These Young Somalis Are Creating Their Own Traditions In The Midwest

Since the start of the civil war in Somalia in the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Somalis have decided to flee the violence and uncertainty back home.

Many of these refugees have been settled into bordering and western nations, becoming part of the ever-growing Somali diaspora.

One of the largest communities in the United States is in my home state of Minnesota. An estimated 25,000 Somalis live in the Midwestern state, according to census figures. That makes Minnesota home to about 1 in 3 people of Somali ancestry living in the United States today. Many of those Somalis live in and around Minneapolis, the midsize city of 400,000.

Soon after graduating college in 2011, I started photographing the city's refugee population. I studied in a small suburb, and after moving to Minneapolis, I wanted to get to know my neighbors.

I soon heard about Ka Joog, a local Somali youth leadership organization. I started attending its events, including a road race, spoken word and poetry readings, and performances at Somali Independence Day. Along the way, I got to know a number of young women and men stepping up as voices for change in their communities. The result of my project was an in-progress story examining a group of Somali-American youth, coming of age in Minnesota.

It had been more than a decade since the first Somali refugees arrived in Minnesota. Many of them were children at the time, and are now faced with the task of balancing tradition and transformation, heritage and a new identity.

Despite negative national attention about recruitment to terrorist organizations, including al-Shabab and Islamic State group, the community is revitalized.

They are poets, musicians, athletes, and mentors — young men and women creating their own traditions.

And some, including a young woman I photographed named Hamdi, have gone on in the past five years to start families of their own in the Midwest.

As the situation in Somalia continues to improve, I have also watched a number of the youth I met going back to Somalia, taking their skills and enthusiasm to build a new and better home as entrepreneurs, restaurant owners, musicians, and young politicians.

Some day I would like to return with them and photograph Somalia renewed.

Hanoolaato (long live) Somalia.

Ahead, some of the photos of the Somali youth I've met as part of my ongoing series.

Alex Potter is a freelance photographer and writer. The views expressed here are her own.

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Photo: Alex Potter
Hamdi and her husband take care of their newborn son, Nimcaan, at their home in Minneapolis, MN, on October 28, 2015.
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Photo: Alex Potter
Hamdi's husband holds Nimcaan at his home in Minneapolis.
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Photo: Alex Potter
Hamdi holds Nimcaan on the balcony of her home in Minneapolis.
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Photo: Alex Potter
The Cedar-Riverside buildings tower over their namesake neighborhood in Minneapolis. The neighborhood hosts a large Somali-American population, locally owned shops, and businesses creating a vibrant neighborhood just south of downtown.
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Photo: Alex Potter
Hamdi and music store owner Mohamed Ahmed Somajeeste look at posters of Somali poets and musicians from before the civil war. Spoken word plays a major part in Somali culture, so much so that it has the nickname, "Poet Nation." Hamdi is well known in the spoken word community.
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Photo: Alex Potter
Hamdi goes through family photos at her home. She came to the U.S.A. to escape the war in Somalia over 10 years ago, and was separated from her father and sister Farhiia. Her father was killed, and her sister transferred to Minnesota only in 2015.
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Photo: Alex Potter
A young Somali man waits outside the Cedar Cultural Center, host of the 2011 Somali Entertainment Awards. Since Minneapolis has one of the largest collective communities in the diaspora, famous artists, athletes, and musicians came from all over the globe.
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Photo: Alex Potter
Hamdi sits with friends and performers at the Somali Entertainment Awards in 2011.
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Photo: Alex Potter
Hamdi texts her friends while waiting in the Quruxlow restaurant in Minneapolis, in 2011. An image of Mecca, and verses from the Quran hang in the background. Hamdi's poetry often mentions her strong faith in God.
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Photo: Alex Potter
Hamdi Mohammad, who graduated in 2011, watches her friends at Washburn High School during a 2012 theater rehearsal.
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Photo: Alex Potter
"Fifi" smokes an argileh water pipe at a cafe in St. Paul. "I talk a lot when I smoke, but it's fun to do when we girls get together," she said in 2012. Many parents don't approve of their daughters going out, but they find ways around the rules.
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Photo: Alex Potter
Wiilwaal RaadRac interviews guests on Somali Public Radio.
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Photo: Alex Potter
Hamdi and Farah take a rest from dance practice at Young Achievers, which is a youth development group for Somali middle school and high school students, based in Minnesota.

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Photo: Alex Potter
Somali women listen to an open mic night at Café Royale, a newly opened Somali-owned café on Lake Street.
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Photo: Alex Potter
Somali youth play football in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood overlooking downtown Minneapolis.