After Cologne: Reflections from a Refugee Neighborhood

By now, you probably know about the attacks in Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve. An unexpectedly large group of men surrounding and robbing people, groping the women and teenaged girls. At least one woman was raped, although reporting has been unclear on whether this was connected to the other incidents.

There are accounts saying the perpetrators were of North African or Arab descent. There are reports saying they were migrants or refugees. The implication is that they are Muslim. I don’t have the resources to sort out the truth of any these reports, to analyze the biases of the German press and officials and figure out how to weight these claims, particularly in such a politicized atmosphere.

Honestly, I don’t want to spend the time to gain the resources either. Not only is keeping track of the biases of English-language press and politicians exhausting, but knowing who was behind the attacks in Germany isn’t going to change my views on immigration in general or Muslim immigrant specifically. Let me tell you a little story about why.

Back in 2012, Minnesota had two constitutional amendments on the ballot in November. One of them would have required state-issued, picture voter ID instead of our current laws, which result in some of the highest voter turnout in the nation. The other, the one everyone remembers, would have enshrined a definition of marriage as a “union of one man and one woman” in our constitution.

Both amendments failed, thanks in part to a grassroots campaign that tied the two together and grew to invoke Minnesota Nice. The most effective direct campaigning involved a huge amount of emotional labor and risk as LGB people and their families explained to as many voters as possible why it was so important to them personally that the amendment not pass, a tactic that was later repeated successfully in Ireland.

I knew several people who worked on this campaign. I didn’t, because I wasn’t sure I could handle the emotional costs, and feeling guilty over that left me very invested in the outcome. Wednesday morning saw me poring over election results as I processed the fact that the amendment had been defeated, but only by a tiny margin. I wanted to know who had voted how.

The county map held few surprises. In most of the state, about two-thirds of voters wanted the definition of marriage restricted. The most populous counties disagreed.

My county, Hennepin, voted most strongly against the amendment, at nearly the same rate the bulk of rural counties voted for it. My city, Minneapolis, often considered one of the gayest cities in the country, led the way within Hennepin County. My precinct–oh, ouch.

My precinct voted against marriage equality. That stung. The precincts around us did the same.

It wasn’t hard to figure out why it happened. Of the two areas of the city that voted for the amendment, one was military, with a couple hundred votes total. The other was the area in which the bulk of Minnesota’s Somali refugees have been settled–my neighborhood.

I live in a largely Muslim neighborhood. A refugee neighborhood, filled with people who came from a country in which nearly everyone is Muslim. A neighborhood full of jalabib and other variations on hijab for women and girls, khamiis for the older men, and mostly Western wear for the younger men and boys. A neighborhood that has seen clothing standards for young women get more restrictive over the last few years since the big radicalization scare. A neighborhood that has seen real Islamist radicalization of some of its young men.

I live in a neighborhood drastically out of keeping with its neighbors in a variety of ways, not just over the question of marriage equality, and this has effects on the city I live in that are contrary to my beliefs and principles. I still want the refugees here.

I want them here for two reasons. The first is that we can handle this. There’s nothing about our local government and politics, relations between the Somalis and the rest of the city, or public safety services that’s perfect, but we still have this handled. There is a distinct clash of cultures happening here, but when refugees move into a place that provides them with a solid foundation of services, that clash remains largely ideological.

The second reason I want these refugees here is that it’s the right thing to do for the safety of the refugees. Nor do I mean simply that we’re helping them escape a region that was long destabilized and still suffers from significant violence. That’s worthy in itself, but it isn’t what I’m talking about.

What do you do when you live in a country that is 99% of the official position that same-sex relationships are an affront against your god–and you’re in love or lust with someone of your own sex? What do you do when you live in a country that is 99% of the official position that you must be covered at all time–and a doctrine of modesty and shame is detrimental to your mental health? What do you do when you live in a territory controlled by Al-Shabaab–and they “ask” you to join?

We only ever talk about the effects that migrants have on the countries they move to, as though ours were the only way of life that matters. It doesn’t matter whether we do it because “we were here first” or because most of these migrants don’t look, speak, or believe like us. When we do this, we’re missing a big part of the picture.

We’re missing the ex-Muslim apostates who are quietly coming out of the Minnesota Somali community. We’re missing the Minnesotans working to educate relatives who remain in Somalia, or who choose to return to Somalia to build a better country. We’re missing the reforms they’ve successfully implemented  there.

In short, if we look only at the effect migration has on the citizens of a country, we miss the fact that migrants will seize the opportunities given to them to make their lives and their new and old worlds better places. You know, a lot like the rest of us.

So yes, I still support taking in refugees–yes, Muslim refugees–after the New Year’s Eve attacks, no matter who the attackers were. I’m under no illusions about the amount of support required (no, not telling women to keep people at arm’s length) to make such migrations a success, but they have a long history of succeeding despite having just as long a history of fear-mongering.

And when they change us too? Well, all I really care to say about that is that my precinct was still more progressive on the question of marriage equality than those rural counties in which the conservative Christians hold sway.

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After Cologne: Reflections from a Refugee Neighborhood
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4 thoughts on “After Cologne: Reflections from a Refugee Neighborhood

  1. 2

    If you search for my comments over at Pharyngula, I posted lots of information, links and anger.

    Of course none of those talking about “cultural attitudes” want to provide any help for muslim women and girls. A Syrian woman complained to the social worker at her refugee shelter that her husband raped her and was told to put up with it, that’S how Syrians are.
    They don’T want to provide any help for LGBTQ people from those communities.
    And finally, they don’t give a shit about sexual assault on women when it’s not the dark skinned Other.
    And like you, I think my values are strong enough to handle this. I want to convince.

  2. 3

    I voted that day at the Brian Coyle Center, which is in the heart of the Somali immigrant population. I saw two Somalis standing in line, and one was asking the other how to vote on the amendments. He was told to vote against voter picture ID and for the anti-gay marriage amendment. The good thing is that the Somalis who are running for public office as Democrats (which is the only way they have a chance of winning in our area) are pro-equality. They are leaders in their communities, so hopefully some of this will trickle down.

  3. 4

    Wow, great post. Thank you for injecting some compassion and nuance and a healthy dose of bona fide progressivism into this subject. This is really some of your best writing, so kudos to you.

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