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Minneapolis Indians, Somalis, try to bridge differences

Minneapolis, Minnesota (AP) April 2011

Longtime American Indian residents in a poor Minneapolis neighborhood and some of their new neighbors from Somalia are struggling to get along. A handful of alleged attacks against women and elders by young people from both communities haven’t helped.

But some residents, American Indian and Somali, are trying their best to tamp down the violence and learn to live with one another, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

Franklin Avenue in the Phillips neighborhood had long been the heart of Indian Country in Minneapolis. But the early 1990s drew Somali refugees to Phillips in search of cheap rent and storefronts where they could open convenience stores and halal meat shops.

Wade Keezer, an Ojibwe with a long black ponytail, grew up in the neighborhood. Keezer remembers the first time he saw the new African arrivals. With their long headscarves and dresses, he assumed they were Catholic nuns.

“My sister says, `No, you dummy, those are Somalis,’’’ Keezer remembered. “I heard they’d been here, but I didn’t know who they were or what they looked like.’’

About a year ago, community advocates including Amina Saleh of The Family Partnership and Keezer started the Native American Somali Friendship Committee. They decided to act after an email circulated reporting that an American Indian woman claimed three Somali boys attacked her with a bottle. Saleh and Keezer each organized a group of elders and then brought their two communities together.

And though Mike Forcia, another Ojibwe, was an early member, even he had to confront his bigotry about Somalis.

“I was on the side that, there’s nothing we can do,’’ Forcia said. “They’re arrogant, they don’t know how to drive, you just can’t talk to these people.’’

But he also knew Somalis were here to stay.

At the meetings, Somalis confessed to harboring their own stereotypes, including their belief that all American Indians were alcoholics.

Khadra Abdi helped Forcia see the softer side of her culture. The 29-year-old moved to Minnesota as a teen and said she loves her new country. But at a recent gathering, she told other committee members she wished they could walk a day in her shoes. She told how a man recently cut in front of her while she was waiting in line at a clinic.

“I said, `Hey, I was ahead of you. Buddy, get in line.’ He says, `Well, I’m paying money,’“ Abdi said. “I wish sometimes that I had a country to go back to, because every day you constantly hear, `You’re Somali, you don’t know how to speak English, you don’t know how to drive, you take welfare.’ I mean, it’s really, really hard.’’

Keezer said some American Indians in the neighborhood are quick to blame their Somali neighbors for violence without confronting it in their own community. He said he won’t stand for that.

“They’re pointing their finger, and it’s just like, `Wait a minute. You just beat up your old lady, and your kids are in foster care, and you’re pointing at these people, like they’ve done something bad to you. But they haven’t done anything to you. So what’s the problem here? Are you just saying what everybody else is saying just to be hateful?’’’ Keezer said.

The friendship committee also hopes to bridge the divide among younger members of their communities. Keezer said he has heard that some American Indian and Somali students have been fighting each other on school buses, and with the weather warming up, youth leaders are predicting more fighting over basketball courts in the area. The committee is planning some pick-up games so that kids can learn how to play together, just as the small group of adults has gradually learned to do.