For Zaynab Abdi, seeing armed soldiers and military vehicles on the streets of the Twin Cities has brought back years of childhood trauma and a lot of sleepless nights.
Abdi fled Somalia for Yemen with her family at age seven. Then revolution in Yemen in 2011 — with large protests and armed clashes between soldiers and militant groups — left thousands of people dead, including her neighbors, cousins, uncle and friends. She moved to Egypt, but left that country after a military coup, arriving in Minnesota in 2014.
“I came to the United States thinking this is going to be a peaceful place where I could heal from all those trauma yet those trauma are coming back and becoming more worse,” Abdi said. “Seeing all this military presence is increasing that fear.”
Minnesota is home to a large refugee population. Now those who have experienced war and conflict have likened what they’ve seen in Minnesota to military occupations in their native countries.
Gov. Tim Walz deployed the National Guard as an emergency measure amid the unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. Then Walz, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and other leaders opted for a heavy military and law enforcement presence as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin went on trial for Floyd’s murder. Security tightened further after a Brooklyn Center Police officer fatally shot 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop.
Walz, who served in the National Guard for more than two decades, acknowledged the trauma the heavy presence of law enforcement and military personnel was causing some Minnesotans, particularly minorities, and said he supported calls for policy changes to address inequalities in the state.
On Wednesday, public safety officials said the Guard members will be demobilized and the extra law enforcement presence would be diminished as the days went on. Barricades and extra fencing will also be coming down in the days and weeks ahead.
Earlier in the week, Frey had told those who feel traumatized by the scale of security in the Twin Cities, “It is temporary and we will get through this together.”
But many immigrants and refugees who are still healing from the scars of war and conflict, say it’s not that simple.
Tea Rozman, a native of Slovenia who immigrated to the U.S. in 2012 with her two daughters, said her daily commute down Lake Street in south Minneapolis, gives her flashbacks of her youth in Yugoslavia and her time working in Bosnia following the war in the 1990s.
She is the co-founder of the Minneapolis-based Green Card Voices, a nonprofit that shares immigrant and refugee stories, and said many in that community are talking about how troubling it is to see armed soldiers in the streets.
“PTSD is a real thing. It triggers you, it paralyzes you,” Tea said. “Living as an immigrant or a refugee in a brand-new country is difficult enough, but then to have to deal with PTSD on top of everything, it’s really, really difficult.”
The scene around Abdishakur Elmi’s Hamdi restaurant in Minneapolis on a recent afternoon included several police cars, eight National Guard soldiers with long guns and their armored vehicles. It reminded Elmi and many of his refugee customers of their time in Somalia, where they saw their beloved country in shambles and witnessed the struggle that followed.
“This feels like the beginning of war,” said Elmi, who immigrated to North America from Somalia in the 1990s. “It has really affected our mental health.”
After Floyd’s death, Elmi watched five businesses next to his restaurant go up in flames. Overnight, rioters broke the doors and windows and stole the restaurant’s safe, which had nearly $10,000. All that time, he said, police never showed up to help.
Elmi hopes the troops’ presence, although unsettling, means that looting won’t happen again. To bridge differences and calm customers’ fear, Elmi has been giving warm meals and water to the soldiers and sharing stories with them about Somalia and its people in Minnesota.
But unrest in Minnesota has Elmi and many others wondering whether the state that has given them refuge is still a safe haven for them and their families.
“We are happy the soldiers said they are here to keep us safe, but I’m worried about what’s going to come next,” Elmi said. “Should we continue to stay?”
Abdi and her mother are among those families having such conversations. Abdi has been afraid to go outside, even in daylight, to go grocery shopping. When she does, she shares her whereabouts with family and friends or finds somebody to go with.
“I have been in Minnesota the last six years, and I’m thinking that this is not even a safe place for me,” Abdi said. “It’s so disappointing.”
At Hamdi, customers going in and out of the restaurant exchange glances and words with troops standing outside. Others nearby raise their cellphones to capture the moment.
“The last time I saw this many soldiers was back in Somalia,” one customer yelled as he passed the troops, avoiding eye contact. Some of the troops waved at the wary bystanders.
“If you are here to keep us safe, thank you!” a bystander said.
Star Tribune reporter Katie Galioto contributed to this report.
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