Conversations lead to acceptance of Somali refugees
ST. CLOUD — Linda Thielen has lived in St. Cloud her whole life.
She has always been a people person, quick to strike up conversation, open her door to company and bake treats for neighbors.
But she remembers feeling a mix of emotions — fear, confusion, anger — when she and other longtime residents started to notice more Somali and East African people moving to the city about a decade ago.
“I couldn’t really believe that so many people were coming … It was like what was going on?” said Thielen, who works as a realtor.
In the back of Thielen’s mind was 9/11, the devastating terrorist attacks claimed by Islamic extremists that she said had instilled an omnipresent fear for many in Central Minnesota and across the country. As more Somali residents — many of them Muslim — moved to St. Cloud, Thielen said she was afraid of another attack, this time in her community.
“That was what we knew: Those people were over there. We wanted to keep them there,” she said. “When fear is involved in any culture it does an injustice. And not knowing — you develop a fear.”
Thielen was among those who vigorously opposed the city’s rapid changes.
“I don’t think I liked it any more than anyone else,” she said.
But five or six years ago, Thielen’s perspective started to change.
Prompted in large part by difficult conversations with her family, budding friendships with Muslim residents and her Christian faith, Thielen said she has embraced a more welcoming view of her Somali neighbors.
“I knew that wasn’t right. I knew something in me had to change.”
Thielen’s daughter, Samantha Grimsley, works in St. Cloud for a Christian nonprofit organization that helps settle refugees. She remembers struggling to push back against her mother’s concerns about the area’s growing refugee community.
After one particularly bad argument, Grimsley said, her husband gave Thielen a challenge: Get to know one of her Muslim neighbors. Thielen took him up on it.
She started tutoring Somali students at Talahi Community School and then St. Cloud Technical and Community College. She baked cookies for the Muslim family who moved in a few doors down. And she got a taste for sambusas, even if they aren’t the most healthy snack.
Slowly — and at times, painfully slow for her daughter — Thielen realized her attitudes toward new East African residents didn’t match up with her Christian values.
“I know what Jesus wants us to do. I know how he wants us to treat people,” she said. “Reading the (Bible) over and over, it says love our neighbors. Because they are our neighbors. Heck, they live three blocks away.”
Thielen now teaches English to new immigrants at an apartment building and runs a sewing class for refugee women on Monday afternoons.
In May, Thielen was among hundreds to attend a community iftar at the Islamic Center of St. Cloud inside the same building where she went to kindergarten and later attended church services. The Islamic Center converted the space, formerly Garfield Elementary School and later a church, into a mosque in 2015.
However, Thielen also sees many of her friends holding on the same views she used to, echoing concerns about Muslims taking over or imposing sharia law in St. Cloud.
Thielen tries to give people the same advice she received: Get to know someone.
“I keep telling other people, friends, to step out in faith just once,” she said. “Sometimes it’s many conversations, it’s many different interactions before someone does take that step.”
Little by little, Thielen sees her influence wearing off on some friends, who now try to smile at Somali residents in public. Other friends, however, have stuck to their views; some just stopped discussing refugees around her.
But Thielen said she understands it takes more time for some people. She remembers how long it took her to accept a more welcoming view.
“I look at it and I think, Am I embarrassed that I was like that? No. Do I wish I could have been more accepting earlier? Yes. But it takes time to change,” she said. “And change is a difficult thing.”
Moving the needle
Those leading efforts to counter anti-refugee and anti-Muslim tensions said they have seen people who have undergone a change of heart and adopted a more welcoming stance.
But after years of efforts — and more than a decade of tension over the city’s growing Somali community — advocates admit effecting change can be frustrating. Progress can happen, they said, but it takes work, patience and time.
One of the most prominent efforts taking on this work is #UniteCloud. The community group has amassed a strong grassroots following in recent years, rallying residents around a pro-refugee, pro-immigrant agenda. Hundreds of the group’s red-and-navy “Love Your Neighbor” lawn signs line streets, and thousands more people follow the group on social media.
Its supporters said the group’s members have emerged as visible advocates for common values, like loving one’s neighbors. Its critics, which include many conservative residents, allege the group has set a divisive political tone.
But Natalie Ringsmuth, who started the nonprofit four years ago, said the group, along with others in the community, has made a difference.
“It’s obvious that the efforts to unite and support are becoming louder than the efforts to hate and marginalize,” she said.
Ekram Elmoge, a Somali college student who has lived in St. Cloud nearly six years, said she sees the majority of St. Cloud as welcoming to refugees.
“We have a hate issue. We have deeply (troubling) things going on in our community,” said Elmoge, a senior at St. Cloud State University. “But these are individuals. These are minorities. It’s not the majority of St. Cloud.”
The 22-year-old said she often goes for coffee with people who are skeptical about refugees, or even outright opposed. Elmoge said she recently had coffee with an older woman she met at a City Council meeting who said she didn’t want Elmoge living here.
In these conversations, Elmoge said she’s typically asked a range of questions. Like, does she feel oppressed wearing the hijab? She doesn’t. Others ask things that are more offensive, like does Islam promote hate or are Muslims trying to implement sharia law in America? She tells them no.
Many of her friends shut down during similar conversations, Elmoge said. She’s working to start a group that teaches young Somali women how to share their stories.
“People have been fed so many fabricated things that are totally made up — things that are not true. I don’t feel offended about things that are not true,” she said. “I explain why they are not true.”
Time will tell
Whether efforts to counter hate are working remains a question without a definite answer.
Ringsmuth, who is a member of the St. Cloud school board, estimates a significant number of St. Cloud residents — about 50 percent — are in what she called “the movable middle”: people who may have questions about refugees or simply don’t know any people who are Muslim.
She said they will shift their views with exposure and education.
“We’re moving that movable middle away from fear and away from ignorance and into not only education, but forming relationships with their neighbors,” she said.
She said #UniteCloud offers people the chance to do something welcoming, whether it’s language to use, actions to take or events to attend.
“The times when I really feel like, ‘Oh my gosh we are making a difference,’ is when someone who is afraid of their neighbors comes to dinner, or comes to a talk and then leaves different than they were,” she said.
However, Ringsmuth said it’s difficult to measure progress because changes happen incrementally on an individual level. Although many people look for stories about someone changing their entire perspective over a cup of coffee, she said it often takes many conversations before people start to shift.
“The fact that it is happening slowly is aggravating. But it’s also happening sustainably,” she said.
A 2015 community survey found residents’ trust of Somali people has increased in Central Minnesota: 73% of St. Cloud-area residents said they trusted Somalis, up from 56% of residents in 2010.
Yet that still lags behind trust of white residents at 95% as well as other racial groups, which were all above 90%, according to the Social Capital Survey Central Minnesota.
That’s a positive sign for an increasingly diverse community, wrote Ron Pagnucco, a peace studies professor at College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University, in a recent Star Tribune editorial. In the editorial, he attributed that trend, in part, to “bridge-building” efforts in recent years.
However, Ringsmuth said she still believes about one in four residents hold hard-line views opposed to immigrants and refugees. And the “growing rampant Islamophobia” under President Donald Trump, she said, has emboldened those with anti-Muslim views.
At times, Ringsmuth questions whether things will get better. She doesn’t see St. Cloud’s problem with hate going away in the next five years.
“When is open-heartedness going to reign supreme? I have no idea,” she said. “But as long as I am breathing, and as long as everybody in the leadership of #UniteCloud is breathing, we are going to promote the hope that everybody can change.”
For Bruce Mohs, a former St. Cloud school board member and longtime resident, an important part of the solution is time.
Give it a few generations, he said, and the Somali community will become just another part of St. Cloud, like previous immigrant groups who moved to Central Minnesota.
Despite a vocal minority opposed to more diversity, Mohs already sees residents starting to embrace change. “Individually, this is a more accepting, caring, helping community to all people than it’s not,” he said. “That’s because there are more individuals in this community that are learning, that are growing.”
Like many residents, Mohs said he’s hopeful for the future of St. Cloud. And with some time, he firmly believes the city will once again welcome its newcomers.
“I’m a native son. I was born and raised here. This city was deep in its generosity to its children and each other at one time and this city will be that again,” he said. “But there will be different people that will be part of that story.”