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Northern migration

Somali refugee resettlement stirs passions in a small town, with many watching Europe’s cautionary tale

Northern migration

Somali men in Aberdeen at a Nov. 12 event in which the immigrants hosted a thank-you meal for all who had helped and welcomed them. (McQuillen Creative Group)

On Jan. 27, the evening of President Donald Trump’s announcement of an executive order banning entry to the United States from seven terrorist hot spots, around 175 people gathered in a hotel conference room in Rapid City, S.D. Most in the crowd were part of the 40 to 50 percent of Americans who, according to polls, approve of Trump’s order, and the topic of discussion was Muslim immigration.

The emcee for the evening was state Rep. Scott Craig (who is also pastor of Bighorn Canyon Community Church), co-sponsor of a bill, now withdrawn, that would have given the governor power to close the state to refugees. Hans Erling Jensen, international director of the Hatune Foundation, told the crowd about his organization’s efforts to rescue Christian and Yazidi women and girls from sex slavery in Iraq. His stories were moving, but the crowd seemed most alarmed by tales of Sweden’s transformation: People gasped when Jensen, who lives in Sweden, predicted his homeland would be the first country in Europe to become Islamic. (At the event, I also briefly gave an overview of Islamic history.)

Why do people in a “fly-over” state with only three mosques, endless open space, and more cattle than people care about Muslim immigration? “Look into what’s going on in Aberdeen,” several locals told me. That’s where hundreds of Somalis—migrants from one of the terrorist havens falling under Trump’s executive order—have arrived during the past few years to work in the meatpacking industry, and assimilation has been a struggle.

About 250 miles east of Rapid City and 125 miles north is the small town of Aberdeen, population 27,000. Sioux Falls is currently the only direct refugee resettlement site in the state, but the controversial reopening of Aberdeen’s meatpacking plant, DemKota Ranch Beef, has created a wave of secondary migration to the town.

According to the Pew Research Center, South Dakota ranked No. 7 in the nation for refugees resettled per capita during the fiscal year 2016, and neighboring Nebraska and North Dakota ranked first and second respectively. Somalis have topped the list of incoming refugees to small towns across the Great Plains looking to fill jobs in the meatpacking industry. 

Between 700 and 1,000 Somalis now live in Aberdeen, where Mayor Mike Levsen has been a vocal supporter of immigration, citing an aging population and low unemployment.

But some locals are concerned about these new trends, and tempers flared at both a town hall meeting and an event hosted by Americans First of Aberdeen last year. 

“It isn’t that we’re a racist town,” argued Sharon Fuhrmann, a 68-year-old Aberdeen resident who enjoys hosting Asian students from the local college. She pointed to the general acceptance of the Karen community that arrived from Myanmar to fill local jobs. The Karens are primarily Christian and have a reputation for hard work, and they aren’t from a country the Obama administration last year designated as a terrorist haven.

The Somalis are from such a country, and their reputation for problems in other parts of the Midwest precedes them. In 2012, Rich Stanek, sheriff of Hennepin County, Minn., testified before a House subcommittee about Somali immigrants and crime in his state. He said most Somalis were law-abiding citizens but authorities were also seeing Somali-related gang violence across Minnesota. A terrorist attack by a Somali refugee last year in Columbus, Ohio, that injured 11 people was even more troubling, as was a case last year in Minnesota in which three Somali-Americans were found guilty of plotting to join ISIS.

Levsen points out that overall crime rates have not increased since Aberdeen became a hub for secondary migration, listing fear of deportation and good screening methods as deterrents. He says the tone of hateful calls he’s received this past year has reached new levels and cites social media as one factor that “injects ignorance like a poison,” noting that “fearful people are prone to irrational actions.”

But a Somali man was found guilty last summer of sexually assaulting a handicapped woman in Aberdeen after he had only been in the country for a week. (Lutheran Social Services, which oversees refugee resettlement in the state, refused to comment on the case.) A case involving a missing Karen woman who worked at the meatpacking plant has also increased suspicion. “This is changing the landscape of our small town,” Fuhrmann said, noting that many women in town now have concealed pistol permits. “They’re all packing heat because they don’t trust them. We never had to do that before.”

Fuhrmann’s greater concern involves the long-term implications of immigration from Muslim countries. For instance, Ilhan Omar won election to the Minnesota House of Representatives in November and became the first female Muslim and Somali-American lawmaker in the nation’s history, but allegations of overlapping “faith tradition” marriages to multiple men marred her achievement.

Like others in town, Fuhrmann began researching Islam—a topic she dove into after watching troubling news reports from Germany and Sweden.


Joachim Ladefoged/VII/Redux

Immigrants shop in a mall in Stockholm, Sweden. (Joachim Ladefoged/VII/Redux)

MORE THAN 4,000 MILES northeast of Aberdeen, a similar but much wider conversation is taking place in Sweden, a country that has taken in more refugees per capita than any other European nation.

Here too, rural areas and small towns are making the biggest noise about the immigration influx, citing some familiar concerns: increased crime and sexual assaults, media cover-ups of Muslim crime, and economic burdens. Housing shortages in cities have created an overflow to the country, where vacation resorts and apartments in small villages are transforming into refugee housing.

The Swedes take great pride in their self-proclaimed title of “humanitarian superpower.” The Swedish company IKEA won the 2016 Beazley design of the year award for its flat-pack refugee shelter, and a general mindset of multiculturalism and political correctness pervades the landscape.

But the reality on the ground is far from ideal: Stephanie Heino, a 28-year-old Swedish native, says she used to feel safe walking the streets at night in her coastal city of Helsingborg, population 124,000, but no longer ventures out alone past dark: She’s heard too many stories of sexual assaults.

Heino says it’s difficult to get prompt medical care these days due to the prioritization of more urgent needs among Sweden’s migrants, and the housing situation is a nightmare: She was on a waiting list for three years to get a firsthand housing contract and eventually settled for secondhand: a year-to-year lease in a prefurnished apartment.

As the number of asylum seekers entering Sweden rose from 20,000 in 2012 to 163,000 in 2015, so has the popularity of the Sweden Democrats, a former neo-Nazi party that claims it has reformed itself and campaigns on an anti-immigration platform. In 2010, only 6 percent of Swedes supported the party. Now the party has a 20 percent approval rating.

Despite her concerns, Heino said she does not support the party’s platforms: “I really think we need to help the refugees.”

Kent Ekeroth, a Sweden Democrat representative and member of Parliament’s Justice Committee, says it’s time for Sweden to halt all immigration and move some asylum seekers to wealthy Middle Eastern countries. Sweden’s acceptance rate is the highest in Europe, and those who are denied asylum often disappear before they can be deported.

“Before long it’s not going to be Sweden anymore, and we’re going to see violence,” Ekeroth told me in September after a talk in Stockholm, bodyguards nearby. The Swedish Democrats do not leave room in their immigration platform for the acceptance of persecuted minorities.

This leads to a question that is at the heart of President Trump’s executive order, the rise of anti-immigration parties across Europe, and the controversy that has ignited protests across the United States: Does Muslim immigration present a unique and greater risk not associated with other immigrant groups? Jihadists aside, if an estimated 15 to 20 percent of Muslims identify as Islamist, has Europe opened its doors to a subtle and long-term transformation over time?

“With Islamism, you have religion mixed with politics. We got rid of that a few hundred years ago,” said Magnus Norell, an adjunct scholar at The Washington Institute for Near East Studies and a native of Sweden. “Now it’s coming in through the back door and we’re still trying to get our heads wrapped around it.”

Pierre Durrani, a former Islamist youth leader in Sweden who is now an agnostic, said Muslim Brotherhood adherents pose a greater threat to the West than jihadists due to their ability to blend in and play the long game. Islamists may be a minority in Sweden, but they are politically active, proclaim the right to speak for all Muslims, and are funded by Swedish taxpayers.

Islamists who have made their way into the nation’s Green Party, part of a coalition government, made headlines last year when one member refused to shake hands with a woman and another was seen making the four-finger Muslim Brotherhood sign during a live television broadcast. Sweden may be the most politically correct country on the planet, but more Swedes are beginning to ask questions and cast their lot with the Sweden Democrats.


THE UNITED STATES is far from reaching the demographic tilt that is altering the landscape of Europe: The 1 percent Muslim population in America is expected to reach only 2 percent by 2050.

But in a small state like South Dakota, with a statewide population of only 850,000, small trends can have vast consequences, especially in farm towns with limited resources and fledgling economies. Europe has underestimated the number of Muslim refugees coming in and overestimated the ability to assimilate them—lessons Jensen of the Hatune Foundation says Americans would be wise to note. 

The challenge for South Dakota, Sweden, and the rest of the Western world will be this: promoting a much-needed and reasonable conversation about Muslim immigration while also reaching out with compassion to Muslim neighbors. This twofold approach may be the best defense against the deep-rooted ideology of Islamism and the Western denial of its true face.



While the left labels any conversation about Islam bigotry and xenophobia, the right digests news filled with hysteria, sometimes misinformation, and stories that paint all Muslims with the same brush. The left worries about the right’s overreaction while the right is furious about the left’s silence. The rapid rise of candidates and parties in the United States and Europe campaigning on anti-immigration platforms proves they have struck a chord with more than the fringe.

More than ever, the West needs people with deep knowledge of Islamism who can communicate concerns without hysteria. The following profiles include people from a variety of perspectives who all agree on one thing: Islam is different socially from other religions. They draw varied conclusions from that premise (note their perspectives on Trump’s executive order), but most find common cause in the battle against Islamism and the importance of getting to know your Muslim neighbors and inviting moderates to help figure out what this means for the future of the Western world. While by no means an exhaustive list, these are people who have been engaged in the conversation for more than a decade and have generally found ways to get along despite disagreements.

Many readers will take issue with Sam Harris’ attack on all religions, Raheel Raza’s pluralistic definition of her religion, and Shadi Hamid’s conclusion that we must accept some form of Islamism in the political landscape of the Middle East. These differences are precisely why they are on this list: to show how even -liberals and moderate Muslims are waking up to the real intent behind accusations of Islamophobia—a term Harris claims was “consciously engineered to prevent us from talking honestly about Islam, Islamism, jihadism, etc.” Most of the people on this list face continual death threats.

Raheel Raza 

(Muslims Facing Tomorrow)

Worldview and profile: Muslim reformer; Pakistani-Canadian; author and activist

Perspective on religion: An observant Sunni Muslim who follows the Five Pillars of Islam but believes there are many paths to God. 

Perspective on Islam: She has fought hard to keep Sharia law out of Canada and warns moderate Muslims about Islamist Muslim student groups on campuses. Her message to fellow Muslims: Follow the laws of the land or move to a Muslim-majority country.

Can Islam reform? Yes, because any religion that has tilted toward an extremist perspective can also be turned back to a tolerant one that is compatible with the 21st century.

Stance on Trump’s executive order: “Muslims should embrace [the EO] as citizens of the USA and help sift the sand from the grain. It’s about region, not religion, and every leader has the right to secure the borders.”

Sam Harris 

(Project Reason)

Worldview and profile: Atheist; American; neuroscientist and author

Perspective on religion: Faith is leading humanity into ruin, and the world would be better off without the three major monotheistic religions.

Perspective on Islam: A YouTube clip of Harris made waves for his pointed response to Ben Affleck’s charges of bigotry: “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.”

Can Islam reform? Skeptical of Islam’s ability to reform but wrote Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue with Maajid Nawaz (see profile).

Stance on Trump’s executive order: Believes the EO is unethical, ineffective, and inconsistent, but shames -liberals for refusing to speak honestly about Islam and marching with Islamists.

Shadi Hamid 

(Brookings Institution)

Worldview and profile: Secular Muslim; American; scholar and author

Perspective on religion: Jesus told His followers to give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Islam has no such separation between mosque and state.

Perspective on Islam: Islam plays an outsized role in politics in the Muslim world. “It always has and it probably always will” because Muhammad was also a state-builder. This does not hold true for American Muslims who have assimilated well.

Can Islam reform? No. “Islam has already had a reformation of sorts” in the late 19th century: Islamic modernism. Taking politics out of Islam is like Christians saying Jesus was just a man. “Maybe Islam shouldn’t be this way … but I have to look at the world the way it is.”

Stance on Trump’s executive order: Trump’s executive order attacks both vulnerable refugees and Islam in general.

Douglas Murray 

(The Spectator and Henry Jackson Society)

Worldview and profile: Agnostic; British; writer, commentator, and journalist

Perspective on religion: Claims his study of Islam made him an atheist but continues to speak out against Christian persecution.

Perspective on Islam: Islam has not been a religion of peace. Murray and Ayaan Hirsi Ali won an Intelligence Squared debate on this premise against Maajid Nawaz (see -profile) in 2010. The three have since found common cause in the battle against Islamism.

Can Islam reform? He is “slightly pessimistic”: There’s little willingness to admit what the problem is and reformers face untold obstacles.

Stance on Trump’s executive order: Trump’s EO reflects some lack of thought but “nothing compared to the lack of thought among the policy’s critics.”

Maajid Nawaz 

(Quilliam Foundation)

Worldview and profile: Muslim reformer; British; author, radio host, and politician

Perspective on religion: A former Islamic extremist, he is now a vocal critic of Islamism in the U.K.

Perspective on Islam: Saying ISIS has nothing to do with Islam hurts Muslim reformers.

Can Islam reform? “There needs to be a reform of the way Muslims look at their scripture.” Muslims need to be more open to this conversation.

Stance on Trump’s executive order: The EO fails to grasp the scope of global jihad. 

Tawfik Hamid 

(Potomac Institute for Policy Studies)

Worldview and profile: Islamic radical turned -moderate Muslim; American; physician, author, and speaker

Perspective on religion: Acknowledges the positive influence Christians and Jews have had on Muslim neighbors as well as their persecution in some Muslim lands.

Perspective on Islam: We are at a “historic crossroads” where we “must choose between free socie-ties and Islamism.” He claims the two cannot exist together in peace. 

Can Islam reform? Yes. De-emphasizing non-Quranic -writings and re-examining the hadiths is a good start.

Stance on Trump’s executive order: The EO was clearly based on security concerns and would have targeted all predominantly Islamic countries were it truly a “Muslim ban.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

(The AHA Foundation)

Worldview and profile: Somali-born Dutch-American; atheist; author, activist, and former Dutch politician

Perspective on religion: All religions are inherently violent, but the sacred texts of Islam have been used to justify violence throughout history. 

Perspective on Islam: Islam is not a religion of peace. The lion’s share of terrorist acts are committed by Muslims.

Can Islam reform? Islam is at a crossroads. Muslims need to debate and reject the violent core of their faith, and they need the support of the West.

Stance on Trump’s executive order: It’s a bad approach that does not get to the root of this long-term ideological war.

Nabeel Qureshi

(formerly part of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries)

Worldview and profile: Former Ahmadi Muslim turned Christian; Pakistani-born American; author and speaker

Perspective on religion: “I left Islam because I studied Muhammad’s life. I accepted the gospel because I studied Jesus’ life.”

Perspective on Islam: The foundations of Islam are violent, but most Muslims want to peacefully honor God.

Can Islam reform? Radical Islam is the reformation, so instead, Islam must be reimagined, and that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Stance on Trump’s executive order: The Christian teaching of loving one’s enemy, even in the face of death, may be the most effective way to battle Islamic extremism.

Jill Nelson

Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters. Follow her on Twitter @WorldNels.


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  • narevalo3437's picture
    Posted: Wed, 02/15/2017 02:18 pm

    I live in Greeley, Colorado.  We received an influx of Somali and Burmese refugees.  the Somalian incoming group has slowed considerably, while we are still receiving Burmese, Karen and Karenni people.
    What I have witnessed is the lack of love and acceptance by the Greeley people.  I have actually had refugee women ask me why no one will talk to them.   I realize there is fear on both sides.  Nobody likes to meet someone new, especially someone so different; and maybe you can't even communicate with them.....  
    I am now volunteering at the Greeley Refugee Center as a tutor.  We are also starting a program where we will 'buddy' up with someone to help them navigate the culture and have a local friend.   I look forward to developing a friendship with some woman who really wants an American friend.

    As a Christian, I see no choice but to welcome them.  This is consistent with Jesus' teaching that we should take care of those less fortunate.  These people have suffered greatly.  Of the ones I've met, none of them are terrorists.  They are just simple people trying to survive.

    These people have been around very few Christians. We have the rare opportunity, privilege and obligation to show them the love of Christ.  People from 3rd world countries LOVE to talk about religion.  We have a wonderful opportunity to share Christ with them!  It's like we get to be missionaries and never leave our home.

    It only makes sense that if we show them acceptance, they will feel welcome and comfortable. This may very well stave off some of the problems happening elsewhere.  Who knows what evil we prevent by showing them that someone cares.

  • My Two Cents
    Posted: Wed, 02/15/2017 02:27 pm

    We need more people like you. Thank you for showing hospitality to the foreigner.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Thu, 02/16/2017 11:59 pm

    Thank you. We of all people should know what it is like to live as strangers in a land that is not our Home.

  •  Soapbxn's picture
    Posted: Thu, 02/16/2017 01:29 pm

    Excellent article.  First - I love people of different cultures, enjoy learning about difference cultures, studying the cuisines, art, etc.   My husband and I travel quite a bit and it is the culture, history and beauty across our world we enjoy. Add to that we welcome anyone who truly wants to live in a Republic and enjoy the freedom that goes along with that.  Immigrants who love America should still be able to legally immigrate here.  

     With that said though, Islam is a false religion very antithical to the one true God.  Satan is a mimicker and although you can find threads of deceptive truth in all false religions that can lead astray, with Islam we have seen horrible mass violence and terrorism arrise from the roots of the belief system.  There is a real danger there and albeit there are very peaceful kind people following Islam, there are still continually individuals, even from those peaceful families, being lead down the violent path.  I agree, we need experts in Islamic studies having courage and shedding light on the darkest side of Islam.  There are myriads of reasons an individual might be lead down the violent hate filled path but whatever the reason(s) it is occuring all across our world and in almost every country and region, and the object of their hate is the west and those they perceive, mostly incorrectly, to be Christians or Jews.  It is not Islamophobic to point this out it, is only reality.  And this reality is the reason we need to step up protection and awareness in our own country. 

    I support President Trump's efforts and the efforts do not make him anti-immigration.  Much more does need to be done.  We can be wise and sensible while still reaching out, especially with the truth of Jesus Christ, to those that really do indeed want to be here.  It does not have to be one or the other.  What we have been doing is not protecting our country, and pausing for a period of time to revamp a broken system is using prudence.

  • VSKluth's picture
    Posted: Thu, 02/16/2017 06:08 pm

    Thank you, Jill -- this is a very insightful article.  I very much appreciated the views of the various Muslim voice-leaders you profiled.  It's a shame these level-headed perspectives don't grab prominence in the public square ... or maybe it is, and I just don't tune into those forums.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Fri, 02/17/2017 04:46 am

    A couple points need to be made. First, Muslims often hide their true beliefs, since they believe lying to the infidel (anybody outside their faith) is moral.  A good example would be the Muslim group CAIR which has been labeled a terrorist group by some nations, since they act as a front group for radical Muslims.  Second, the demographic realities should be noted that Muslim's birth rate is 3.1 per women compared to 2.3 for non-Muslims. Some claim the birth rate is how the Muslims will take over Europe where Sharia Law will be imposed once the Muslim population becomes the majority!  The third point is that there exists Muslim ghettos in some of the major cities of Europe where Sharia Law is practiced  and police are afraid to go!  All of these points show there should be concern about the number of Muslim immigrants allowed in a country. On a personal level Christians should be reaching out to Muslims and other non-Christians as they encounter them for it is a great opportunity though difficult.

  • Elaine
    Posted: Fri, 02/17/2017 01:50 pm

    President Trump did NOT ban all immigrants from the 7 nations mentioned - he simply made a temporary halt to immigrants from those nations until appropriate vetting procedures can be instituted to prevent violent terrorists from infiltrating the USA.  There is a lot of ridiculous hysteria over this halt that Obama himself was going to apply.  The real issue is that the Democrats will not accept the outcome of the last election and are ginning up anger and malice toward President Trump, mostly paid for by One-world people like George Soros and implemented by the former Community Organizer-in-Chief - Barak Hussein Obama.

  • HP
    Posted: Mon, 02/20/2017 06:45 am

    "(Lutheran Social Services, which overseas refugee resettlement in the state, refused to comment on the case.)" I think you mean oversees.

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Mon, 02/20/2017 10:37 am

    Thank you. We've corrected it.

  •  CLT's picture
    Posted: Mon, 02/20/2017 04:07 pm

    I simply want to thank Jill Nelson and World for journalism that truly attempts to inform on complicated issues.

    I pray for our country as political division and protest divide us more and more.  Most of the media reports in a shallow manner what people want to hear.  We need fact based information simply explained to have any hope of reaching across our county's divisions.