Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Rock Star Treatment

This blog post is, in effect, by a guest writer: Hussein Samatar, Executive Director of the African Development Center in Minneapolis. I met Hussein Samatar about three years ago when I helped the African Development Center develop a technology plan and find a database to manage all their activities.* I then got to know Hussein when we served together on the Minneapolis Library Board. Recently Hussein wrote about a trip to Scandinavia and he has agreed to allow me to re-publish it here. It includes some fascinating insights:
The Rock Star Treatment

As many of you know, this summer Minneapolis City Council Member Robert Lilligren and I traveled overseas to present the success of our Twin Cities community in dealing with immigration from African nations, a vexing problem from our Swedish hosts.

There and in Denmark, we made several presentations to academics, policy experts and immigrant affairs groups in a trip organized by a Swedish colleague, Dr. Benny Carlson of the ZUFI Foundation, and sponsored by the U.S. State Department. The experience solidified impressions formed during my tour of five other European cities as part of the German Marshall Memorial Fellowship program this spring.

That is, the governments of Europe have generally failed to integrate immigrants into the productive side of the economy, and African refugees represent the most demonstrable failure in this regard. Too many languish on public assistance, straining their broader acceptance by society. There’s no shortage of thoughtful solutions in Europe, only a shortage of results. Why?

There are many political and social factors contributing to the frustrating problem of integration. But, from my perspective as a naturalized American, lack of opportunity for self-determination has stifled the economic potential of Africans in even the most progressive European nations. Despite their enlightened ideals, these countries are still stuck in the view that immigration is a problem rather than an opportunity.

By contrast, Minnesota, which claims the highest percentage of African immigrants of any U.S. state—has enabled substantial economic productivity. Here, while continuing to face familiar cultural hurdles, the African diaspora has built wealth and joined society like nowhere else. While political representation remains scant, Africans are moving into the middle class, America’s political bedrock.

In Minnesota, we see good things ahead. This outlook makes Minnesota’s African community the envy of Europe. Again: how to explain this relative success? We are of course a nation of immigrants, and Minnesota is among the most educated, affluent and progressive states, so upward mobility is a historical, natural process. But this doesn’t explain everything.

In travels to Europe this year I’ve become aware of a distinguishing trait I’ll call the Rock Star Factor.

After CM Lilligren and I would speak, we would receive polite applause. But the real interest, excitement, even adulation, was invariably reserved for Nimo Farah, ADC’s program coordinator, who accompanied us on the trip. Now, for those of you unacquainted with Nimo, she is a delightful, intelligent and beautiful young woman who graduated this year from the University of Minnesota. Last year, she was an intern for ADC. Today, in Northern Europe, she is our Elvis Presley.

The academics and policy wonks we addressed, the immigrant groups we met with, the journalists who covered our tour—nobody had seen anything like her before. Educated, outgoing, conversant in business issues, and expecting to be accepted while dressed, albeit stylishly, in observance of her Muslim faith, Nimo engaged the imagination and the emotion of our European friends in a way that two middle-aged suits—a city official and a nonprofit executive—could not hope to equal.

Though composed and diplomatic throughout, Nimo embodied the youthful spirit of rock ‘n roll, an American invention that reacted to stifling social conditions with bold self-determination and obliterated countless barriers to social mobility and economic attainment.

Such barriers are high for my generation of African refugees, which has labored hard to find a footing in our adopted homelands. Nimo’s generation is the one who will climb on the back of mine to achieve the success we are only beginning to envision with meaningful clarity in the United States. Our African brothers and sisters in Europe – and those few in the European mainstream who advocate for them – have suffered for lack of such a vision.

That vision, that rock star presence, was our Nimo.


Hussein Samatar,
Executive Director, African Development Center

*While in many ways the African Development Center is a typical Community Development Corporation that works with African Immegrents in Minnesota, it had one specialized need--a database that could handle Islamic-compliant loans.