Getting Out the Somali Vote for Howard Dean

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- An evening that began glumly at the Canadian Honker
restaurant -- where Bob Rouillard and several friends were "commiserating
about the Bush presidency" -- ended on a strong note thanks to a sudden brainstorm. Somalis for Howard Dean!

An operating room technician for Mayo Clinic, Rouillard had never been involved in politics. Then, when he recently became a young father, he started thinking about what kind of world he was going to leave his kids. "We were depressed at the Honker," Rouillard said. "Then we said 'Hey, this isn't a support group. We like Howard Dean. Let's have a fund-raiser!'"

On Friday, they hosted one of several outreach sessions they'd brainstormed at the restaurant -- a presentation to Somali immigrants they hoped to draw into politics. The meeting room at Somali Community Resettlement Services was standing room only with more than 50 Somalis. As usual, the Somali men sat on the left side of the room and the women, dressed in their traditional full-length dresses (called guntiinos) and headscarves, sat on the right. "Thanks for coming to make Minnesota a better place," Rouillard said to the crowd, which erupted into raucous applause.

He rattled off a half dozen issues on which he felt Dean was the best candidate for Somalis. Then he said: "But the most important thing about Howard Dean is that he believes in us. He's turned the power over to us. It's a huge grassroots campaign. And I want all of you to feel that power, too."

Sweet Sambusa

A show of hands revealed only 20 of the Somalis were citizens already registered to vote. A handful more said they'd be registered by Election Day. One Somali woman raised her hand. "Whether we are citizens or not, and whether we can vote or not, we will help. So sleep well tonight." Amina Arte, a Somali-born community worker at the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association, provided translations for the speakers. At one point, she gave a short speech on a distinctly Somali topic.

"It's important to put your old clan memberships aside," she told the group. "It's important to be united in a democracy. So no matter what your clan, try to be united and to think about the good of the whole community." Abdi Abdinur, of the Somali Community Resettlement Services, said there were members of virtually every Somali clan in the room -- about 19 clans.

Nura Abdullah, who has six children with her in Rochester, said after the presentation that when jobs are scarce, old clan conflicts flare up. "When the economy is strong, all that clan stuff goes away," she said. The sweet smell of sambusa, traditional Somali meat pastries, filled the meeting room when the speakers finished and the pastries were handed out. One issue stood out above all others for the Somali immigrants: jobs. Many in the crowd had lost jobs in the last two years, especially as workers on IBM and Celestica assembly lines.

"We believe the DFL is the party that helps people with jobs, health care and education," said Biyod Shakai, a mother of eight who lost an assembly line job in 2001. "We liked it better when Bill Clinton was president."

Good English

The value of the dollar, which has strongly depreciated in the past year, was also cited as a major concern. The dollars Somalis remit to relatives still living in Somalia buys about 30 percent less today than it did only a year ago. A backlog of more than 900,000 visa applications is another major concern of the Somalis who have family members stuck in refugee camps in Africa. Dean has promised that, as president, he would speed up the processing of those applications.

According to Census 2000, 11,164 Somalis live in Minnesota, with 1,131 living in Rochester. Somali groups say the census dramatically undercounted the true number, which they claim is about three times as high.

The Somali immigration began a decade ago when warring clans ousted the Ethiopian president Siad Barre, and the country fell into chaos. A famine in 1992 and 1993 killed a half million Somalis and increased the refugee flow.

After a decade, many Somalis speak good English and, as the Friday night session proved, are ready to rumble in the democratic process.

When the DFL Olmsted County chairwoman Lynn Wilson began her speech to the Friday group by saying "Thank you for coming to my community and making it better," the crowd at first stirred uneasily. Then several Somalis shouted at once: "You should say 'our community' and not 'my community.' This is our country too now!"

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report