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The Somali Diaspora and its Journey to Political Victories in the West

FILE - US Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaks to the crowd at the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party's election night party after winning reelection early Wednesday morning, Nov. 9, 2022, in St. Paul, Minn.
FILE - US Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaks to the crowd at the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party's election night party after winning reelection early Wednesday morning, Nov. 9, 2022, in St. Paul, Minn.

From refugees to elected office, 14 Somali Americans have won legislative seats across the U.S. this year. Some also have been elected to city councils, school boards and the boards of parks and recreation in their respective cities. The U.S. midterm elections have proved to be historic for Somalis, with more women elected to public offices than ever before.

VOA Somali Service’s Torch Program explains how Somalis who arrived as migrants and refugees to the West have made their way into politics.

Hashi Shafi, executive director of the Somali Action Alliance, a Minneapolis-based community organization in the northern U.S. state of Minnesota, says the campaign that led Somalis to shine in U.S. politics started right after 9/11 with a community-based voter registration program.

“In the beginning, Somalis were thinking about returning back to Somalia. They had their luggage ready; the artists were singing with songs giving the community a hope of immediate returning, but after 9/11, the community activists realized that such a dream was not realistic, and the Somalis needed to find a way to melt into the pot. Then, we started registering community members to encourage them to vote,” Shafi said. “Somali Americans’ rise in political power has come with its difficulties.”

Tight-knit community

Abdirahman Sharif, the imam and the leader of the Dar-Al-Hijrah Mosque in Minneapolis says another reason Somalis have risen in U.S. politics is because they are a tight-knit community.

“When Somalis came to [the] U.S., they moved to a foreign country where they could not communicate with people. So, for them, being close to people from 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, mostly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. According to U.N. estimates from 2015, there are about 150,000 Somalis, both refugees and nonrefugees, living in the U.S.

The first wave of Somalis came to Minnesota in early 1990s after civil war broke out in their country. Another wave of refugees followed, and the community thrived, thanks to the state's welcoming social programs. It's the biggest Somali community in North America, possibly in the world outside of East Africa.

Similarly, job opportunities and a relatively low cost of living have drawn Somali immigrants to Columbus, Ohio. Ohio has the second largest Somali population in the United States, with an estimated 45,000 immigrants.

Communities have grown significantly in both states. Somali-owned restaurants, mosques, clothing stores, coffee shops and other businesses have opened in several neighborhoods in Minneapolis, called Little Mogadishu, named after Somalia's capital.

Large communities of Somalis are also concentrated in Lewiston and Portland, Maine, as well as Seattle in Washington state, and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

Analyst Abdi-Qafar Abdi Wardere says such concentrations have helped Somalis to gather their strength as a community.

“Somalis are bound together by intimate social or cultural ties that helped them to live together and concentrate [in] certain states or neighborhoods in the diaspora. About one-third of Minnesota's Somali residents came directly from refugee camps; others settled first in another state and then relocated to Minnesota. I can say they are somehow a tight-knit community,” Wardere said.

Canada and Europe

It’s not only in the United States but Somali immigrants have also found their place in Canadian and European politics. They have gathered in big numbers in major cities to have an impact and exert influence.

In Toronto, Canada, Somalis have made breakthroughs by winning elections and political offices. Ahmed Hussen, a lawyer and community activist born and raised in Somalia, is among the most influential Somalis in Canada. He was first elected as a member of parliament in 2015 to represent York South - Weston. He has previously served as minister of families, children and social development, and minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship. Now he is Canada’s minister of housing, diversity and inclusion.

Faisal Ahmed Hassan, who is a Somali Canadian politician, was a member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario from 2018 until his defeat in 2022. He thinks for Somalis in the diaspora, there are two reasons they run for political office.

“One reason is that the community wants someone to represent their new homes and second is that Somalis inspire one another to doing something. If one of them does something good, others are encouraged that they can do the same,” Hassan said.

In the Nordic region of Europe, the first Somalis arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Later, as Somalia's civil war became more intense, new arrivals joined.

In recent years, the first generation of Somali refugees has been making its mark in politics, from the local council level to the national stage.

In Finland, Suldaan Said Ahmed has been the first Somali-born member of the Finnish parliament since 2021 and he is also the country’s special representative on peace mediation in the Horn of Africa, the northeastern region, where Somalia is located.

In Sweden, Leila Ali Elmi, a former Somali refugee, made history in 2018 becoming the first Somali-Swedish Muslim woman elected to the Swedish parliament.

Last year, Marian Abdi Hussein became the first Somali MP in Norway’s history.

Both women also became the first Muslims to wear hijabs in their respect houses of parliament.

In Britain, Magid Magid, a Somali-British activist and politician who served as the mayor of Sheffield from May 2018 to May 2019, became the first Somali elected to the European Parliament.

Mohamed Gure, a former member of the council of the city of Borlänge, Sweden, said there are unique things that keep Somalis together and make them successful in the politics in Europe.

“The fabric of Somalis is unique compared to the other diaspora communities. They share the same ethnicity, color, language, and religion. There are many things that keep them together that divide them back home. So, their togetherness is one reason I can attribute to their successes,” Gure said.

Gure says the fear of migrants and refugees stoked by politicians has been setting a defining narrative for elections in the West.

“One other reason is the fear of a growing number of migrants and refugees in the West. As they are trying to melt into the pot, such fear created by nationalist politicians continues to set a tone for electoral victories that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago,” Gure said.