Young men take sips of sweetened tea from plastic cups. Their hangout is the Somali Grocery and Restaurant, a scruffy, brightly lit spot a few steps from the Mississippi river in central Minnesota. The men, while eyeing a televised football game, discuss the difficulty of finding well-paid jobs. A biochemistry graduate, Abdiweli Barre, says career-building is tricky in St Cloud, a city of barely 70,000.
It might be easier an hour away in Minneapolis, a global hub for the east-African diaspora. Ilhan Omar, a woman from Minneapolis, just became the first Somali-American elected to Congress. But these tea-drinkers and a growing number of Somalis prefer smaller-town living. They say St Cloud is safe and, on balance, congenial. That is despite its notoriety after a 2016 incident when a Somali refugee stabbed and injured ten people in a mall (he was shot dead). The café was once pelted with eggs; insults and bottles have been thrown at women wearing hijabs in the street.
The tea-drinkers complain of racism among police and employers, and they laugh at others’ misconceptions—“people who believe we don’t pay tax, that we drive free cars and live in free houses,” chuckles Mr Barre, the graduate. But he suggests that among locals “80% are good people” and he knows discrimination exists elsewhere. In late November a gunman in Eden Prairie, a similar-sized city also in Minnesota, was arrested for threatening a group of Somali teens, whom he accused of buying burgers with welfare money.
Big cities draw many migrants and refugees, but it is in smaller places like St Cloud (historically of German and Nordic stock) that especially dramatic demographic change occurs. An immigration lawyer estimates the metro area with 200,000 inhabitants is home to 10,000 people of Somali descent—from almost none two decades ago.