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The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in downtown Minneapolis is nicknamed “Little Mogadishu” because of its Somali American population. On Somali Street, a mall rests inside a wide, blue bungalow. There, different vendors in stalls sell traditional clothes, food items, and duvets.
A few feet away, a two-story brick building houses the Masjid Darul-Quba mosque and a cultural center. Opposite the mall, several mothers stroll with their children in a small park. Signs for Somali restaurants and other small businesses dot more streets.
Minnesota is home to 69,000 Somali Americans—about 40 percent of the Somalis living in the United States. Many of them relocated in the aftermath of Somalia’s civil war in 1991. It’s a new environment for the refugees, but many of them face the challenge of keeping their families away from violence here too.
I spent one August afternoon talking with Abdirizak Bihi, the informal “mayor” of the community, sitting outside the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center near the park. Several people stopped to say hello.
Bihi and his parents sought political asylum in the United States in 1989, two years before the war started, because his father’s activism made him a target.
The war began when rival militias pushed out the military dictatorship led by Siad Barre. The resulting political vacuum spurred the rise of several armed groups asserting control across the country.
The bloodshed and ensuing famine sent millions of refugees out of the country, including to the United States. (Remnants from some of the armed groups formed the al-Qaeda-backed al-Shabaab, which continues to target government and security forces in Somalia.)
In Minnesota, Bihi took a job as an interpreter and cultural broker at the Hennepin County Medical Center. In 2017, he launched Somali Link Radio, a weekly English program that talks about public affairs and hosts Somali guests in public service and other fields.
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Pierre Martin doesn’t walk to work anymore. The Haitian works at a small private school in Puerto Plata province of the Dominican Republic (DR), but it’s no longer safe for him to be on the streets. Instead, a Dominican co-worker picks him up and brings him home. Martin was born in Haiti and came to the DR illegally with his family as a child. He has not been able to afford the cost of residency paperwork in the DR and now faces deportation, along with tens of thousands of Haitians under a Dominican government crackdown on immigrants.
Haiti and the DR share an island but have many differences. Language: Creole (a blend of French and several African tongues) is Haiti’s primary tongue, while Dominicans speak Spanish. Unemployment: 40 percent in Haiti, 15 percent in the DR. Poverty: Haiti is seven times poorer than its neighbor.
One common denominator: governmental corruption. Haitians began immigrating to the DR in the early 20th century to fill the need for labor in the sugarcane fields. The Dominican economy grew to rely on the labor force; but racial tension grew, and DR dictator Rafael Trujillo exacerbated it in 1937 when he ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians along the border of the two countries.
Many Dominicans and Haitians live together in peace, but tensions have been historically high in cities like Moca, where walls along the main street recently displayed the spray-painted slogan Fueron los Haitians, “Out with the Haitians.” Racism is a factor for some—DR residents are typically lighter-skinned than Haitians—but others cite economic justifications for “humane deportations.”
In response to international pressure against deportation threats, the Dominican government began running free buses from the DR to Haiti for Haitians who do not qualify for or cannot afford residency, but want to avoid deportation.
The current crisis became acute in February, when the Dominican government announced a June 17 deadline to enforce immigration laws passed in 2010 and 2013. Haitians can now apply for “regularization” by submitting paperwork to a Dominican immigration office and receiving permanent resident status. Sadly, many Haitians lack birth certificates and other necessary documents, and most cannot afford the $230 fee for regularization. Most Haitians living in the DR cannot earn more than $10 a day when they do find work, so many take high-interest loans.
Government officials on both sides posture and use the issue for political advantage. Regularization is both complicated and confusing. The process changes from day to day and office to office. In the end, both governments benefit from the fees that Haitians pay for their paperwork, though neither wants to deal with the burden of more poor people.
—Sharla Megilligan is a World Journalism Institute mid-career course graduate