Somali leader pushes for civil rights, integration of F-M refugees
MOORHEAD — Hukun Abdullahi was running late.
He had planned to meet some journalists at the small, bare-bones office his organization leases near Interstate 94 but was still in the middle of talks at Moorhead School District headquarters.
"We got two liaison officers, one from Somalia, one from Iraq," he told the journalists Thursday, Aug. 10, after asking them to stop by the district building instead. "The project ended — it's ending this month. So we are working on the reports on what it has accomplished."
The Afro American Development Association he founded with nine friends three years ago had joined forces with the district to get grants for the liaisons, school workers who help new American parents not yet proficient in English better understand the school system.
Abdullahi, a tall Somali-American with an easy smile, has been in the news a lot this year as a civil rights advocate. A couple of weeks ago, he made some waves when he told Fargo city leaders that by focusing only on the financial burden refugees place on the community while ignoring refugees' contributions, they've made targets of this vulnerable population. Earlier, three Somali-American women had received death threats in a Fargo parking lot, an incident they recorded on a video that went viral.
But, when Abdullahi's not in the news, the bulk of his work involves not speeches or protests but the kind of grunt nonprofit work he did at the school district. He has said the goal of his organization, AADA, is to help new Americans fit in better, providing English classes and teaching the norms of this new society they've joined.
"I've known few people in my life who are as brave and big-hearted and optimistic and hardworking as Hukun," said Kari Yates, a district official who worked with Abdullahi on the liaison grant and teaches English as an AADA volunteer. "And the thing I often have to remind myself about Hukun is, he has a lot of life experience but, I mean, he's barely a kid; he's 22 years old."
Abdullahi was born and raised near Kismayo, a port city in southern Somalia that's been fought over repeatedly since the country's civil war began in the early 1990s.
When he was a toddler, Abdullahi's mother, a teacher, was able to flee to America, settling in Fargo, but had to leave her children to be raised by their grandmother. In his early teens, his mother gave them money so they could flee to Kenya where she told him to study English to prepare to join her when she could sponsor them.
Since Abdullahi arrived here three years ago, he's been practically a model for new American integration.
Within a few months of arriving, he began attending Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead. He formed the AADA with new American friends he met there almost immediately, becoming the organization's executive director. They then reached out to anyone who could help with their mission including new American advocates, economic development groups, the business community and police.
"When I first met him and found out he had been in the country, oh, maybe two, three years at a time, that was something that really struck me at first," said Barry Nelson, a member of the Fargo Human Relations Commission. "This is a person who's been able to really quickly make a transition into a new setting and a new culture and a new country."
Abdullahi, though he administers AADA, is still going to classes at M State. He said he plans to graduate in December and then study human resources at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Today, AADA is involved in a range of projects aimed at integrating new Americans.
There are classes teaching subjects ranging from English to what to do when stopped by police to how to get and keep a job.
AADA rents a cubicle at Job Service North Dakota and provides for a staff member to help new Americans learn about the services the jobs agency offers. New Americans make up nearly a third of the Fargo office's clients.
"It is a win-win to have them here," said Carey Fry, a Job Service manager in Fargo.
She recalled a new American man who, because of his flawed resume, couldn't get a job. Job Service staff tried to help him correct it, but even with an interpreter on the phone, they couldn't get through to him, she said. The AADA staff member explained it to him in his language and somehow it clicked, she said, and he did get that job.
At the request of Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger, AADA formed a council of elders to build trust between the Somali community and police. In Somalia, people often look to elders for guidance and by recreating that structure here, police could get help explaining how American laws and law enforcement work.
Fargo Police Chief David Todd, who said he hasn't worked directly with Abdullahi much, said he has enjoyed working with the council learning about their perspective. Most recently, he said, he was gratified to learn from them that the way he brought the three Somali-American women together with their harasser to make peace is how they would've done it in Somalia.
Fighting for rights
Integration, however, hasn't always gone smoothly for many new Americans, who have faced distrust and outright hatred. And this is where Abdullahi has started his civil rights advocacy.
The harassment of the three Somali-American women is just the "tip of the iceberg," he has said. Many incidents go unreported because new Americans are fearful of retaliation, which is why he encouraged the women to share their video to show others they won't be hurt if they complain.
AADA recently joined forces with the High Plains Fair Housing Center in Grand Forks and the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition in Bismarck to win a grant to track hate crimes and hate speech in the state, to alert populations at risk and to form a rapid-response team to help victims, according to Nelson, who also serves on the Coalition board.
Abdullahi said it's necessary for new Americans to speak up about abuses even as they try to fit in. "Unless we talk about (it), nothing will change. Because we want to be part of this community, we want change as soon as possible."
Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams said she's nominating him for the city's Human Rights Commission on Monday, Aug. 14. Earlier in the year, he was named by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to an advisory board on African-American affairs.
"I know sometimes the media lately he's portrayed as a little angry," Williams said of his advocacy. "But if his family, his friends, they're fearful, he feels for them and wants to help."
Still, she said, her overwhelming impression of him is someone who genuinely wants new Americans to be integrated into the community. She recalled how he and some new Americans volunteered with the city's fireworks display this summer and they were doing it simply as members of the community.
"We don't want to feel (like) refugees," Abdullahi said. "We vote. We are taxpayers. We buy houses. We have businesses. We want to be part of this community."