Before Fourth of July fireworks and festivities, another country, whose culture is now 20 years deep in Owatonna, is celebrating its independence on July 1.
Somalia gained its independence from Italy and Britain colonial powers in 1960, marking 55 years of freedom this year. Typically a weeklong celebration beginning on June 26 and running through July 1, Somali Independence Day was held this year on June 13 due to Ramadan that began on June 17 and, until July 17, involves fasting during daylight hours.And Somali Independence Day — just as how America and many other countries celebrate their independence — involves a lot of food.
There wasn’t a surplus of traditional Somali cuisine, like homemade caramels and sambuusa, or a sea of light-blue flags waving in Owatonna on June 13. Instead most Somalians joined the large celebration in Minneapolis where there was live music, a lot of dancing and singing, soccer, art and other events.
“It was very nice and real organized with booths everywhere and everybody was wearing blue,” said Ibrahim Hussein, founder and executive director of Somali American Cultural Society of Owatonna (SACSO). “We embraced our independence in the songs. Some are very emotional.”
Despite gaining independence, civilians of Somalia were caught — and remain so — in a civil war pitting government forces against Al-Shabaab, an Islamist armed group. The Human Rights Watch reports ongoing displacement, food scarcity, sexual violence and militia recruitment of children.
“We have a government that is still very weak,” Hussein said. “It is not safe with car explosions happening there, killings happening there, rape happening there. When you hear the story how people fight for the country and get this independence and where we are right now, it’s sad.”
Seeking refuge in neighboring countries, thousands of other Somalians fled to America — more specifically Minnesota. Back in 2010, the American Community Survey found that one in three people with Somali ancestry lived in Minnesota.
The majority of Somali-Americans are in Minneapolis, but Hussein said there are more than 200 families residing in Owatonna and that number continues to grow.
On Tuesday, he was assisting a Somali man sort out some car insurance issues who just moved here five months ago.
“I’m doing everything possible to help these people. They come to me and this office is always open, seven days a week,” he said.
Hussein, 29, was born in Somalia, but his family escaped the civil war in 1991 and moved to Kenya where he lived until he was 22 years old.
Since 2007 he’s lived in Owatonna and has used that freedom to help others and further his education. On top of running SACSO, he started Language Incorporated, which bridges Somali translators with local businesses. And aside from essentially being a self-help line for the Somali community, he’s going to school full-time at Minnesota State University, Mankato to get his teaching degree.
Back in 1995 when the first Somalians moved to Owatonna, Pete Connor, who was mayor at the time, recalls a feeling of resistance in the community, but he chose to offer a warm welcome.
“They started coming because there were economic opportunities and they were witnessing horror and brutality,” Connor said. “They all knew quite well about this land of opportunity, but when they came many of them had literally nothing in terms of property.”
Connor said they were placed in apartments, but had nothing to put in them. So, what eventually became known as the Culture Diversity Network, found beds and kitchen utensils and other basic needs for them to start building a life in Owatonna.
For the many refugees able to celebrate independence as Somali-Americans, “there’s much to be done” back in Somalia, Hussein said.
Come next year, he said more change is on its way as Somalia will have its first democratic election since 1967.
Reach reporter Kim Hyatt at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPKimHyatt