Hudda Ibrahim is trying to mend misconceptions and fear with sambusas and Somali tea.
On a rainy April day, the 33-year-old college instructor greeted more than two dozen residents for a bimonthly event that she and her husband started in 2017 to counter tensions in the St. Cloud area over the growing Somali refugee population.
Ibrahim, a Somali refugee who teaches diversity and social justice at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, created the grassroots effort for people to ask frank questions and have civil conversation, all over — in true Minnesota fashion — hot food.
“The goal is to bring people together to discuss who they are and share their experiences,” she said. “We have barriers. Let’s talk about those things.”
About 65 miles northwest of Minneapolis, demographic changes have divided the Mississippi River city, which has become home to about 1,500 refugees since 2008, mostly from East Africa.
There have been anti-Muslim events and incidents, and even an unsuccessful temporary refugee ban in 2017 — part of a broader push that surfaced in last year’s gubernatorial and congressional elections to “pause” refugee resettlement in Minnesota. But St. Cloud city leaders and residents have also held unity rallies and organized new efforts to unite the community such as Mayor Dave Kleis, a former Republican legislator, who invites seven strangers to his house for dinner each month.
“We’ve got to make sure we start something and be [a] part of the change,” Ibrahim said.
She and her husband, Abdi Mahad, who together run a consulting firm, realized that at a City Council meeting in 2017, when some leaders and residents voiced concerns about the influx of refugees. Soon after, the couple got a sheet cake and sambusas, and sent an open invitation to anyone to come to their apartment building for an event they called “Dine and Dialogue with your Muslim neighbor.”
To their surprise, 65 people showed up. And it’s only grown. Since that first event, they’ve moved the free “Dine and Dialogue: How to build a better Minnesota,” event to the St. Cloud Public Library every other month, with support and funding from the Great River Regional Library system.
“I think we all have a role in making our community a better place,” Ibrahim said. “Everyone wants to feel a sense of belonging.”
The smell of fried chicken sambusas and vegetable sambusas wafted through the library on a recent Saturday as people of all ages, faiths and backgrounds gathered.
While Ibrahim said she welcomes answering candid questions such as the significance of a head scarf, or hijab, she said the event is focused on non-polarizing questions, steering away from religion or politics to talk about shared values.
Wearing black high heels and a red hijab, Ibrahim sat in a circle next to people of other faiths, each describing their values — family, friends, justice, understanding — and how they welcome people in a community. One woman said she greets strangers with a simple hello. Another man brought food over to welcome a gay couple who moved into the neighborhood.
While most people who attend the “Dine and Dialogue” events seem like-minded, eager to meet people of other faiths, not everyone is as receptive, Ibrahim said. One woman, for example, insisted Somali girls assimilate by not wearing hijabs.
Ibrahim, who moved to St. Cloud in 2006, has been addressing misconceptions for years. When she attended the College of St. Benedict, she said, someone asked if she showered with a hijab on.
“I was constantly educating people,” she said.
She’s kept doing that after graduating from the private college and the University of Notre Dame — publishing a book explaining how central Minnesota became home to Somali refugees, and trekking from Willmar to Monticello to share her story.
“She’s a born leader. She has been a pioneer, a builder, a mentor … Hudda is exceptional that way,” said Sangeeta Jha, who also teaches at St. Cloud Technical and Community College. Jha has known Ibrahim for years and attended the first “Dine and Dialogue” event.
“People are hungry to just have a conversation about difficult topics in a safe space,” Jha said.
Ibrahim was recently named one of 24 Bush Foundation fellows, a competitive program that gives up to $100,000 to boost community leaders’ skills; she is using the fellowship to get her MBA.
No longer ‘White Cloud’
After Sharon McKisson, 78, of Delano heard Ibrahim speak at her local library, she wanted to learn more and attended the St. Cloud event.
“I just think we don’t understand other cultures and we’re just so quick to turn away from them,” said McKisson, a retired teacher who exchanged contact information with other participants to learn more.
Cynthia Ryg, 68, has gone to three “Dine and Dialogue” events, seeking the cultural diversity she said she missed when she moved from Minneapolis to St. Cloud seven years ago. The retiree listened as Ekram Elmoge, 23, a St. Cloud State University student who moved there six years ago, shared how a white man yelled at her to “go home” recently.
“I’m shocked by people’s behavior,” Ryg told her.
Retired pharmacist Tom Ramsey, 73, said there are hopeful signs in his hometown. He’s lived in St. Cloud for three decades and is part of an interfaith group that includes Catholics, Lutherans, Mormons and Muslims. Some people have “referred to St. Cloud as ‘White Cloud,’ ” he said. “I hope it’s changing over time.”
As the event ended, Ibrahim watched strangers become new friends, exchanging phone numbers. She said she hopes the effort inspires a growing community of people of all faiths to come together to counter hate.
“We’ve had issues in our community,” she said. “We wanted to do something about that and be bridge builders.”
Kelly Smith covers nonprofits/philanthropy for the Star Tribune and is based in Minneapolis. Since 2010, she’s covered Greater Minnesota on the state/region team, Hennepin County government, west metro suburban government and west metro K-12 education.