Somali: Becoming Minnesotan

Somalia, CIA World Factbook, 2010.

Map of Homeland

Somali Stories

Quick Facts

Somali Population:
U.S.: 103,117 (2009)
Minnesota: 28,450 (2009 American Community Survey estimate; other sources have placed the number closer to 60,000)
Somalia: 10,112,453 (2010 estimate derived from an official census taken in 1975 by the Somali Government; population counting in Somalia is complicated by the large number of nomads and by refugee movements in response to famine and clan warfare.)

Major Religion: Sunni Muslim

Ethnic Groups in Somalia: Somali 85%, Bantu and other non-Somali 15% (including Arabs 30,000)

Major Languages: Somali (official), Arabic, Italian, English.  Swahili is common among refugees.

Current Government of Somalia: No permanent national government; transitional, parliamentary federal government.  Other regional and local governing bodies control various regions of the country, including the self-declared Republic of Somaliland in northwestern Somalia and the semi-autonomous State of Puntland in northeastern Somalia

Geography of Somalia: Strategic location on Horn of Africa along southern approaches to Bab el Mandeb and route through Red Sea and Suez Canal.  Mostly flat to undulating plateau rising to hills in north.

Climate of Somalia: Principally desert; northeast monsoon (December to February), moderate temperatures in north and hot in south; southwest monsoon (May to October), torrid in the north and hot in the south, irregular rainfall, hot and humid periods (tangambili) between monsoon.

Source: CIA World Factbook 2010 and American Community Survey 2009.

Population Comparison






  • Introduction
  • Religion & Culture
  • History & Geography
  • Finding a New Home
  • Investigate Further


Somalia has faced political turbulence for much of its history, and the political situation spiraled out of control in 1991 when the central government fell apart.  Rebel factions began battling to gain control all over the country, and it became very dangerous for common people to live in the midst of the fighting.  Starting in 1992, the U.S.  began issuing refugee visas to thousands of Somalis.  Many of them settled in Minneapolis and St.  Paul and many more moved to the Twin Cities from other parts of the United States.  Today, Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the U.S., estimated to be over 60,000 in 2010.  Somalia’s future is still uncertain.

Religion & Culture


Somali culture is intertwined with their Islamic religion, and religion shapes many of their traditions and practices.  Most Somalis are Sunni Muslims, as are many people all over Africa and Asia.  The vast majority of Sunni Muslims practice the peaceful ways and faithful actions that are taught by Islam.  They are guided by the words of the Quran, the Islamic Holy Book, and the Five Pillars of Islam.  The Five Pillars describe the important rituals that must be performed at certain times to demonstrate faithfulness. 

For Sunnis, these Five Pillars are:

1. Shahada - the acceptance of Allah as the one and only God and Muhammad as God’s messenger. 

2. Salah - the daily prayers that must be recited while kneeling on the floor and facing Mecca, a city in Saudi Arabia that is the most holy site in Islam.  Prayers have to be done five times each day.  Muslims believe that every person must be pure and clean before doing daily prayers, so they must wash with water before praying (called “ablution”). 

3. Zakat - charitable giving.

4. Sawm - participating in the different kinds of fasting.

5. Hajj - a pilgrimage to Mecca once in a person’s life.

Somalis also follow the Shafi’i School of Islamic Jurisprudence.  A general Islamic reawakening led by Somalis returning from the Middle East took hold in the 70s and 80s.  Many Somalis began to conform to the Islamic dress code and outward manifestations of the faith.  


Regular Somali food consists of anjera (similar to a pancake) corn, beans, rice, spaghetti, mufo bread, meat, milk, and fruits, especially bananas.  Islam lays out a few strict dietary rules which most Somalis follow.  Pork and alcohol are entirely forbidden, and other meat must be processed in a specific way.  Food that meets the requirements is called “halal” (Arabic for “legal”).  Some Somalis may avoid eating meat at restaurants in the U.S.  because they are not sure if the food is halal.  There are many halal stores in Somali neighborhoods.


Islam calls for women to dress modestly, which is usually interpreted to mean clothing that covers the entire body except the face and hands.  The term hijab refers to both the practice of dressing modestly and the headscarf worn as part of this practice.  Some Somali women in the U.S.  have continued to wear the headscarf and traditional loose flowing dresses, while others have not.  Some compromise by wearing the headscarf with more American clothes, and others don’t wear the headscarf at all.  Some of the traditional Somali women’s clothing include the guntino, diri’ or shawl.

Somali men wear shirts and pants like American men.  However, they may also wear traditional clothes like koofiyad caps, or the ma’awi, which is similar to a sarong that wraps around the waist.


Somali belongs to the Cushitic branch of Afro-Asiatic languages.  Its written version was formalized in 1972 using the Roman alphabet, the same alphabet English uses.  Somali is the official language of Somalia but other languages are also spoken.  Most Somalis can speak more than one language.  Italian was commonly spoken in Somalia in the early part of the 20th century, since Somalia was colonized by Italy, and is still sometimes spoken today.  It is also common for Somalis to speak Arabic since it is the language of the Quran, the Islamic Holy Book.  Furthermore, English is widely spoken in Somalia because of the British influence and the political and commercial value of the language in the world today.


In Somalia, extended families are normally very close.  In fact, it is common for grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins to all live together in the same house and become very involved in each other’s lives.  Because of this, it is also common for families to care for aging grandparents in the home.  The extended family members provide support for one another during good times and bad times. 

History & Geography


Somalia is a country located along the equator in the Horn of Africa.  It is hot for most of the year, with average temperatures ranging from 80 to100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Somalia has the longest coastline of any country in Africa, and has historically been an important maritime trade center.  There are different seasons in Somalia, including months that are very dry and months during the "rainy season" when monsoons bring lots of rainfall to revive the dry land.  It is hot and humid along the coast, but hot and dry throughout the year farther inland. 


There is early historical evidence of Somali people conducting trade with the Pharaohs of Egypt in frankincense and myrrh produced in Puntland.  Before defined colonial borders were introduced, the Somalis were nomadic people who moved from place to place in search of pasture.  They often pushed against the neighboring Oromo, Boran, Afar, and Amhara communities in the Horn of Africa.  Islam was introduced to Somalia in the early days of the religion in the 7th century.  The religion entered Somalia peacefully through traders and preachers from the Arabian Peninsula crossing over the Red Sea.  The Arab traveler, Ibu Batuta described the region in detail in the 13th Century, noting Muslim rulers and hospitable people.

Later, the area caught the attention of the European powers after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.  In the 19th and early 20th century, European countries scrambled for control over African lands.  Somalia was particularly attractive to colonizers because of its location near Middle Eastern and Indian trade routes.  Somalis suffered greatly as their land was carved up and controlled by the British, Italians, and French.  Later, the colonial powers ceded Somali land to Ethiopia and Kenya.  Thus, this colonial legacy let to unrest and animosity between Somalia and its neighbors even after independence.


The Dervish freedom movement, to free the land of the colonial powers, was led by Sayid Mohamed Abdille Hassan from 1889 to 1920.  The Sayid, who the British called "Mad Mullah", was a valiant warrior, who used his poetic skills to wage war.  He is considered a heroic figure in Somalia.  In 1943 a group of thirteen young men formed the Somali Youth League (SYL), whose goal was to mobilize the population for independence.  They organized mass rallies and grassroots efforts for Somali Nationalism.  Somali women also played an important role in this era; one woman, Hawo "Tako", was killed while leading a massive protest in 1949.  She is considered a Somali hero, and there is a statue of her in downtown Mogadishu.
Somalia gained its independence from Great Britain and Italy on July 1st, 1960 when the former British and Italian colonies united to form the Somali Republic.  There was a short-lived democratic government in the 1960s that lasted for nine years.  During this period there were many political parties and much chaos.  Abdirazak Haji Hussein, one of the prime ministers during this period, now lives in Minneapolis.

In 1969, Major General Mohamed Siad Barre led a military take-over of the government, and he was the ruler of Somalia from 1969 until 1991.  This military regime allied with the Soviet Union, and Somalia was a Communist country until 1978 when it broke relations with its Cold War ally.  The main reason for the break-up was that Somalia went to war with Ethiopia to recapture the ethnically Somali Ogaden Region, and the Soviet Union sided with Ethiopia.  Some historians say that Somalia’s decline began after its defeat in this war, as opposition movements to the military rule began to form.  Some of the early opposition groups were the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), the Somali National Movement (SNM), and the United Somali Congress (USC).  Virtually all of them were clan based and they lacked national platforms.


On January 27, 1991, President Barre was forced to flee the Presidential Palace by popular uprising in Mogadishu, and rebels of the United Somali Congress took over the capital.  A group of elders called the Manifesto appointed businessman Ali Mahdi Mohamed as president.  Unfortunately, the opposition groups did not have a power sharing plan and they turned on each other and revenge clan killings took place.  The young soldiers in the different militias commonly chewed khat, a stimulant drug that produces ecstasy.  As they became more addicted to the drug and more entwined in gang life, these young soldiers often become more brutal and violent.

Somali citizens faced more violence and danger of getting caught up in the fighting.  This led to massive exodus of Somali refugees to neighboring countries, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen.  Somalia did not have a recognized government between 1991 and 2000, and life became increasingly violent.  Fighting continued between different opposition groups led by Mohamed Farah Aideed, Mohamed Said Hersi "Morgan", Ahmed Omar Jees, Abdullahi Yusuf, and others.  In these difficult circumstances, the former British colony of Somaliland seceded and declared independence in May 1991.  President Barre went to exile in Nigeria where he died.

There used to be many public schools throughout Somalia, but after civil war all government controlled educational institutions stopped functioning.  During the worst years of the war, almost all elementary and high schools were shut down or destroyed.  As families increasingly fled to safety in other parts eastern Africa, they would send their children to schools elsewhere if they could afford it.  Later, schools and universities supported by private individuals and non-profit organizations began to function all over the country.

Many Somalis fled to the nearby countries of Kenya and Ethiopia to escape the fighting in the years after the fighting began.  These two countries have experienced their own political troubles in the last 50 years, but they have been able to provide temporary shelter in refugee camps for approximately half a million Somali refugees since 1991.  However, Somalis were not completely safe in Kenya or Ethiopia, since they had to deal with corrupt police systems and governments.

The new Transitional Federal Government was formed in 2000, and the Ethiopians helped to bring the government back to Somalia.  However, the Somalis resented the Ethiopian involvement, and fought against the government.  This resulted in more civil war between different political and religious groups.  Most of the country is under the control of Al-Shabab, a hard-line Islamic Group that resorts to excessive violence to gain control.  The weak Transitional Government controls only small portion of the Mogadishu and has to be protected by African Union Forces from Uganda and Rwanda.  Parts of Somalia have declared themselves independent, and fighting continues today.  Today Somalia continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world and it still remains an example of a failed state.

Finding a New Home

Starting in 1992, the U.S. began welcoming Somali refugees and placing throughout the country.  Somalis began arriving in Minnesota in early 1993, and have continued to arrive in large numbers since.  In 2010, there were an estimated 60,000 Somalis living in Minnesota, the largest Somali population of any state in the U.S. 

There were many more refugees than visas available, so it was common for one family member to arrive on his or her own without friends or family.  Once a refugee or immigrant is established in the U.S., he or she can petition the government for visas for other family members.  The refugees went through orientation to American life in the camps before coming, but many of them still have to overcome huge obstacles.

Since Somali immigrants began arriving in 1993, Minnesota has earned a reputation among Somalis for having jobs and educational opportunities, as well as a large and active Somali community.  Thousands of Somalis who originally settled in other parts of the U.S. have now relocated to Minneapolis or St. Paul, or smaller cities like Rochester, St. Cloud, Owatonna, Waseca, Marshall, or Faribault.  There are jobs in these places that don’t require fluency in English, so are often the first stopping point for newly arrived Somalis.  Some Somalis eventually move to Minneapolis and St. Paul to be part of a larger Somali community.

Several non-profit charity organizations in Minnesota such as Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities operate numerous programs to help resettle recent immigrants.  There are also several Somali-led organizations that have started to help newcomers adjust to life in the U.S. 

Somalis often see America as a place where any person can succeed or pursue opportunities that they would not have had in war-torn Somalia.  For example, many Somali young people are going to college to get advanced degrees and better paying jobs.  In return, these recent immigrants should be recognized for the way that they are changing American society by adding new foods and words, running successful businesses that help the economy grow, and helping Americans to better understand Islam.


Though many Somalis spend time in Kenya or other African countries where English is spoken before relocating to the U.S., most Somalis have limited knowledge of the language before they arrive.  This means that adult Somalis must support themselves with jobs that require no language skills when the first arrive.

Young Somalis are often able to get the support they need to learn English and to learn how to operate in American society in their schools.  There are ELL classes, and other supports for immigrant students, but the first few weeks are often difficult as they begin the process of learning English.  As more Somali children are entering the school systems in Minnesota, the teachers and school districts are trying to become more familiar with Somali culture.  The St. Paul and Minneapolis Public Schools each have created a job within their school district that focuses specifically on the needs of Somali students and parents.  This support person knows the Somali language, beliefs, and customs, and can provide support to classroom teachers and resources that allow the district to be better prepared to work with these young people.

Teachers and school districts are trying to encourage the parents to be more involved in their children’s education.  However, parents often shy away from coming into the school or communicating with the teachers.  For one thing, many parents are still struggling to learn English and may feel self-conscious or afraid that they will not be understood by the teacher. 


Somali young people are surrounded by American students at school and are quick to pick up on how Americans, talk, act, and think.  These young people may not have ever lived in Somalia, so they are more likely to see themselves as Americans and to get involved politically. 
There are also so many families that have been broken up—some members have immigrated to the U.S. and some remain in East Africa.  The extended family networks that are so important in Somali society, in which all the members work together to care for one another, may not exist in the U.S.  Often both parents are working outside the home, so there is no one to care for the small children or the elderly relatives during the day.

This separation from family members is one thing that many Somalis immigrants struggle with, and they try to stay connected with their families and communities in several ways.  Somalis in the U.S. often try to help family members in Somalia or in refugee camps by sending money.  Many Somalis use money transfer agencies called hawala to send money back to their families that are struggling in Somalia, Kenya, or Ethiopia.  Somalis have also tended to move to particular cities and neighborhoods to be closer together.  The Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis is home to many Somalis, and it may be easier in this smaller community to maintain the Muslim faith, and Somali language and culture.


Somali refugees in the U.S. face the challenge of not only learning how to live in American society but also how to maintain their traditional ways.  Increasingly, there is a divide between the older generation of Somali immigrants and the younger generation.  Older Somali immigrants sometimes struggle with the language and feel more isolated.  Young Somalis learn English in school and are much more exposed to American culture. 

Elders are less likely to work outside the home and they often stick more to their traditional ways.  Parents may be dismayed when their own children start to act more American, ignoring traditional Somali practices like wearing the hijab or eating halal food.  One of the biggest challenges for Somali elders is encouraging the younger generation to maintain the traditional Somali sense of morality and ethics.

This older generation, who spent so much of their own lives in their homeland, is more likely to feel lonely for home and hope to return to Somalia some day.  They may not be as interested in getting involved in a place that they do not feel is home.  Younger people usually feel less attached to Somalia than they do to America.  In fact some of them grew up in refugee camps in Kenya or Ethiopia before coming to the U.S., so they may have never lived in Somalia at all!  These young people often see America as home. 

One major fear is that the Somali language will die out as more Somalis in the U.S. learn English in order to succeed in American schools and jobs.  Somalis generally feel that much of their culture is tied up in their language, so they must keep up the language in order to maintain their culture.  The Somali community has now started programs to encourage children to continue speaking the Somali language, and some families are making an extra effort to speak Somali at home and to create resources and events to expose their children more to the language.

Although Somali immigrants in the U.S. want to preserve their culture, they should not be confused with the extremist Muslim groups like Al Qaeda who were involved in the September 11th attacks.  This very small and extreme group in the Middle East feels so strongly that they must defend their traditional culture and Islamic religion that they are willing to use violence against the U.S. and other Western countries.  There have been a few cases of Somali Americans being recruited to join extremist movements, but the overwhelming majority of Somalis in the U.S. promote the peaceful ways of Islam.  They are grateful to have escaped the violence and chaos of life in East Africa.  

After the attacks of September 11th there was fear that Americans would associate Somalis with the attacks and retaliate against them.  There were examples of actions that negatively impacted Somalis, like the closing of some money transfer agencies in the U.S.  Some feared that Somalis, mostly Muslim, were sending money to support terrorism.  Somalis in the U.S. rely on these money transfer agencies to send money back to their families that are struggling in Somalia, Kenya, or Ethiopia, so most have now been re-opened.  However, in general, Minnesotans have been very open to the Somali immigrants.  As more and more Somalis have settled in Minnesota, there is a greater understanding and acceptance of Muslim practices.  


Somalia has experienced much violence and warfare since the fighting broke out in 1991.  Because the fighting continues in Somalia, and the government still struggles to get control of the political system and the economy, most Somalis agree that there is no way to tell when, if ever, Somalia will be safe enough to return. 
Some may want to return to Somalia some day, but most are eager to start their new life here where they will stay.  Many Somalis believe that it is important to put down roots here and make Minnesota their home.  Somalis now have the opportunity to buy their own home and more permanently settle here, take advantage of educational and career opportunities, and generally pursue a safe and healthy life.   

Investigate Further


Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota (CSCM):
A mutual assistance organization offering services to Somali refugees and families in Minnesota.

Somali Action Alliance:
A minneapolis-based organization that focuses on public activism to improve the lives of Somalis.

Somali Family Care Network:
This organization supports community-based organizations that help Somalis transiton and integrate into American society.

An International Journal of Somali Studies, published by Ahmed I. Samatar, Macalester College.

Dar Al-Hijrah Cultural Center:
This religious, educational, social, and charitable organization serves the Muslim community in Minnesota.

Hiiraan Online:
General news and information about Somalia.


Abdullahi, Mohamed Diriye.  Culture and Customs of Somalia.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
General reference on the culture and customs of Somalia, written by a native Somali. High school / Adult.

Aktar, Nasreen.  Samira's Eid / Samiira iyo Ciiddii.  London: Mantra Publishing Ltd., 1999.
An introduction to the Muslim holiday of Eid, in both English and Somali. Good for grades K-3.

Ayanle, Nadifo.  A Somali Alphabet / Alfabeetadda Soomaaliyeed.  Portland, ME: Maine Humanities Commission, 2001.
Bilingual book links stories and memories of Somalia with the letters of the Somali alphabet.

Fox, Mary Virginia.  Somalia. New York: Children's Press, 1996.
Facts and photos provide an introduction to Somalia. Good for grades 3-6.

Hassan, Marian A.  Dhegdheer: A Scary Somali Folktale.  St. Paul, MN : Minnesota Humanities Commission, Somali Bilingual Book Project, c.2007.
This bilingual book tells a traditional Somali folktale. Good for grades K-3.

Hussein, Ikram.  Teenage Refugees from Somalia Speak Out.  New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 1997.
Teenage Somali refugees tell their heartbreaking stories of fleeing their homes and moving to a new country. Good for grades 4 and up.

Mirreh, Abdirahman.  From an Acacia Landscape: Poetry 1983-1993.  Great Britain, Haan Publishing, 1996.

Roble, Abdi and Doug Rutledge.  The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Photo essays show the lives of Somalis in Somalia, Minneapolis, and Columbus, Ohio.

Sulieman, Anita.  Somali Study Materials series.  Haan Associates, 1991-1993.


Somali Independence Week
Late June - Early July

Karmel Mall
2944 Pillsbury Ave S, Minneapolis, MN

Village Mall
12th St and 10th Ave S, Minneapolis, MN

Dar Al-Hijrah Cultural Center
504 Cedar Ave S, Minneapolis, MN

Citation Sources

Aamot, Gregg. The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees. Minneapolis: Syren Book Company, 2006.

Adam, Abdisalam, Community Focus Group Representative. Meetings and email correspondence with Kate Stower, May- September, 2010.

Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota website, 15 July 2010.

Minneapolis Foundation website, 15 July 2010.

"Somali Immigration: Historical Forces and Individual Lives."  St. Olaf College website, 13 July 2010.

"Somali Immigrant Settlement in Small Minnesota and Wisconsin Communities." Evergreen College website, 16 July 2010.

Wikipedia website, 17 July 2010.

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