Shamso reaches around my neck to reposition a fringed end of the gold trimmed navy scarf that she picked out for me. The scarf, made of soft cotton, feels surprisingly heavy after she wraps, rolls and tucks the material into place just above the collar of my puffy black winter jacket.
Standing back with her hands on her hips to assess, and in her own vibrant fuchsia and gold print headscarf, she squints. It’s not quite right. Shamso leans in and gently tugs at the fabric above my forehead. She nods, smiles and says something in Somali to Maryan, who also seems to approve of my new East African look.
When I suggest a photo with the two women I have just met, Shamso reaches in her pocket, whips out her iPhone, holds it out with one hand and then snaps a few photos while we smile and lean in together with a backdrop of fluorescent light panels and the vibrant inventory of shopping stall 137, which includes hanging scarves, as well as neon animal, striped and floral print gowns, skirts and leggings.
It’s an “I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing-in-perfect-harmony” moment, and I’m on a giddy global high. About 30 minutes earlier, I had trudged with my dad through the sloppy, tire-churned-up Uptown snow toward Suuqa Karmel, a Somali market in Minneapolis. The powder blue concrete complex with colorful murals of dessert scenes, including a camel caravan and palm trees, definitely seems out of place since snow banks jut up from the sidewalk leading to the entrance.
Mogadishu on the Mississippi
I came to the market to do research for an article on refugees relocating to the Twin Cities. Since 1993, two years after the brutal civil war broke out in their country, Somali refugees have been coming to Minnesota. The US State Department, along with other government agencies, such as the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), selected Minnesota as relocation region for Somalis based on criteria, including available resources, volunteer agencies and social services offered through the state.
Minnesota has a strong network of non-governmental volunteer agencies (VOLAGS) committed to help displaced people get settled and acclimated to their new country. Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities and World Relief Minnesota are among the VOLAGS with which the State Department contracts.
In an interview with a CBS Minnesota, Dr. Ahmed Samatar, dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College, who was born in Somalia, says the Minnesota VOLAGS “are known to be welcoming, and they invest a significant time of labor and resources to help people find some comfort here and hope.”
“As Somalis settle down, find a life, the good news spreads: ‘Hey this is a good place, you can find a life here,” maintains Samatar.
It’s been 20 years since the first Somali wave of refugees arrived, and now with around 32,000 residents with Somali heritage currently living in Minnesota, the state has the largest population of Somalis outside of Somalia. More than half of this population lives in Hennepin County, so as a result, Minneapolis has been dubbed, “Mogadishu on the Mississippi.”
Back to the scarves…
After the photo session, for some reason, it now seems necessary to expand my headscarf collection. While sliding hangers along a metal circular rack, l choose a teal scarf with the same gold trim as the navy one I’m wearing. Holding it next to my face, I show Maryan, who has been scrutinizing scarves for me.
“Does this look okay on me?”
“Yes,” she laughs. “Because you are white.”
That’s right. I am white. Maryan’s statement takes me aback. Not because it is offensive in any way, but I think I had temporarily forgotten about nationality and race. For a moment, I was just a woman getting advice from other women on fashion accessories and whether I’m a “winter” or a “summer.” And, really, Maryan was referring to what complements my skin tone.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect at Suuqa Karmel. My dad, who also was curious about the market, and I had entered the complex through its food court, where many Somali men watched what appeared to be news coming out of the Horn of Africa. I scanned the area, looking around at nothing in particular since I didn’t know whether a strange woman making eye contact with a Muslim man was disrespectful.
The bright orange walls gave the whole place a warm feeling. And while the spices emanating in the air from the sizzling grills were new to me, a President Obama calendar hanging on the wall by one food stall’s cash register lent a familiar feeling to the court. In addition to watching the news, Muslim men in white prayer caps sat, reading newspapers and playing cards. Several of the patrons sported an orange tint in their beards.
My dad bought a Coke and sat down at a table as I left the food court. Turning the corner, I found a shopping wing. Since it was quiet time of day, several of the shopkeepers must have been on a break. The stalls looked like the overstuffed compartments of a 64-pack crayon box crowded with color.
Scarves dominated the space. They hung from the walls, doorways, racks and others were vacuumed packed in plastic wrap lying in piles, on shelves and in a nearby chest of open drawers.
I headed to a circular rack, and that’s when I saw Shamso and Maryan. Sitting in plastic patio chairs, the middle-aged women looked over at me and smiled.
“These are beautiful scarves,” I said.
“Do they keep you warm in this weather?” I resorted to the universal icebreaker — talking about weather. Essentially, it works everywhere, especially in Minnesota, where climate is almost always a conversation starter.
“Yes, yes,” Shamso said.
“This winter is very cold.” She crossed her arms and made a shivering motion. She was wearing a long skirt with a cute striped, double-breasted surfer girl jacket.
“I bet it is very different than Somali,” I came closer. Considering the Polar Vortex had just blown through, I wondered if there was even a word for the weather phenomenon in Somali.
Maryan wore a long heavy tweed coat and a vibrant orange headscarf with another red scarf wrapped around her neck. Motioning for me to join them, Maryan got up and brought another plastic chair over.
I sat with the women and we talked about life.
“Do you like America?”
“America is good if you have a job,” Maryan maintained. She had been in the US for two years, living first in Tucson then Kansas City. Neither place had worked out for her, so Minneapolis was her home at the moment.
I asked Shamso about her business, and she scrolled through her iPhone for a photo. She leaned over and showed me an image of her hennaing the hands of Betsy Hodges, the mayor of Minneapolis. In the photo, Mayor Hodges wore a headscarf and smiled while Shamso was at work bent over the mayor’s hand. The next photo was of Mayor Hodges hugging Shamso.
“How do the men feel about you having the shop?”
Shamso made what I interpret to be a “so-so” gesture, and then she checked her phone again.
I asked Maryan about her family. From what I could gather, Maryan had left her son with relatives in Africa. She looked at me with an expression in her eyes that needs no translation for a mother — or really any compassionate human being.
“America is hard,” she said.
Attending to parking ramps.
I can only imagine. I first noticed Somali refugees, particularly women, in 1995 when I moved back to my home state from California to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota. I remember on one sub-zero day, I rolled down my car window to pay for parking at one of the university’s parking ramps. In the small booth, a petite woman with a beautiful silk headscarf slid the glass window open, extended her arm and took my ticket. With the window still open, and her breath curling in little puffs, she stated what I owed. I handed her the money, and she gave change back to me with a smile. I said thank you, and she said goodbye, sliding the window shut.
Talk about culture and climate shock — knowing she was probably Somali, I wondered how she ended up in Minnesota.
She wasn’t the only one. Women of East African decent seemed to dominate parking attendant positions everywhere. After a night out with friends, I exited an Uptown parking ramp at 2 a.m. during another Arctic phase. Again, a beautiful, smiling woman in a silk headscarf, who looked my age, was stationed in the booth. Clearly, she was working the midnight shift in a job that very few people would actually choose to do during a Minnesota winter.
My dad finally finds me chatting and looking at scarves with Shamso and Maryan. As I introduce him, they invite my dad to join us back at the patio chairs. Both women begin talking in Somali and Shamso walks over to a bakery located next to her stall. Maryan tells us Shamso is getting tea. “It’s very good,” she says.
Shamso speaks to an older gentleman behind the counter who wears a striped tunic, Buddy Holly glasses and a white knit hat. The same orange tint we saw earlier decorates his beard. It looks like the color of Mary J. Blige’s hair during the mid 1990s. He begins handing Shamso Styrofoam cups of tea.
It is sweet in just the right way, reminding me of sweet tea from the US’s South, only hot. I wonder if Southerners know they have the same palate as Somalis.
“What is the orange in the man’s beard?” I ask since it seems like such a prominent trend with Somali men.
“Henna,” both Shamso and Maryan state in unison.
Another woman in an abaya arrives during teatime. She is younger and knows more English. Again, the topic of the harsh winter comes up. She agrees it is the coldest in the 17 years she has lived in Minnesota.
“I was scared about the idea of ice,” she says, recalling her first Minnesota winter when she was 12 years old. “I thought ice cubes would, like, fall from the sky. And that it would hurt.”
She says she’s getting old. “I used to wear cute little jackets and now I wear two sweaters.” A vision of her in a pair of skinny jeans with a sassy cropped jacket pops into my head. I remember that I used to wear penny loafers without socks in January. Now I have boats lined with sheepskin.
In order to beat the height of Twin Cites rush hour traffic, my dad and I get ready to leave and say goodbye. I tell Maryan I want to come back and bring her some books to help her learn to read. She looks at me and says, “You will be back.” I hope she is right.
As my dad and I trudge back to our car, I still have the navy headscarf on. It’s surprisingly warm.