Somali Americans Support Economic Vitality: An Analysis of Reports

Rick Slettehaugh is retired from a career in business and has volunteered with WellShare International over the last nine years.

News articles, opinion pieces and books cite the contributions of our many immigrant communities to society during the past centuries, particularly for the benefit of economic growth and vitality.

For example, University of Minnesota professor and researcher Ryan Allen reported that “In order to maintain the current average annual 0.5 percent growth rate of the labor force in Minnesota, the state will need to attract about four and a half times the current number of people who move to the state.” Bill Blazar of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has stated that “… in order to meet our workforce needs across the state, it is imperative that we welcome immigrants and make them want to call Minnesota home.”

Conservative writers agree. Bret Stephens of the New York Times, writing about immigration, stated that “a better measure of national greatness is the ability of nations to cultivate, attract and retain human capital.” Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona wrote about how we need the skills that immigrants bring, including the most important one –the ability to work hard.

Here in Minnesota one outstanding example of newer immigrants are members of the Somali community. Their contributions have garnered international attention. Researchers and government officials from throughout the United States and Europe have visited the Twin Cities to learn about their successes here. Dr. Benny Carlson of Lund University in Sweden wrote a study in 2007 entitled “Hard Workers and Daring Entrepreneurs: Impressions from the Somali Enclave in Minneapolis.”

Somalis, who began arriving in the Twin Cities in the 1990s, have made important contributions to their communities as well as our cities more broadly. Dr. Stefanie Chambers of Temple University, who has studied Somali populations here and in other cities in the U.S., has written that “Somalis…in the Twin Cities add to the consumer capital, productive capital, and entrepreneurial capital.”

Dr. Bruce Corrie of Concordia College has studied African immigrants locally, and has found that they have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, especially women. One example is Twin Cities resident Fatimah Hussein has used her entrepreneurial skills to start Asiya Sport, a company that makes sweat-wicking athletic hijabs.

Many Somalis have made an impact by opening barber shops, daycare centers, transportation companies, clothing stores and other businesses. And there are increasing numbers of Somalis working in government offices. In the political arena, Abdi Warsame became the first member of the Somali community to become a member of the Minneapolis City Council in 2013, while Ilhan Omar’s 2016 election to the Minnesota Legislature made her the first Somali-American Muslim in the nation to hold that position.

A significant challenge, though, is that traditional institutions haven’t effectively served the Somali community. This can lead to a range of concerns, such as isolation, slower integration into the economic community and health problems. But some organizations are focused on supporting the integration process.

The African Development Center (ADC) was started by the late Hussein Samatar, who was a Somali refugee. ADC is provides small business loans/micro-loans in a culturally-sensitive way, as well as business training, resulting in a very low default rate. ADC has expanded and now has offices in Rochester and Willmar.

Other organizations, including WellShare International, help Somalis navigate the health care system and the many challenges of living in a totally new culture.

Somali-Americans have proven to be a great asset to the economic vitality of our region. As they continue to expand businesses, improve their education and express their views in the political arena, the Twin Cities, Minnesota and the nation will continue to benefit.

Written by: Rick Slettehaugh

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