugees in the United States. Also in part because I am working in a school that is at least 1/3 Somali students – most whom are learning English. Many of our neighbors are Somalian and we live within 3 blocks of two Somali Mosques.

Somali Family Night
Last night my school held a Somali Family Night for the first time in several years. We were excited to have about 40 people show up and hope to keep the momentum rolling. You see in Somalia the parent’s weren’t overly involved in the educational system. Children went to school and the school handled everything. That isn’t quite the case here in the US as I’m sure you know. So we had some of our Somali and non-Somalian teachers talk about how the families can help their students succeed.

Somalian Refugee Crisis?? That was so 90’s
That’s true many people have forgotten about the conflict in Somali partly because there are so many conflict in Africa and partly due to fatigue and overall lack of apathy. I would also conjecture that it is in some part because everyone in Somalia is Muslim (that might be very cynical of me). The conflict has continued with very little respite since the mid-1990’s (remember Black Hawk Down?). The country has been in some state of conflict since post-colonialism in the 1960’s. On a tangential note, much of the African conflicts could be traced back to how colonists acted when they left. One of the teachers at the school has been in the US for 20 years – so the conflict has been prominent for at least that long.

Refugee’s Are Dying
All of this came to mind today because of a news report I received from the UN yesterday. It is titled: Somali Refugees Surviving on Less than 1 Meal a Day. Much like everyone else, refugees aren’t guaranteed anything when the seek refuge from their homes. But we generally expect there to be some level of safety and comfort at refugee camps. This report said:

Large numbers of families displaced by violence in Somalia are surviving on less than one meal a day and spending large proportions of their meagre income buying drinking water, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Severe droughts in parts of the country has exacerbated the problem for Somali’s who are fleeing urban areas due to violence.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced,” the ICRC said. “Their situation has been exacerbated by a chronic lack of rainfall. The cost of living has risen so steeply that many people cannot afford to buy food and other essential items.”

In some parts of the country, the population was entirely dependent on animal breeding and trading. However, pastures had become barren in many places and herders were losing animals that had become too weak to walk the lengthening distances between fresh pastures and scarce water points.

Highlighting the plight of some 3,500 families who arrived two months ago in Guriel, 300km from Mogadishu, Gagnon said: “These families are enduring the extremities of suffering. The living conditions are shocking. In some places, food, water, essential household items, and sanitation facilities are scarce or non-existent.”

A severe drought had hit Mudug region, with some communities having lost their basic means of sustaining themselves.

We should be praying for peace and finding ways to support the refugee system to bring in water and other necessities. I haven’t found a Save Somalia group, like the Save Darfur groups – but it is just as important.

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That was the question answered in a series of articles published by the Christian Science Monitor on August 22.

Reporter Danna Harman interviewed a variety of celebrities, humanitarian professionals, and Africans to see what kind of impact celebrity’s are having on the continent.  She was met with mixed reviews, but concluded that overall it is having a positive effect.  We are left to wonder if maybe their impact could be increased by better coordination and overall planning.

In the first article, Can Celebrities Really Get Results? Bruce Sievers, a visiting scholar at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif, points out that,

“There are so many dimensions to intervening in a different culture. The question is, how well informed are all the celebrities trying to do a thorough job in Africa, let alone those who just travel over and are blown away by the poverty?”

Maybe a more important question is are they willing to stick with their “cause”  as long as necessary for it to succeed?

The answer, of course, is that it depends. Celebrity attention to Africa runs the gamut. Some stars show up for a single celebrity poker match in Las Vegas or a benefit cocktail party in New York to raise awareness for an issue. Others write large checks, lend their names, and even roll up their sleeves to help, but still court controversy along the way. And yet others get deeply involved, hiring advisers and studying to understand the challenges, before deciding on what role they can play most effectively.

Former President Clinton reminds us that celebrities are humans too and that while the struggle to change societies may be a long time coming, lives are still being changed.

“We should not have unrealistic expectations,” says Clinton, at the conclusion of the interview in Zambia. “It’s not easy to change societies … but still, all of us can change lives.”

 

“Celebrities are like other people who do this … some of them will stay at it for a lifetime, some of them will quit. Real life will intrude on them just as it does on the rest of us. They will have children and want to spend more time with them … or they will get bored or get sick. But on balance, these high-visibility, high-profile movie stars are part of a global movement of giving, which is a function of our interdependence.”

In the second article, Harman tackles the questions surrounding celebrity adoptions. Her conclusions again are mixed but this data point is hard to argue with:

In October 2006, after Madonna took custody of David, phone inquiries to WHFC (Wide Horizons For Children which helped Jolie with her adoption, but not Madonna) increased by 38 percent – this despite the fact that the agency had nothing to do with Madonna’s adoption and does not even facilitate adoptions in Malawi. In July 2005, the month Angelina Jolie’s adoption became public, the number of phone inquiries received by WHFC more than tripled over the previous month.

 

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