Chambers, a former Ohio State graduate student, said in a recent phone interview that some of Columbus’ Somalis told her that things were better for the community in Minnesota than here.
“Is it really better in the Twin Cities?” she said.
She concluded in her book that the overall incorporation of Somalis into the community is higher in the Twin Cities than here, and some of that is attributable to what she called “the unique and political and cultural traditions in the Twin Cities.”
For one, Minneapolis elected a Somali city council member in 2013. That happened after a Somali-led coalition worked to form more representative wards for underrepresented groups. Columbus’ at-large council system makes it much more difficult for a Somali representative to be elected.
Mohammed Dirieh, program director of Wadajir Social Services in western Franklin County, said Somalis in Minnesota also have a state representative in Minneapolis. “Columbus is a welcoming city,” he said. But there is room for improvement.
As Chambers wrote the book, the Minneapolis Police Department had seven Somali officers, with several others in the academy. St. Paul had one female officer who wore a snap-on hijab, a head-scarf.
Columbus has no Somali officers.
Chambers said it makes no sense that Columbus police won’t allow potential female recruits from the community to wear the hijab. Columbus police leaders said in 2015 that they wanted the division to be perceived as a nonreligious, nonpolitical organization, and that the uniform should reflect that neutrality. Then-Mayor Michael B. Coleman supported the ban.
“In my mind, you want the police force to reflect the community that they’re serving,” Chambers said.
Local Somali leaders here said their community remains apart from the population overall, despite having a significant presence here for two decades.
Chambers said there’s a mistrust in both metro areas between some in the community and the FBI. “There were a lot of concerns about the FBI. Somalis are concerned that they only show up when there is problem. There’s a feeling that they don’t have the long-term interest.
“With local police, there’s a better trust level,” she said.
Seleshi Asfaw, the executive director of Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services in Columbus, said he doesn’t see the strong relationship between the police and community here that exists in Minnesota.
In the Twin Cities, policy makers, political structures and foundations are playing a positive role, Chambers said.
“We can go a long way to better serve our new Americans,” she said. “We can go a long way to breaking down barriers.”
Carla Williams-Scott, the director of Columbus’ Department of Neighborhoods, said younger Somalis are making their way in the larger community, many of them as students at Ohio State, Columbus State and other universities. Many older Somalis were not formally educated. “Parents still struggle to read and write,” she said.
She said she would like to reach out to leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul to see how they overcame some of those challenges.
Abdi Soofe, a Somali who is the city’s New Americans Initiative coordinator, said, “You have a lot of highly educated people that came here as adults, they feel and act no less American.” He said he sees families moving to the Westerville and New Albany areas because of the schools.
Another reason things might be better in the Twin Cities, according to Chambers: unionized jobs. People have more opportunities there to work in better-paying jobs, including in state and local government. Chambers’ book said Somalis make up a large and influential portion of one local of the Service Employees International Union that represent janitors, security officers and window cleaners.
In Columbus, many Somalis work in low-paying warehouse jobs that aren’t unionized.
Williams-Scott said one frustration in the community, like other refugee communities, is that people who used to be doctors or nurses or other professionals come here with no documentation, forcing them to take lower-paying jobs.
Like Chambers, Hassan Omar, who leads the Somali Community Association of Ohio, said the Twin Cities, and Minnesota in general, are more progressive than Ohio, and encourage more integration.
But Asfaw said leadership in the Somali community is problematic here. There is no one voice, he said.
“You see the fragmentation, the lack of leaders. Everyone wants to get recognized,” Asfaw said.
Multiple groups serve the Somali community in Columbus, Chambers said, but they don’t have enough resources. Some have overlapping goals.
Chambers also found that the level of philanthropic support of Somali groups is virtually absent in Columbus. A Columbus Foundation representative told her that Somalis don’t pursue grants here.
Meanwhile, at least five foundations in the Twin Cities support the Somali community there.
But Columbus has not experienced the same level of radicalization of Muslim youth as the Twin Cities. At least 22 Somali men have gone from Minnesota to Somalia to fight for the extremist al-Shabaab group that has ties to the Islamic State. Others have tried to go to Syria to fight for the Islamic State.
In Columbus, reported cases have been few.
Still, on Nov. 28, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, an 18-year-old Somali refugee, crashed his brother’s car into a crowd of people on the Ohio State campus and slashed at people before he was shot and killed by an Ohio State police officer. Thirteen people were left injured. Federal authorities believe that the attack was inspired by an American-born cleric with ties to al-Qaida. ISIS has also claimed that he was acting on behalf of the Islamic State.
And in 2015, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud was indicted after he was accused of traveling from Columbus to Syria to help terrorists. He is awaiting trial in federal court.