America’s Real Refugee Problem

Minneapolis’ large Somali community made it through a grueling screening process in order to enter the country. Now, earning a living in the U.S. is proving difficult for younger generations.

Somali women gather at a park in Minneapolis.
Somali women gather at a park in Minneapolis. (Jim Mone / AP)

Donald Trump’s crusade against immigrants and refugees is not only antithetical to the American ideal of inclusion, it’s also based on a false notion. This backlash against foreigners, fueled by political rhetoric in the election, suggests that the country’s safety is at risk—largely from Muslim extremists—due to the the government’s lax vetting policies. In fact, refugees face an exhaustive screening process by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that can take years. Those who are lucky enough to make it through the process must then deal with another obstacle: a system that fails to fully integrate refugees into the American economy.

The federal government and its nonprofit partners provide job-search help and cash assistance for refugees during their first months in the United States. After that, they are largely on their own. This strategy has made it hard for refugee families—who often come to America with few assets or material possessions—to move up and out of poverty, and may be contribute to younger generations’ sense of isolation, the result of struggling to find their place in this country.

Minnesota is one of the top destinations for refugees moving to America, and Minneapolis has the largest Somali population in the country. Somali refugees, who are mostly Muslim, began resettling there in the 1990s, after the government of Somalia collapsed and civil war ensued. New waves of refugees have fled Somalia because of famine, drought, and continued political unrest. Though the first wave of refugees are now well established in Minneapolis, and many have become American citizens, Somalia remains one of the largest contributors of refugees to the United States. In 2015, nearly 9,000 Somalis arrived in the United States, and Minnesota received more of them than any other state. The community has faced unwanted national attention after nine Somali men from Minnesota were arrested for plotting to join ISIS in Syria. Six have pleaded guilty, and the other three were convicted in federal court this summer. Now the Justice Department is focusing on the city’s Somali community as part of a pilot program called Countering Violent Extremism, something that many Somali residents say is unwarranted.

During a recent visit to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, which is the heart of the Somali community, I met with Abdi Warsame, the first Somali city councilman of Minneapolis. More than half of the people in his district, which includes Cedar-Riverside, are East African. The neighborhood’s most iconic landmark is the Riverside Plaza, made up of six colorful, yet drab, high-rise apartment buildings from the 1970s. Thousands of Somali refugees began moving into the aging subsidized-housing complex in the 1990s, and they have since been renovated. Warsame says that many first-generation Somalis work long hours as small-business owners or have low-wage jobs. But many of their children struggle to find their role in the local economy. “You have a poor community that hasn’t integrated into a very rich state,” said Warsame, who took office in 2014. “There are jobs out there for plumbers, electricians—but they are not the jobs our parents used to do back home.”

Community leaders say unemployment, not radicalization, is the biggest obstacle facing young Somali men in the Twin Cities. Though Minneapolis is a progressive city with a booming economy, its Cedar-Riverside neighborhood has an unemployment rate three times as high as the rest of the city. About 17 percent of the neighborhood is unemployed, compared to 4 percent in the Twin Cities region overall.

“Young people feel out of place,” says Warsame, as he shows me the location of a job-training center opening soon in a brand-new apartment complex next to the Riverside towers. The empty office space takes up much of the first floor, and will open in January as the first job center aimed at helping Somalis find work in Minneapolis. Warsame and other community leaders just finished raising the $1.5 million needed to run it, and major funders include the city, the county, and local foundations. The center turned down money from the Department of Justice, saying that they didn’t want law enforcement targeting their community. That’s why Warsame and his colleagues decided to raise the money on their own. Mubashir Jeilani, director of the West Bank Community Coalition, says many unemployed Somali men are susceptible to extremist ideologies, but that it’s no different from other disenfranchised youth turning to crime when they can’t fit into society or the formal economy. “When you don’t have a job or go to school, you are going to want to find a sense of belonging,” he says. “Kids are joining extremist groups for the exact same reasons that kids join gangs.”

City Councilman Abdi Warsame walks past the Riverside Plaza. (Alexia Fernández Campbell)

Though the Cedar-Riverside Opportunity Center center will be available to anyone, it will focus on employing young Somali men, who seem to have the hardest time finding work, says Warsame. While Somali women tend to do well in high school and often go to nursing school, he says, Somali men are less likely to go to college. “We want to change the idea that if you go to the university, you are successful, and if you don’t, then you’re a bum.”

The training program is meant to show young men that there are well-paying, stable jobs that don’t require a college degree, such as carpentry and welding. Joining the local labor unions is the easiest path to these jobs, Warsame says, since the unions wield considerable power in the city’s blue-collar economy. Union representatives will teach classes at the center to help Somalis get the skills certifications needed to work in these fields. “Those who are falling behind should feel like they have another option,” says Warsame.

The state needs more people with these skills too, says Ryan Allen, an associate professor of community and economic development at the University of Minnesota. As Minnesota’s baby boomers age, he said, there is concern that there will not be enough of workers in the labor force to meet employer demands. The obstacle in connecting Somali Americans to these blue-collar jobs has a lot to do with the pressures many faced when they first arrived. As part of the federal government’s resettlement programs, refugees are pressed to immediately find a job—any job—as soon as they arrive in the United States. “When you’re working one or two jobs it makes it difficult to learn another language or get your GED so you can get better jobs in the future,” Allen says. The younger men, he says, might not see a direct route to college or get the encouragement to succeed in the public school system.

Jeilani, the director of the West Bank Coalition, is a 23-year-old Somali-American who moved to Cedar-Riverside when he was an infant. He says Somali boys from his neighborhood go through a bit of an identity crisis when they graduate from high school. Some manage to go to college, he says, but many need that extra push, “especially being Somali, and Muslim, and a person of color, and all the stigmas that we face,” says Jeilani, who is studying criminal justice at a local community college.

Jeilani is working with Warsame to connect young Somali men to the available jobs in Minneapolis. Creating more jobs and economic opportunities in neighborhoods like Cedar-Riverside might dull the allure of extremist groups in the same way that gainful employment can assist young men in other communities avoid drugs and violence. At minimum, it will help refugees and their families find gainful employment and narrow the racial wealth gap in Minneapolis, which is among the largest in the country. That would be a victory in itself.