The Somali diaspora and its journey to political victories in the West
From refugees to elected officials, 14 Somali Americans have won legislative seats across the United States this year. Some have also been elected to city councils, school boards, and parks and recreation boards in their respective cities. The US midterm elections proved historic for Somalis, with more women elected to public office than ever before.
VOA Somali Service’s Torch program explains how Somalis who arrived as migrants and refugees in the West made their way into politics.
Hashi Shafi, executive director of the Somali Action Alliance, a grassroots organization based in Minneapolis in the northern US state of Minnesota, said the campaign that led Somalis to shine in US politics has begun. right after 9/11 with a community voter registration program. .
“At first, Somalis were thinking of returning to Somalia. They had their luggage ready; artists sang along with songs giving the community hope for an immediate return, but after 9/11 community activists realized that such a dream was unrealistic and that Somalis had to find a way to melt in the pot. Then we started registering community members to encourage them to vote,” Shafi said. “The rise to political power of Somali Americans has been accompanied by difficulties.”
Abdirahman Sharif, the imam and head of the Dar-Al-Hijrah Mosque in Minneapolis, says another reason Somalis have risen in American politics is because they are a tight-knit community.
“When the Somalis came [the] In the United States, they moved to a foreign country where they could not communicate with people. So for them, being close to the people of their country meant having someone to communicate with and that helped them to unite their votes, and resources for political aspirants,” Sharif said.
The state of Minnesota has the largest Somali community in the country, primarily in the Minneapolis-St. Paul district. According to 2015 UN estimates, approximately 150,000 Somalis, refugees and non-refugees, live in the United States.
The first wave of Somalis arrived in Minnesota in the early 1990s after civil war broke out in their country. Another wave of refugees followed, and the community flourished thanks to the state’s social reception programs. It is the largest Somali community in North America, possibly in the world outside of East Africa.
Likewise, job opportunities and a relatively low cost of living drew Somali immigrants to Columbus, Ohio. Ohio has the second largest Somali population in the United States, with approximately 45,000 immigrants.
Communities have grown significantly in both states. Somali-owned restaurants, mosques, clothing stores, cafes and other businesses have opened in several neighborhoods in Minneapolis, called Little Mogadishu, after the Somali capital.
Large communities of Somalis are also concentrated in Lewiston and Portland, Maine, as well as Seattle, Washington, and the Washington, DC metropolitan area.
Abdi-Qafar analyst Abdi Wardere says such concentrations have helped Somalis gather their strength as a community.
“Somalis are bound by intimate social or cultural ties that have helped them live together and focus [in] certain states or quarters of the diaspora. About a third of Minnesota’s Somali residents came directly from refugee camps; others first settled in another state and then moved to Minnesota. I can tell they’re kind of a tight-knit community,” Wardere said.
Canada and Europe
It is not only in the United States, but Somali immigrants have also found their place in Canadian and European politics. They gathered in large numbers in major cities to make an impact and exert influence.
In Toronto, Canada, Somalis have made inroads by winning elections and political office. Ahmed Hussen, a lawyer and community activist born and raised in Somalia, is one of the most influential Somalis in Canada. He was first elected MP in 2015 to represent York South – Weston. He previously served as Minister of Families, Children and Social Development and Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. He is now Minister of Housing, Diversity and Inclusion of Canada.
Faisal Ahmed Hassan, who is a Somali-Canadian politician, served as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario from 2018 until his defeat in 2022. He believes that for Somalis in the diaspora, there are two reasons for which they stand for election.
“One of the reasons is that the community wants someone to represent their new homes and the second is that Somalis inspire each other to do something. If one of them does something good, the others are encouraged to do the same,” Hassan said.
In the northern region of Europe, the first Somalis arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Later, as the civil war in Somalia escalated, new arrivals joined.
In recent years, the first generation of Somali refugees have made their mark in politics, from local council level to the national stage.
In Finland, Suldaan Said Ahmed is the first Somali-born member of the Finnish parliament since 2021 and he is also the country’s special representative for peace mediation in the Horn of Africa, the northeastern region, where Somalia.
In Sweden, Leila Ali Elmi, a former Somali refugee, made history in 2018 when she became the first Somali-Swedish Muslim woman elected to the Swedish parliament.
Last year, Marian Abdi Hussein became the first Somali MP in Norwegian history.
The two women also became the first Muslim women to wear the hijab in their respective parliaments.
In Britain, Magid Magid, a Somali-British activist and politician who was mayor of Sheffield from May 2018 to May 2019, has become the first Somali elected to the European Parliament.
Mohamed Gure, a former city council member from Borlänge, Sweden, said there are unique things that keep Somalis together and make them successful in politics in Europe.
“The fabric of Somalis is unique compared to other communities in the diaspora. They share the same ethnicity, the same color, the same language and the same religion. There are many things that unite them and divide them about them. So their solidarity is one of the reasons I can attribute to their successes,” Gure said.
Gure says fear of migrants and refugees stoked by politicians has defined a defining narrative for elections in the West.
“Another reason is the fear of a growing number of migrants and refugees in the West. As they try to melt into the pot, such fear created by nationalist politicians continues to set the tone for election victories that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago,” Gure said.