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Student Voices: Discrimination against the Somali community in America

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The Somali community in the United States has been around since the early ‘80s. It started when a group of young college students immigrated here for better opportunities in their field. But in 1991, a horrific civil war that continues to this day started, and hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled all across the world. The Somalis that came to the US mostly settled into three cities: Minneapolis, MN; Columbus, Ohio; and Seattle, Washington. Almost immediately, they were met with derogatory language and racist acts. The effects of these actions are well documented and are currently happening. This shows why it’s important to know the effects this treatment has on the community. 

Before we go over the reasons and effects of this discrimination, I want to give some background information for the reasons why Somalis fled their country. Most of the people that have fled Somalia left because of the Somali Civil War. The Somali Civil War started when the autocratic government of Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown by various rebel groups like the United Somali Congress. This created a power vacuum that caused these rebel groups to fight each other for control of the country, causing Somalia to be fractured into several local factions. Also, Somalia has been wrought by multiple famines over the past three decades. For example, according to Maxwell et al., the 2011 Somali Famine was caused by a major drought and crop failure that killed “260,000 people, half of them children.” So many people were killed by this famine because of poor infrastructure and lack of foreign aid caused by regional instability. A lot of people had no choice but to flee their homeland and find refuge in any country that would take them. A UNHCR article states that “Today over 750,000 Somali refugees remain in neighboring countries and over 2.6 million Somalis are internally displaced in Somalia.” 

The Somali community is small here in the US, only numbering at around 140,000 and 150,000 Somalis in all of America, so it’s sometimes overlooked. For example, translation services for Somalis in the US are extremely limited because of the rarity of the Somali language here. This has caused Somalis who can’t speak English to rely on family members, like their children, to translate for them. Furthermore, they also experience racism and discrimination for multiple things like religious beliefs, being an immigrant, and skin color.

Somalia is a predominantly Muslim country and Somalis view their Islamic faith as an integral part of their daily lives. As a result, religious discrimination is especially tough for Somalis to deal with. I have faced this kind of discrimination and from personal experience, it gets to you after a while. Hearing people call you names like Jihadi or being called a terrorist at school or seeing other Muslims who wear the Hijab get called towelhead is sickening, and it’s demeaning. I once saw this guy on the news going on about how Islam is a violent and fanatical religion that needs to be stopped. Islam is a peaceful religion, we hate these terrorists that call themselves Muslim just as much as you do. They don’t represent us.

Somalis experience the same kinds of discrimination that other people of color face. For example, Somalis in the criminal justice system are perceived as Black and as a result face the same, if not greater, disadvantages than African-Americans do. They both are stopped, arrested, and incarcerated much more than White people, and because some Somalis aren’t yet fully citizens, run the risk of being deported back to Somalia. Furthermore, Somalis’ religious beliefs aren’t respected in correctional facilities. For example, in Franklin County Correctional Facility, Somali inmates reported that when asked for places to pray they were ridiculed and harassed while all inmates are encouraged to attend Christian services organized by the prison. This clear and blatant discrimination shows the bias in the criminal justice system against Somalis here in the US. 

This discrimination that I have just explained also perpetuates negative stereotypes against Somalis. For instance, Somalia is perceived to be a lawless failed state ruled by warlords and terrorists and because of that, the people are seen to be like that. This is far from the truth, Somalis are one of the most generous people on earth. To illustrate this, here is an example. Somalis have an honor savings system called Habgad. A group of people each give a certain amount of money per month to a fund and at the end of each month, one person gets the money to save. The money can only be used for necessities like paying bills or fixing your car. You can collectively use the money for a community project like building a new Mosque. This system requires incredible trust within the group and is a great way to collect money in a halal way. The concept of Halal is what’s permissible for a Muslim to do according to the Quran and the Hadith. Ask yourself, does this fit the stereotype of lawless and violent people?

One notable case of the effects of negative stereotypes is the case of House Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN). She has been on the receiving end of death threats, physical attacks, and false conspiracy theories against her. For example, in February 2019, United States Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Paul Hasson was planning to assassinate media and political figures including Ilhan Omar. He was a self-proclaimed white nationalist who wanted to establish a “white homeland” . These white nationalist beliefs are exacerbated by political figures who act as a megaphone for these beliefs for political gain. Former President Donald Trump has said horrible things like suggesting that she was proud of Al-Qaeda and is reported by Politico as saying “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came”. If a member of the U.S. House of Representatives isn’t safe from these kinds of vicious attacks, imagine the fear that the average Somali has for themselves and other Somalis.

Most Somalis who have come to the US have experienced some sort of violence and as a result, mental health issues like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are common throughout the Somali community. A Princeton Public Health Review article stated that one in three Somalis face some sort of psychological condition. Coming to a new country and the culture shock that comes with it can exacerbate any issues a person might have. Also, the stigma of mental health in the Somali community is a major problem. EthnoMed stated that the “fear of stigma is maybe even more powerful. Whether the ostracism is created by the community or self-imposed due to anticipated negative responses, the social isolation creates a profound worsening of mental illness.”

Additionally, discrimination against the Somali community in the US affects the number of job opportunities they receive. Since Somalis are immigrants or descendants of them, they are perceived by many Americans as outsiders who are here to steal their jobs. This anti-immigrant sentiment has caused many Somalis to be passed up for new job openings or promotions. Furthermore, since most Somalis are Muslim they must pray five times a day. Their job opportunities are limited to the ones that can accommodate the breaks needed for prayer. For example, a common job for Somalis is driving a taxi because of the flexibility of the schedule to accommodate the five daily prayers. 

Community outreach could help inform the community on a multitude of issues and prevent the spread of false information. We could use this outreach to help inform the Somali community of the programs that are available to them. For example, the Somali Community Project in Columbus, Ohio helps provide information for disease prevention, alcohol and tobacco addiction services, job training, and life skill training that are highly needed programs for the Somali community. This information is vital in the effort to combat poverty and addiction amongst the Somali community in the US.

A solution we can use to combat the effects of discrimination against the Somali community in the US is government assistance for basic needs, like food banks and job programs. Somalis are put at a socioeconomic disadvantage because most jobs require a certain proficiency in English, there aren’t many available ESL classes for them and on average, they cost anywhere between $2,500 to $3,500 for a course. How can they afford the cost of these courses without a job? For the struggling Somali, it’s a Catch-22. This is where the government should step in. If they could subsidize these courses for them, it could have a profound impact on their well-being and help provide them with the tools to learn a profession and/or go to school. With these programs, we could help tens of thousands of Somalis struggling in our country realize the American dream they came here for.

One argument someone might give is “does the Somali community really need our help?” As of 2016, there are only around 140,000 to 150,000 Somalis in all of America, so why should taxpayer money be spent helping them while we need that for more important things for the majority of Americans? Plus, we already gave them opportunities by letting them into our country, so why do we need to give them handouts? My rebuttal to that is that the majority of Americans don’t have the same kinds of challenges that the Somali community has. The vast and unique cultural differences between them warrant a targeted effort to help the Somali community. This kind of “us first” attitude perpetuates the exact kind of discrimination I am talking about. Also, the government helping to create food banks and job programs for poor minorities isn’t a handout. It is a basic necessity that should be given to anyone in need, regardless of background. 

Somalis in the US have a bright future here. If we can come together and prevent hate from dividing us and instead find common ground with each other, we can accomplish great things. Before we can achieve these great things we have to root out discrimination in our society.

Zakariye is a student at Seattle Central and a proud member of the Somali community in Seattle.

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