In Minneapolis, East African refugees see American dream in tatters


African refugees living in Minneapolis were already struggling with their “American dream” when George Floyd died in police custody.

Now their dream is in tatters and they have joined their African American “brothers” in the streets to protest racism in their adopted homeland.

“I came here for freedom. My country was at war,” said Tiha Jibi, who arrived from South Sudan at age 15.

“I end up having two boys, 10 and six, who are afraid because we are not white,” she said, full of rage.

Leaving her family and her country was hard, as was the journey to get to the United States, but she was determined to pursue her own American dream of peace, equality and democracy.

Now, she realises, “it’s all a lie. Now we have to face that reality.”

That’s why she has been marching to protest the death at the hands of a white police officer of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man whose killing has sparked nationwide protests and clashes with police.

“I came here as a refugee but not as a white refugee,” she said. “My permanent home is the US and my permanent color is black. I have to protest.”

The state of Minnesota, where Minneapolis is located, has the highest percentage of refugees per inhabitant in the whole country, with two percent of the US population but 13 percent of its refugees, according to the most recent census.

Among them are a large number of people from the Horn of Africa — Ethiopians and Somalis — whose presence in the marches was noticeable because of the colorful robes worn by the women.

Deka Jama, a 24-year-old woman who came to the United States from Somalia in 2007, showed up with friends, all of them veiled, to protest the discrimination that met them in their new homeland.

“We thought that everyone would be equal, that we would not be judged by religion, by color, by our dresses. That’s not how we were welcomed,” she said.

She feels a close affinity to African Americans, many of them descended from slaves and who have been Americans for generations.

There is “something connects us,” she said. “We are all dehumanised, regardless of our cultural differences. We have to be here for them.”

Minnesota’s Somali community has a source of pride, though, in Ilhan Omar, a 37-year-old born in Mogadishu who was elected to Congress in 2018.

But she too has been the target of racial abuse, death threats and slander. Last summer, President Donald Trump said that she and three other women of color in Congress should “go back” to their countries of origin.

For the past week, Omar has often been asked to comment on the situation. She has not held back from telling people that, beyond acts of police violence, Americans have to address the core issue of inequality in the country.

“So many people know a social and economic neglect,” Omar said on Sunday.

According to Minnesota Compass, a website that tracks the state’s demographics, families from Africa are particularly hard hit.

In 2016, 12 percent of the population of Minnesota was living under the poverty line, but that number rose to 31 percent among the Ethiopian community and 55 percent among Somalis.

That has meant that for many refugees, an important facet of the American dream — social mobility — has broken down over time.

And the riots that have followed some protests have not helped their plight, since some of the looted businesses were immigrant-owned.

“I am very disappointed, very disappointed,” Ahmed, a 42-year-old who arrived from Ethiopia a decade ago, said as he took in the blackened ruins of a burned building.

For him and many others, the major concern is for their children.

One Ethiopian woman, who asked not to be named, said she has four sons and worries that, when they grow up, they too could be subjected to the type of police brutality that took the life of George Floyd.

“This could happen to our children,” she said, encouraging protesters marching below on a highway.

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