‘Diaspora’ exhibit shows everyday moments of refugee community
by Lydia Howell
Minneapolis is the Somali capital of America, yet, the fastest-growing immigrant population in Minnesota remains mysterious to most of us. Photographer Abdi Roble’s The Somali Diaspora documents a community before assimilation with grace, beauty and feeling. Many misconceptions are challenged in these lush black and white photographs of everyday life.
“People ask, ‘Why Minnesota? Why Columbus? It’s so COLD!’ People don’t understand the refugee life. People in a refugee camp for 10 years, you’ll go anywhere,” Roble emphatically says in his soft musical voice. “The main thing is to be safe. Shelter. To have a life again.”
1991, Somali President Siad Barre was overthrown, plunging the East African
nation into a civil war. Death squads, torture and rampant rape drove Somali
people to refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen. From there, they made
their way to Europe and North America. In 1991, Roble came to Columbus, Ohio,
the second largest Somali community in the United States, where these photographs
Portraits of Batala, a 10-year-old girl who had spent her entire life in a refugee
camp, or Habib, a wary-faced , 20-something man, or a group waiting for a chartered
bus returning from a Muslim celebration after Ramadan, communicate the limbo
“I met a gentleman here who told me his story,” Roble said. “He
said, ‘My sister was raped in front of me. The screams. Right in front
of me and I couldn’t do nothing! We both were almost killed. What kept
me to not go crazy, was that I could go to community to get hug.’ People
keep going by helping each other,” Roble relates.
Most Somali people are Sunni Muslims, more open to modernity, while Shi’a
Muslims are more conservative. Roble says religious faith has ustained his people.
Photographs inside the Huda Quran School have a meditative quality that belies
relentless “terrorist Islamic fundamentalism” stereotypes. An Eid
gathering, the celebration after Ramadan, the early winter month-long tradition
of fasting and prayer, echoes the joyousness of the American holiday season.
One picture includes a female Somali pop singer.
“A refugee camp is no picnic in the park. It’s dry, dirty and not
safe,” says Tariq Tarey, a refugee outreach worker with Jewish Family
Services in Columbus, who co-sponsored the exhibit. “That’s why
refugees come here and take advantage of every opportunity available.”
Mostly blocked from jobs, Somalis continue the immigrant tradition of small
businesses. Tarey points out advantages Americans have: “speaking the
language, knowing the culture.” The Office of Refugee Resettlement and
organizations like Tarey’s give small start-up capital, he explains. He
and Roble concur, however, that part of the Somali small business boom is a
result of their traditional nomadic culture. Somalis practices collective cooperation
and mutual aid, rather than America’s atomized individualism and often
or five guys share an apartment, all sleeping in one bedroom. They put their
money together to buy a car and get each other around. A few months later, they
get another car.” Roble says. “If you lose your job in this country,
you could end up in a shelter. But, in Somali community, you’ll be taken
in. Someone needs help, you give it to them—because tomorrow it could
be you. It’s the same with Somali businesses. Money stays within the community.
In Somali community, everybody is responsible for everybody else.”
Photographs of Somali businesses could stand with Robert Frank’s 1950s
classic The Americans while echoing what Roble calls “the classic American
immigrant story.” Beautifully composed, they show familiar sights: a cook
and waiter in a restaurant kitchen; a small store crammed with videos and CDs;
a window advertising the phone cards Somali people rely on to stay linked to
family left behind; African Auto, where a car is being repaired; a barbershop
like any other.
One exquisite photograph shows a Western-dressed Somali storeowner using a calculator,
while women in the traditional hajab (robes) shop for earrings. Another is a
tailor at a sewing machine framed by Western and Somali clothes. One is inevitably
reminded of earlier immigrants’ enterprises.
Still, one obvious difference stands out: gender relations. Most Somali women
still wear the hajab, though Roble emphasizes that it’s not required.
“You can see two sisters—one covered, one uncovered. In Islam, it’s
demanded that women cover, but it’s an individual choice. Some younger
Somali women wear jeans, a long T-shirt, a headscarf,” he notes. “Somali
people don’t punish women for not being totally covered.”
It can seem like relations between men and women in Somali culture are more
formal and challenging outside of families, but Roble says many people mistakenly
project Arab Muslim restrictions onto Somalis.
and boys go to school together and women are uncovered. Same with university
and at jobs. We do have friendships between men and women but it doesn’t
go so fast as in the West. The family wants to know who I am. Her brother wants
to know who I am,” Roble explains, pausing for effect. “Maybe, I
START with the brother and go THAT way!” Immense laughter ensues.
A lovely series of wedding photographs is universal even as it honors cultural
differences: women dancing for the men; a small girl dances with the white-gowned
bride. Enjoying the meal afterwards parallels any wedding reception.
Text by Doug Ruttledge, a Columbus English professor, poet and playwright, tells
the stories behind many photographs, adding enormously to the exhibit. Ruttledge
talks about a group of Somalis being forced to move, only a week after arriving
from a refugee camp, due to attacks from their American neighbors. Ruttledge
helped them move on the Fourth of July weekend, describing how the new apartment’s
central heat was turned on and they were frantic to fix it. An elder Somali
man had a surprising response.
“He said, ‘You’re hot. I’ll get you some mango juice!
You must be hungry after all this work. We’ll fix you goat meat!’
We said ‘WE’RE here to help YOU.’ Ruttledge remembers. “But,
we’ve crossed his threshold. We are now his guests. I feel that getting
to know the Somali community I’ve met some very special people.”
The exhibit was brought to Minneapolis by Art Midwest. Susy Bielak says Roble’s
photographs synchronized with her organization’s mission “to foster
cross-cultural connections and awareness.” Their annual Midwest Worldfest
will bring a Somali musical ensemble to New Ulm, Minn., in November.
“There’s just a thin wall between us,” Abdi Robel says with
intractable confidence. “If we both wait for the other person to make
a move, that thin wall won’t come down.”
Somali Diaspora dissolves that wall. Abdi Robel straddles fine art and
documentary traditions, creating a gorgeous revelation of our newest neighbors.||
FREE through Aug. 7, every day 7 a.m.—8 p.m., MAPPS Coffee & Tea,
1810 Riverside Ave., West Bank, Mpls. Hear a conversation with Abdi Roble and
others in this story, Tue. July 26, 11 a.m. on “Catalyst,” KFAI
Radio, 90.3 FM Mpls., 106.7 FM St. Paul, archived for 2 weeks after broadcast