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Somalis watch campaign with the hope things will get better
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A group of Somali immigrants take notes while watching the final presidential debate of 2004. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
Only about 20 percent of Minnesota's 60,000 Somali immigrants are citizens and can vote. But whether they're first-time voters or future voters, many take are taking this presidential election very seriously, including several of St. Cloud's Somali residents.

St. Cloud, Minn. — Rashid Mursal and his friends have been keeping close track of this election. They've watched all the debates. They've been doing research. Mursal says overall, the Somali community is too diverse to characterize as having a unified opinion about this election. But they've been listening for something everyone else wants to hear -- that things are going to get better.

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Image Worried about jobs

"Somalis, like other people, are worried about jobs, Social Security, and everything. We're a sample of the whole country. We don't have special interests here and there," Mursal says.

Mursal is in his 30s. He went to St. Cloud State and works for a local housing agency. He became a citizen just after the last election. Mursal says back then, he would've voted for Bush. But since then, he says he's seen how hard it is to get the job he wanted with a finance degree, and he sees other people in the same boat.

"Bush is talking about raising money for grants. But if students are graduating from college with no jobs, what is college good for?" Mursal asks. "We have people with four-year degrees and master's degrees not getting jobs. Since I've been here, it's the worst I've seen."

Mursal's peers share this concern about the economy. And they contend that John Kerry has a more coherent plan to get jobs back. But that doesn't mean they're unequivocal Kerry supporters.

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Image Undecided

Abdi Mohamed leans towards Kerry on matters concerning the economy and the war in Iraq. But on social issues, he aligns himself with President George W. Bush.

"What matters to me is mainly the marriage between a man and woman, and other things like the faith and religion; keeping the name of God in the courts and all these places," Mohamed says. "So I support for Bush in these things."

In three months, Mohamed will become a U.S. citizen. That will be too late for him to vote in this election. But he has nevertheless invested a lot of time in parsing out the issues. He says it will help him in the long run.

"I live here, I'm a permanent resident, and all these things affect me as it affects other people. Even though I cannot vote, if something bad happens, I suffer from it; if something good happens, I benefit," Mohamed says.

Mohamed says back in Somalia, elections were altogether different. In other words, they really weren't elections. A few times people were allowed to go to the polls, but they were given the choice of only one candidate -- for whom they could either vote yes or no. Just this week, a new president was elected in Somalia. But the president was chosen by the parliament, not by the people.

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Image Feels like he's home

Coming from that kind of history, Somalis like Khalid Sheik, 28, a student at St. Cloud State, are floored by the American election. Watching the debates, forming opinions, and voting, as he will for the first time, all make him feel like America is truly his home.

"This country has given me opportunities to get an education and to get jobs," Sheik says. "And that's why I'm proud to be here, and to vote, and be part of the system -- to give back something. I'm blessed to be here."

Sheik says he can only hope that the next president will make more job opportunities possible. But he still has two years to go with his degree, and, more immediately, a long night ahead. After an evening of talking politics, Sheik plans to be up yet for hours. He heads off to a corner of the library at St. Cloud State to finish studying.

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