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Faces of Minnesota: Somalis
By Erin Galbally, Minnesota Public Radio
April 4, 2001
Part of MPR's online project, Faces of Minnesota
Click for audio RealAudio

Minnesota is home to the largest settlement of Somalis outside of Africa. While definitive census numbers on the East African group won't be released for months, government officials hope the 2000 racial data will be more accurate than in the past. But many of the state's Somali residents don't the share the government's confidence, and predict a massive undercount.

Abdul Aziz Ahmed, who moved to Owatonna in 1997, says many Somalis chose not to fill out their census forms because they don't trust the government.

OWATONNA IS BORDERED BY FACTORIES AND FARMLAND, a modest southeast Minnesota city that, according to state demographers, is now home to Minnesota's fourth-largest Somali population. Data on specific ethnic groups won't be released fall at the earliest, but even current estimates of Minnesota's Somali population are the subject of debate. State figures estimate there are close to 500 Somalis in Owatonna, while city officials and local Somali leaders believe the numbers fall just short of 1,500.

Abdul Aziz Ahmed, who moved to Owatonna in 1997, now works as cultural liaison at the high school. Ahmed says it's unlikely the results of Census 2000 will clear up the discrepancy, since he knows many Somalis who chose not to fill out their census forms.

"They don't really trust the government and that's the one thing that they have in their mind, because what the government tells you in a third-world country is not always the true thing," he says.

There are other concerns. Many Somali families have eight or nine children, which means housing codes are invariably broken when families live together under one roof. That prompted concerns that full census disclosure could translate into eviction.

The census was designed to gather more precise ethnic data, allowing respondents to designate more than one race, but the changes may not be enough to pick up small minority populations like the Somalis. It's not clear, for instance, whether Somalis who completed a census form checked the "black" racial category or wrote in their nation of origin in a category designated "other."

Owatonna Mayor Peter Condor says Somalis started migrating to the city in the mid 1990s and while Connor would like to believe in census accuracy, he agrees with the city's Somali leaders, who say that's unlikely.

"I could be prophetic and say all Somali were counted . I doubt that," he says.
While this is the first census form to offer Minnesota's Somali-born residents a chance to be counted, the population is not new to state demographers. That office has estimated the Somali population by taking the number of public-school children who speak Somali at home, and multiplying that number by two. The resulting estimate shows Minnesota is home to 6,000 Somalis, give or take 1,500. Somali leaders have scoffed at that number, and some in the Twin Cities say the real figure looks more like 60,000.

Barbara Ronnigen crunches immigration numbers for the state demographer and says that statewide total, along with an estimation of 500 Somalis in Owatonna, is right on track.

"I think it's easy to overestimate a population that looks different and when it's easy to pick out people," she says. "Somalis are very unique and beautiful people and it's easy to see them. But we tend as a majority population to overestimate what we see. I think that's occurred with a number of immigrant and non-white groups in Minnesota."

When things settle down back in their east African homeland, many Somalis plan to return. A democratic government has been appointed in Mogadishu, but violence continues to cause political and economic instability.