MINNEAPOLIS—They’ve been told to go home in grocery stores. On the way to pick up lunch at McDonald’s. On a highway overpass and in school playgrounds. Even while wearing the uniform of the U.S. military.
For many residents of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on four minority Democratic members of Congress—which culminated in him telling them to go back to where they came from and goading supporters into echoing that call—amounted to much more than the latest race-centered controversy sparked by the White House. Much more, too, than an attack on their very own representative in Washington, Ilhan Omar, a first-year Democratic lawmaker.
In lobbing that racist taunt at Omar, Trump also directed it at many of her constituents—because many of them have heard it themselves countless times.
Saciido Shaie, a 36-year-old community advocate who left Somalia as a child, recalls going places with her three children—all born in the U.S.—only to be met by strangers telling them to “go back to where you came from” or scoffing, “I hate your kind.”
“His attack on Ilhan, on immigrants, is actually attacking me and my kids,” she told The Daily Beast in an interview. “Ilhan will not go back. I wouldn’t go back. Where do I go? I don’t know anything about Somalia. I don’t know where my home would be.”
“When I see or hear people asking me to go back home, like—I am home.”
This district, which includes the city of Minneapolis and some surrounding suburbs, is home to one of the biggest and most vibrant Muslim and East African disapora communities in the country. Most came from Somalia and Ethiopia during violent civil wars in those countries in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, many are naturalized U.S. citizens raising Minnesota-born children.
The 37-year old Omar, who fled Somalia at age 14 and settled in Minnesota with her family, is not only the district’s duly elected representative in Congress but a powerful symbol of the experience of East Africans, particularly Muslim ones, in America. Her rapid ascent to political prominence, her seat in the U.S. House, and her far-reaching public profile are to many emblematic of their assimilation into the political and social fabric of the United States.
Of course, this community is hardly a monolith: sit for the near-constant political gab sessions in the coffee shops and community centers in East African neighborhoods and it’s clear not everyone agrees with Omar on the issues. Some wish she would tone down her fiery style, which seems to constantly generate controversy. Some deeply hate Trump, while others are ambivalent about him, and others still admit they know someone who thought about voting for him.
But in questioning Omar’s fundamental Americanness, people here say, Trump questioned theirs—increasing their fear that the president is emboldening expressions of racism that have always threatened immigrants and people of color in America. Some say that two years of the Trump presidency has already fomented an increase in racial strife that they can feel.
“It’s an attack on all of us,” said Ahmed Yusuf, an author born in Somalia who has been in Minnesota for two decades. He revealed a dark worry that was raised by several community members in conversations with The Daily Beast in Minneapolis on Friday: that the president’s attacks on Omar—which included a “send her back!” crowd chant at a Trump rally in North Carolina on Wednesday—might lead to violence against Omar and others who look and pray like her. “An idiot who takes it as a call to arms and harms someone,” said Yusuf.
While Trump has in the last week targeted four first-year lawmakers of color with racist language, Omar—the only one not born in the U.S. and the only one who wears a hijab—has borne the brunt of it. At several public appearances, the president has gone after her criticism of the state of Israel, which has sometimes featured anti-Semitic tropes that have offended many Jews, as proof she virulently hates not only Israel but the Jewish people. Trump also continues to falsely declare that she is an al Qaeda sympathizer.
His repeated attacks on Omar have perhaps also given him the opportunity to return to one of his favorite targets from even before he became president, when he referred to refugees in Minnesota as a “problem” and scheduled a rally in Minneapolis days before the 2016 election to lament that the state had “suffered enough” because of them.Trump’s sustained, weeklong Omar diatribe has consumed the community in the past week, said Shaie, who is known locally for her work running a program for Somali youth called the Ummah Project. She is also active in Democratic politics; In 2018, she canvassed for Omar.
“This is all we talk about,” she said. “It’s become exhausting to the point where you don't even care anymore.” Sometimes, people gather around TVs and try to find the comedy in Trump’s repeated jeers. Other times, it’s more somber. “I hear my own kids asking me,” she said, “why Donald Trump doesn't like us?”
On Friday afternoon, CNN’s coverage of a fresh Trump attack on Omar blared on a TV in a coffee and tea stall in Karmel Mall, a shopping center where Somalis gather to eat, talk, and drink hot tea. Young men, fresh from Friday prayer services, were fixed on a different TV showing a soccer match between Algeria and Senegal.
But Mahad Farhan, a 33-year-old truck driver from Minneapolis, was watching Trump. “I’ve never listened to any president more than him,” he said. “I want to understand how he carries himself.”
Farhan left Somalia when he was young and grew up in Owatonna, a small town in the cornfields of southern Minnesota. He’s experienced racism, at times violently. He told of an incident when his big rig was stopped by another car on a highway somewhere in Indiana, when the other driver, who was white, got out with a gun, hurling racist epithets and telling him to go home.
But Farhan calls Minnesota home and believes most people here are good, welcoming people. He is flummoxed by Trump, but has come to believe he is issuing racist attacks as part of his re-election strategy. “I don’t know if he’s racist,” he said. “I don’t talk to the guy, but it might be a question when the whole world thinks you’re racist.”
To Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Trump’s broadsides are “the manifestation of Islamophobia.” This week, he told The Daily Beast, he and fellow CAIR activists were shouted at to “go home” while hanging a “Stand with Ilhan” banner on a highway overpass in the city.
“I personally also believe the rise of troll-ism, the rise of anonymity in racism, these are real people who are using anonymity to go after other people,” he said. “We've had that historically, yeah, but we are at a high level. So with all of that happening, it's just something that Trump sees every single day, the more he pokes it, the more he turns away from the real issue.”
Some here have dealt with the controversy by focusing on the acts of kindness and generosity extended in these tense times. Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali community leader in Minneapolis who arrived in the city in 1996, said in the past week all kinds of people have reached out to express solidarity and ask what they might offer to help. A diverse crew of Omar supporters and constituents showed up to greet the congresswoman at the airport when she returned from D.C. on Thursday.
“We find more support from the community than actual problems,” said Bihi, sitting in a Starbucks in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood that is the heart of the city’s East African population. “We have great neighbors in Minnesota.”
Bihi, like many Somali and Muslim leaders here, has known Omar long before her days as an international political figure, which began in earnest when she upset a longtime Democratic state lawmaker in 2016 to become the first female Somali-American member of a legislature in the country.
“I’ve known her for a long time. She’s a very strong lady,” he said. “She’s getting more support than ever before.”
Bihi believes that Omar, and the community she has come to symbolize, will not only endure Trump’s attacks but become better because of them. “These types of incidents create fear, but for the East African culture, it creates a springboard to rebound,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of challenges: fleeing war, raising families, so many challenges.”
Indeed, many immigrants are old enough to remember the civil wars that devastated Somalia. Shaie is one of them, and while it gives her and others perspective on the current drama gripping their community, those memories make them wonder what their own children will carry with them from this moment in America.
“They love America, never questioned their existence in this country, now they’re getting more traumatized,” she said. “All they know is Minnesota. Because they were born in Minnesota… Regardless of what happened, we’re not going anywhere. If you don’t like us, that’s up to you.”