The Empowered Women of Little Mogadishu

Meet the Somali-American women who are fearlessly leading their communities at a time when their religious identities are under threat.
By Erica Berry ,

Two days before the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump stepped out of his personal jet and into a hangar at the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport to promise a crowd of more than 9,000 supporters that, if elected, he would halt arrivals of Somali refugees. Minnesota has the largest Somali population in America—estimated to be around 46,000—as well as comparatively large populations of Ethiopians, Liberians, and Nigerians. "You've suffered enough in Minnesota," Trump told the audience, referring to Somali immigrants as a "disaster."

After Trump was sworn into office, it wasn't long before he turned this campaign rhetoric into policy, in the form of an executive order restricting immigration from Somalia and a group of other majority-Muslim countries. Despite the risks, a group of Somali-American community leaders in Minneapolis are fighting against this toxic political moment—and are empowering other people to do the same. Here, in their own words, is what their religion and their advocacy work mean to them in Trump's America.

Ilhan Omar, Minnesota House Representative for District 60B.

(Photo: Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos)

"My faith is the center of everything. It is what is calming about me, it is what gives me my drive for justice and righteousness, and liberty and equality and consensus. My faith is very much about not one person being the guider or the leader—that in every decision there needs to be a consensus with the people, and everybody needs to have a voice in decision-making."

Ifrah Mansour, writer and producer of the traveling one-woman show How to Have Fun in a Civil War, a semi-autobiographical multimedia play that explores Somalia's civil war through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl.

(Photo: Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos)

"A little girl who looks just like me, who is sitting in the same refugee camp that I was sitting in 21 years ago, can't come to America and have this very fulfilling yet complex life."

Habon Abdulle, executive director of the Women Organizing Women Network, a non-partisan civic-leadership organization in Minneapolis.

(Photo: Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos)

"We don't want to just empower, encourage, and set off women into office, but we want to support them while they are in office. We want to keep them accountable on what they promised. Ilhan promised a lot of things. ... So far, she is doing marvelous."

Asma Jama, the victim of a 2015 assault in a suburban Minnesota Applebee's, where a white woman threw a beer mug at her face for not speaking English. Jama needed 17 stitches, but publicly forgave her attacker in court. She now serves as a community advocate for domestic-abuse victims at Voice of East African Women.

(Photo: Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos)

"My religion teaches me to forgive people and to move on, because if I hold onto hate, it will destroy me."

Saciido Shaie, president of the Ummah Project, a Somali community organization that recently launched a mentorship program for youth leaders.

(Photo: Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos)

"My kids, who are born in America, who have never been to Somalia, now watch the headlines and say: 'Are we really that bad? Why are Muslims killing? Why do they call us terrorists? What does that mean?'"

Fatimah Hussein, founder of Asiya, a made-in-the-U.S.A. sportswear and hijab line for female Muslim athletes, and the non-profit G.I.R.L.S. (Girls Initiative in Recreation and Leisurely Sports), which provides open gym-time for Muslim girls in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

(Photo: Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos)

"Sports are what bring everyone together. You have one goal, and that goal is 'I want my team to win.' You really don't care what religion that person is. When I see girls playing with their school teams, I see that they're a family, and they're there for each other."

Hodan Ugas, poet and spoken-word artist, currently working as a mentor to a group of young Somali women writers.

(Photo: Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos)

"At the end of the day, it would be to the public—to us—to decide if this is the way America is now, or if we're going to change it. Saying that means it’ll come with a lot of resistance."

A version of this story originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Pacific Standard, which was produced in partnership with Magnum Photos.

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