Are Somalis interested in the American culture?

An invigorating discussion on Somalis in Minnesota had a particularly interesting exchange on an assertion that is difficult to prove: Somalis aren’t interested in participating in the American culture, even as they become American citizens.

“There are many Somalis who are eager to have American papers because it facilitates American life,” Ahmed Samatar, the dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College in St. Paul said. “But they either have no interest or have not made the initiative to understand the deep values of American society — the value of democratic politics, the value of individual liberty, the value of equality, the value of loyalty to one’s own society. Those come through long, deep educational process (and) a generational movement.”

Hussein Samatar, the founder and executive director of the African Development Center in Minneapolis, disagreed.

“You betcha,” he said when MPR’s Gary Eichten asked if most Somalis here want to become U.S. citizens. “If you really believe what you just said about the Somalis not being deep enough into American values, I would ask you: Have you done studies that can show the numbers in terms of people not becoming deep? If you have them, otherwise anecdotally it’s not enough.”

“I have spoken to thousands and thousands of Somalis across the United States,” Ahmed Samatar said. “And there are two kinds of Somalis. There are Somalis who come here — and rightly so — because they want to survive. They want to get the documents that will facilitate for them to get jobs, but have very little interest or have not taken the effort to get deep into the societies in which they live.”

Undefined in the discussion, however, is what it means to “get deep into the societies.”

Ahmed Samatar said the fact nobody has come forward with information about the missing Somali young men of Minneapolis is troubling (see timeline). “If you are a citizen of a country in the deepest sense I am talking about, then you will tell the truth. You cannot just say ‘I am minding my own business and yet I want to live here in the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota,’ and not participate in trying to protect society from the things that damage its own sense of self and community.”

  • I think this is *really* interesting, particularly in light of some stories/studies I’ve read indicating that many Somali immigrants view their life in the U.S. as temporary — that is, they fully intend to return to Somalia and their previous modes of living when “war-torn” is no longer an accurate descriptor. (Alas, I can’t cite specific sources.)

  • As I am presently quite busy at work, I do not have the time to elaborate as I wish; but I would like to share, from my experience, that which might contribute to this conversation.

    I lived on Cedar Avenue one block from the multi-colored towers, whose shadows loom over the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood – a neighborhood I once heard referred to as ‘Little Mogadishu’ by a Somali store owner, for 2 years and spent another 4 years in the community while attending Augsburg College.

    During this time I became especially familiar with the young Somali and Ethiopian community (from teen-aged youths to individuals in their twenties) and established close friendships with many of these people; from neighbors to those I played basketball with every day. While these individuals hold dearly their ethnic roots, traditions, and values, there exists a growing desire to embrace many facets of American society/culture. Signs of this appeared to me in terms as negligible as the usage of American slang or lingo on up to the acknowledgement, critical consideration, and discussion of differences existing between the culture of this community’s parents and that of its American counterpart; even recognition of lessons to be learned from American practices (of course a hope for Americans to learn from Somali traditions was also expressed). This is not to say that the youth in this community are in favor of shedding what has been taught by its elders, but rather that these individuals are fully prepared to examine the ways of American society and determine what path is best followed in the face of integration (i.e. not necessarily assimilation).

    What I have discussed should be of no surprise to anyone, because this is a path followed by those that came to America from abroad throughout the country’s history. While at present there lacks optimism in relying on American government or even the American public, as such entities have obviously not yet earned the privilege of trust, time will give way to future generations of Somali Americans that I believe will contribute to, gain from, and participate in American society just as those before have done. In regards to determining when this will happen, or rather how long it will take, it is up to America and its citizens to welcome this community with open arms as apposed to casting eyes of distrust.

  • Steve C

    It might not be too difficult to prove (one way or the other): Simply take the average HS grades in American History for Somalian students versus other similarly recent immigrants. You would then normalize it versus the non-immigrant population (for a particular classroom). Interest in American History is an indicator of interest in America…That’s one way.

    Another way would be to look at the propensity for Somalians to participate in volunteer activities (say at the local schools) versus the non-immigrant or non-Somalian immigrants. The supposition is that voluntarism is a pretty good indicator of citizenship.

    Although I am a bit remiss in my ability to see past cultural biases, I am inclined to think that an objective view of this would favor Mr. Ahmed Samatar’s position. Of course, to even attempt such a look would label one a “racist.” Too bad, I might be wrong.

  • bsimon

    I share Christie’s perception (above). Several years ago my wife and I attended a film screening at the history museum in St Paul. The movie shown was made by a group of Somali girls at one of the local high schools – I want to say Washburn or Southwest in Mpls. Several girls in the movie explicitly stated their desire to return to their home in Somalia – despite many (most?) of them having been born here.

    Having said that, I don’t know if I understand how we could measure whether “Somalis aren’t interested in participating in the American culture” – or whether it matters. First, what is ‘American culture’? Our society is made up of myriad subcultures, many of which never interact and are perhaps even unaware of one another. Both the Amish and the urban poor living in subsidized housing are part of the ‘American Culture’, but do those cultures share any characteristics? My lifestyle might share a few characteristics with each of them, but that doesn’t make any of us more or less representative of ‘American Culture’.

  • Elizabeth T

    Mr. Sahmatar states:

    And there are two kinds of Somalis. There are Somalis who come here … because they want to survive … but don’t [get into the culture].”

    and what else? He didn’t provide “the other” kind of Somali. I’m very interested in how he (or they) see their internal cultural divisions.

    I don’t hear this so clearly about the Mexicans or – for that matter – any other immigrant group. Is it because it’s easier to identify Somalis as “immigrants”? Not by their appearance, per se, but simply because there weren’t very many 20 years ago, compared to other immigrants, esp. Mexicans/other Latinos.

    What constitutes American Culture is not only vague today. It is a constantly changing thing. Look at fashion trends as a reflection of society’s changes.

    40 years ago, I would never have publicly admitted I was living with my boyfriend out of wedlock;

    40 years ago, practically no one in the country would have been so public about being gay;

    40 years ago, it would have been perfectly normal for me to never have had a driver’s license, gotten a college education, or worked out of the house;

    40 years ago, I wouldn’t have been using the same bathroom or water fountain as everyone else in the deep South.

    40 years ago, we landed on the moon for the first time.

    Yet all of these today are perfectly, unthinkingly considered part of American Culture.

    I would add another parameter to Steve C’s list:

    Voting rates. Few other activities so clearly state “I am an American” as exercising that sacred right. Personally, anyone who doesn’t bother to vote doesn’t “get into American Culture”, no matter what else she does.

  • Response to bsimon:

    There was a reason why I was explicit in citing the difference between integration and assimilation.

    Integration: the process of opening a group, community, place, or organization to all, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or social class

    Assimilation: the process of becoming part of or more like something greater

    There is a clear difference between the aforementioned terms, and attention to detail is paramount to understanding my assertion: there is a desire for integration, but not necessarily assimilation (I would never begin to approach any group’s desire to assimilate because it has no relevance or value).

    Furthermore, your presentation of the Amish as an example of a community that does not participate in American culture seems benign to illustrating how the Somali community could exist apart from society because the way in which the Amish community conducts daily life as compared to the Somali community. The majority of the Somali community, religion aside – because religions, for the most part, only differ in terms of proper nouns, is motivated to achieve for the same reasons that you or I do in this modern and often material driven world. The Amish, on the other hand, have entirely different motives and, frankly, exist apart from greater society (greater in terms of size, not measured worth); wherein exposure to the outside world is relatively rare.

    In this era of globalization, integration into society does not pertain to each country so much as it does the global society. Somali integration into what we are calling “American Culture” should be viewed along the lines of integration into the global network. It is a matter of maximizing ones opportunity to succeed in any given environment/place/arena, not one’s ability to mimic or model one’s self after those already present inside of said environment/place/arena. Therefore, if one hopes to maximize his or her potential in the global arena, it is necessary for that individual to first tap into the localized network (i.e. America; Minnesota; Minneapolis; and so on).

  • Thank you Elizabeth T!

  • Patricia S.

    It is positively refreshing to read comments and discussion of this caliber on a news site, as opposed to the drivel that usually follows stories on some other news sites.

    Each of these responses has provided food for thought and are intellectually provocative. What a pleasure!

  • bsimon

    Tyler, I think we’re miscommunicating. My intention was to question the thesis that there is a definable American culture in which Somali immigrants could (should?) be interested.

  • bsimon:

    I understand your challenge of the thesis, but it is my contention that to define ‘American Culture’ in absolute terms is unimportant and aside from, or a trivial detail of, what the discussion is based on. To define such a phrase would require abstract preparation, which tends to blur and dilute the original intent, and does not go to developing clarity or rationale. That said, American Culture obviously does exist and as a general concept can be understood by those familiar with the greater American Society.

    If you are willing to accept a broad definition of American Culture as a localized system of intermingling human components relying on one another to conduct day to day activities, it is then possible to discuss whether a particular community has interest in integrating, and therefore, in essence, interested in American Culture for the sake of progress. The belief that a community’s willingness to integrate is lacking requires one to assume that the desire to grow and advance in society also lacks, and the nature of engagement is interest.

  • I think this question is misleading and an answer is open to misinterpretation. First of all what is American culture?

    I think what was being implied by Ahmed Samatar, as referenced in the article, is the issue of identity. Majority of Somalis think of themselves first as Somalis, then as Americans. This is common with all immigrants and it will take time (for some faster than others depending on family e.t.c..) before that changes.

    How Americans view and define Somalis also could be instrumental in how they define themselves. The only time you see Somalis in the media is when there’s an issue in the Somali community. If Somalis were portrayed in the context of regular American life they may feel accepted and more American resulting in a shift of allegiance?

  • More than anything else this speaks to the differences between immigrants and refugees. The former chose to come here, the latter ended up here after being forced to leave their country of origin.

    And yes, both populations have similar issues with children raised in this country. You don’t need to test the kids on American history. Instead, just look a the difference between Hispanic Americans and Cuban Americans.

    How do Cubans compare to the Hmong and Somalis? They don’t. Each refugee population is different, and less likely to have common ground with other refugees than is the case with different immigrant groups all of whom are here out of choice.

  • Ahmed

    I agree with Patricia, this is very positive discussion.

    Here is what I think: I am Somali and I am a proud American. What this means for me personally is to find reasonable balance between integrating into the larger society and my household’s values and traditions.

    So, I own a home, business and work (solid universal and American values). My daughters go to suburban public school where majority of the students are white. They are the only Somali Americans in their class and there may be only one or two other Somali families in our school. My daughters wear headscarf which tends to make their difference that more obvious.

    My wife and I talk about these issues. We both agree that integration (rather than assimilation) should be our goal. I personally believe that individuals with strong values and voluntarily decide their options are much better citizens than those who feel forced to assimilate or feel pressured to adopt foreign culture (you are as quickly to dissimilate as you are to assimilate).

    Unfortunately, some people interpret my daughters desire to keep wearing their headscarf as reason for not wanting to integrate or that we hold some sort of anti-American sentiment which is not at all the case.

    Ironically our most assimilated groups are the most troubled. Many of our youth drop-out school, are into drugs, and end up in jail. These are kids who abandoned their parents’ values and culture and unfortunately picked up the bad part of the American culture. And this is the trap that those of us who want the best of both cultures are trying to avoid.

    Thanks – ahmed