From time to time in Hibbing, Najma Mumin, Safia Farah or Hamdi Omar are approached by a curious local with questions.
The women are among the few Somalis in the area, and their hijabs — head scarfs worn by Muslim women — stand out among the sea of stocking caps in Northern Minnesota.
“You see those ones that kind of look at you like ‘Are you lost?’” Farah said. “And then there’s those nice ones who come up and talk to you.”
Often times people assume they’re new to the country, but they’ve lived in the metro area of Minnesota for more than 15 years.
Moving to a new area can be difficult for anyone, but they said adjusting from the big city to Hibbing was nothing compared to their experience coming to the United States from Somalia as young girls.
The women said they’re happy to talk with anybody who has questions — it beats preconceived notions — as long as it doesn’t take too much time away from their studies.
Education is what brought the women to Hibbing.
In their first year in the nursing program at Hibbing Community College (HCC), they said their main focus is success in the classroom. Being away from home in the Twin Cities has helped them remain focused on those academic goals.
Like so many of their countrymen and women, they’ve called the Twin Cities home for more than a decade after being born in or near Mogadishu — the capital city of Somalia. In Minneapolis, the women are surrounded by the biggest Somali community in the United States, with markets, malls, restaurants and cultural centers nearby to satisfy any yearning.
Bosteya Jama, program manager at the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, said Somalis have built a strong community in the Twin Cities, making it an attractive locale.
“When I came to Minnesota I was shocked, because every corner there were Somalis and restaurants,” she said.
But outside of the metro area, the Somali population is sparse. In St. Louis County, only 77 residents reported their first ancestry as Somalian in 2012, according to census data.
At times, the lack of familiar faces can be difficult, Mumin said.
“Coming from a big city that has that many Somalis, where left and right there’s someone you know … it makes us closer to each other, but on the other hand there’s something missing,” she said.
Farah said the culture change was a slight adjustment, but thought their experience was more or less the same as any other young adult from the Twin Cities moving to a new place.
“I think it’s pretty much the same for everybody coming from a big city to a small town,” she said. “That was an adjustment for me.”
Having each other certainly helps. Jama said Somalis can find comfort easily if they have a group to share the experience with.
“As long as you’re not alone, and you’re in a group, you can hang out with your friends,” she said. “It’s all about being comfortable with where you are.”
The three women didn’t know each other until they got to Hibbing, but were comforted to see other Somalis in their program and quickly became good friends. Farah and Omar are now roommates, and Mumin often joins them for dinner.
All three help cook, a skill they said is part of being a Somali woman. But buying food is one of the toughest parts of living outside of the Twin Cities, Mumin said.
As Muslims, the meat they eat must be halal — prepared according to Islamic law.
With no halal butchers in the area, Mumin said they usually buy at least a month’s worth of supplies when they go to the Twin Cities.
“It’s a custom food that we eat,” she said. “As a traditional Somali woman, we learn cooking when we’re very young.”
The drive to the Twin Cities is frequent for the women, to see family and friends and stock up on groceries. Despite being a three-plus hour drive, they said it’s like nothing for them, especially compared to colleges they could’ve gone to that are six or 10 hours away.
Farah hadn’t ever heard of Hibbing before looking into nursing programs. The fact it was in Minnesota, and a drive away from home, was assuring, she said.
The first drive up to Hibbing wasn’t the best though, Omar said.
One of the first sights they saw coming into the city was the sprawling Maple Hill Cemetery, which they said seemed huge for the size of the city.
“That’s the first thing we saw coming from the highway,” Farah said with a laugh. “We thought, ‘It’s a small town, but it’s a big cemetery.’”
They knew coming to Hibbing that there were no mosques in the area, but as women they aren’t required to attend prayers in the Islamic place of worship. Instead, they pray five times per day in private.
Mumin said they even pray in empty classrooms at the college during the day, which their instructors accommodate.
Since they enrolled, the faculty at HCC has been helpful every step of the way, Mumin said.
“Nursing itself is hard,” she said. “But when you have faculty that is not helping it makes it harder for your life.”
Barbara Bozicevich, director of the HCC nursing program, said the students have been hard working and focused in their studies so far.
School was one thing that helped ease the transition to the United States 17 years ago, Farah said, and HCC is playing a similar role now.
The difficulty of adapting to the United States prepared them well for any changes in scenery they could face, Mumin said. Looking back, she said it was a very difficult adjustment when she first arrived in the country.
“It’s like you feel like a bird without a feather,” she said about how she felt 16 years ago. “That’s how I felt when I got here, but I didn’t have anywhere to go back so I had to get with the program.”
That attitude of adapting and carrying on has made the change to Hibbing much smoother, she said.
Although success in the classroom is at the forefront for the women, they also said they’d like to share some of their culture as Somalis and Muslims with anyone interested.
Though Minnesotans, both in the Twin Cities and the Iron Range, have largely lived up to their friendly reputations, Mumin said 9/11 did negatively affect peoples’ perceptions about Muslims.
The false perceptions include attitudes toward the hijabs they wear. Often the spark of conversations, Farah said many people think they’re forced to wear it.
She said their clothing is a choice, and people who talk to them would realize that apart from that, they’re not all that different from anyone else.
“We’re all the same. People just look at you different because you’re dressed differently,” she said. “That’s just how people think, but if they see that we are just humans like everybody else I think that would be good.”
Iron Rangers have shown polite curiosity so far, they said, while accepting the women and their beliefs into the college and community.
“I guess the beauty of America is that you can believe in whatever you want to believe in,” Farah said.