Little Mogadishu, Minnesota, U.S.A


Cushioned between the Mississippi River and one of America’s largest interstates (The I-94) is the community of Cedar-Riverside, Minnesota. This little known division of Minnesota’s twin cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, hosts the United States’ largest Somali community. In fact, the once small and largely scandinavian Cedar-Riverside is now known simply as “Little Mogadishu” in honour of Somalia’s vibrant capital. In many ways, this community has lived up to that legacy. With proud and colorful displays of culture, “Little Mogadishu” has brought diversity to one of America’s most homogeneous states. Likewise, entrepreneurship and commerce have thrived. Indeed, “Little Mogadishu” is best known for its budding shopping centre: Karmel Mall.

However, behind the fanfare of Little Mogadishu’s shopping centres and its budding cultural exterior, enormous problems exist, and persist. For years, violence has plagued the area, exemplified in the prolific violent gang crime which is commonplace in “Little Mogadishu.” At the same time, the community continues to struggle with youth radicalization which has led numerous American-born Somalis to flee to Syria and Somalia to fight for ISIL and Al-Shabaab; a recent Fox News article went as far as to dub it the “terrorism recruitment capital of the United States.”

In the face of this dichotomy and the complexity present in this community, the media has resorted to two equally inaccurate stories: one, a glowing depiction of “Little Mogadishu” as a thriving immigrant suburb and the other of an inherently dangerous, fundamentalist community. Both majorly miss the mark. This community and their story is one of failed social and economic integration. It is a story of seclusion- self-imposed and otherwise, and it is a story we all must learn from.

In 1999, at the age of 8, Guille Farah arrived in Minnesota, fresh off the boat from the Banadir region of Somalia. With the adaptability and neuroplasticity of childhood, he eased into American life with few difficulties. In rapid speed, he learned English, made friends, immersed himself in the culture, and settled into his new life. It was not cultural abandonment, however. Guille strongly recalls the influence of his Somali home. He clarified when we spoke last week, saying, “When you grow up, go to school, and have friends who are from America, you kind of take on the culture, but you also take on the culture of your home. So I am like somewhere in between Somali culture and American culture. Essentially, you take half of each.”

This navigation of two worlds, however, is not always so simple. In fact, it is often a laborious and painful task for those involved. Most American born Somalis find themselves chronically wedged between two principally different communities. In many cases, they feel alienated by both. One might think that this merging of the two cultures would be productive to integration. However, this weak sense of personal identity often leads to radical outcomes. In Little Mogadishu, this has definitely been the case. F.B.I reports show that Cedar-Riverside has been the most active jurisdiction in the country in terms of youth radicalization. In total, over 45 individuals have attempted to or successfully fled to aid global terror campaigns. In 2014, 18-year-old Abdullahi Yusuf was arrested after attempting to board a flight to Turkey with the intention to connect with jihadists and join their efforts in the Levant.

Youth radicalization is not the most comfortable topic in the world for the Somali residents of Little Mogadishu, and Guille stumbles when the topic arises. Things become awkward for a second. He continues on, defiant of any potential perception of his community as one of violence and radicalism, “We feel that America is our country, and we feel that someone fighting against our country is a betrayal. It makes our community look bad.” This sentiment is common in Little Mogadishu; for many, this is a story of embarrassment. The fear: that this story will come to define the community, and in quite undesirable terms. For many, the natural reaction is one of silence. It is a story too similar to ones in the homeland. For them, it seems the violence of Mogadishu has followed them: a startling reality. They are not on vacation after all.

It is important to note, however, that silence has rarely been an effective stratagem for change. In fact, the nature of this issue calls for bold and frank disruptions. Limits must be set for the bonds of the community. Knowing Somali culture, this will be difficult. However, I truly believe that the true protection of the community’s long term reputation comes with bold truth telling regarding its harmful members.

One promising solution, in that spirit, is the practice of self-policing. In many ways, Cedar-Riverside residents have a larger capacity to detect, report, and intercept terrorists than external (often times federal) law enforcement officials. This act of stewardship over the community would send a strong statement that Little Mogadishu, as foreign as it sounds, is looking out for American interests. If not, the only credibility the community will have is the internal delusion that it manufactures.

This determined realism must also be applied to the communities current economic status. Despite the strong entrepreneurial spirit, Somalis have failed to achieve the economic success of their Minnesotan counterparts. According to the City Of Minneapolis Bureau Of Labor Statistics, Cedar-Riverside had a poverty rate of 47.3% in 2017. This is more than double the city average of 21.9%. The same was true for unemployment statistics. With a city average of 7.5 % unemployment, Little Mogadishu came in at 16.4%. These numbers speak to a structural issue.

With the current social structure of the community, Somalis are expecting to levitate up the economic ladder with limited integration. This is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, given the size of the community. Instead, as with many other immigrant groups, education is the most viable pathway. A remedy to further integrate and enrich the society could come in the form of dedicated investments into the diverse and thriving education systems of Minneapolis. Right now, Cedar-Riverside is operating on the margins of this system; its future, however, is in the classroom.

Guille finished our conversation with some promising news: this is happening. “This generation is posed to become the doctors, lawyers, politicians of the future. They are entering the professional class.” His voice floats as he talks about the next generation. Many Little Mogadishu residents believe that this will be the generation to get it right.

In many ways, Little Mogadishu is a microcosm of modern immigration. As such, it demands us to listen. . It captures the exhilarating, ever-dynamic, and curious nature of adapting to a new life. At the same time, this community outlines the true struggles of integration and the economic barriers that immigrant communities face. Immigration is a global issue by nature, and it is only  an accelerating process. Among the difficult and politically incorrect questions that Immigration poses, is the question of fairness. More to the point, how much is fair to expect of our immigrant communities in terms of integration? I think it is evident that a non-existent level of integration spells disaster for all parties. No need to look further than the numerous modern refugee slums with conditions worse than war-zones. On the other hand, it is unjust, and in fact tortuous, to expect significant cultural abandonment. In many ways, however, cultural preservation is the direct opponent to economic and social integration. I wish I could give a clear cut and decisive answer, but I do not believe one exists. I know, however, that opening the world to the vibrant and complex streets of Little Mogadishu is a start.

Omar Farah

About Omar Farah