The Somali immigrant community in Seattle began as a small group of college students and engineers in the 1970s and 1980s. It has grown exponentially in the past 20 years as thousands of refugees of Somalia's civil war, which began in 1991, have arrived in Seattle. They have settled mainly in the Rainier Valley and extending south into Tukwila and SeaTac. Somali students are the second largest bilingual group in the Seattle Public Schools and the district has worked to accomodate their needs. Somali culture includes a clan system but also strong values of mutual aid and an informal system of pooling resources, called ayuto or hagbad, in which members of a group contribute money and then each use the fund in turn. The tight-knit community has established businesses, religious organizations, and social service agencies. A news magazine, Runta News, publishes in both English and Somali, and Somali TV broadcasts from Seattle's cable access network. There have been challenges, often stemming from diifficulties faced by most immigrant groups. Additionally, the predominately Muslim community has been connected in the public mind with the terrorist attacks of 2001, leading to discrimination and difficult relations with government agencies.
Somalia is a small country that wraps around the point of the Horn of Africa, on the continent's east coast. It shares borders with Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. Over nearly 2,000 years the interactions between indigenous peoples who lived on the Horn of Africa with Arab and Persian traders created the Somali culture. In the late nineteenth century British and Italian governments signed treaties with chiefs in the north and sultans in the south. In exchange for access to local trade, the Europeans promised protection to the Somalis.
After World War II, the defeated Italians lost control of Italian Somaliland and agreed to administer it as a protectorate for 10 years. Likewise, the British shifted their relationship with British Somaliland. In 1960 each territory was granted independence and a new, Somali-run government. In 1969 a bloodless coup replaced the elected president with Major General Siad Barre, who ran the country as a dictatorship with a close relationship with the Soviet Union.
Civil war broke out in the 1980s, which resulted in the overthrow of Barre in January 1991. This led to a complete breakdown in the national government. The upheaval and violence led to the exodus of thousands of refugees to neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya.
Some of the refugees left immediately for other African, European, and North American countries, but others entered refugee camps. These camps remain in place today as successive waves of refugees flee the violence and chaos that have resulted from the absence of an effective central Somali government.
Arriving in Seattle
Refugee assistance groups with offices in Washington, such as the International Rescue Committee and World Relief, have resettled Somali immigrants in the Seattle area. They have joined a small Somali community that came to Washington in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of these earlier immigrants came to Washington as high school and college students or to work as engineers at Boeing.
The immigrants' numbers quickly grew after civil war erupted in Somalia in 1991. Some Somali immigrants developed mutual aid societies to help newly arrived Somalis get established. Some incorporated as non-profit organizations, such as Somali Community Services of Seattle. Others were more informal, with groups of people working together to help each other. It is a hallmark of Somali society that people unhesitatingly help each other. This tradition has continued in Seattle with one difference. Clan distinctions, which have torn Somalia apart, do not determine people's associations here. While still acknowledged, clan differences are secondary to being a fellow Somali.
Somali immigrants have also joined with other East African immigrants to form social service organizations. Horn of Africa Services and the Hope Academic Enrichment Center serve Somali, Ethiopian, and Eritrean immigrants.
Somali businesses have flourished in Seattle's Rainier Valley and farther south, in Tukwila and SeaTac. One reason is an informal system of pooling resources, known as ayuuto or hagbad. This involves the members of a group contributing money to a fund. Each member of the group takes a turn using money from the fund. In this way many Somali businesses have become established.
Another informal mutual aid system in the Somali community stems from the Somalis' strong sense of responsibility to each other. People with jobs that enable them to help others and those who have been in the area longer do not hesitate to help newer arrivals. Seattle has attracted a large number of immigrants who originally settled in other American cities. This is due to its reputation as a friendly city and its relatively mild weather.
Helps and the Hurdles That Remain
Public institutions in Seattle have also purposefully assisted Somali immigrants with adjusting to their new lives. Seattle Public Schools has an East African Community Liasion in its Family and Community Engagement Division. The current liaison, Mohamed Roble, helps families that have immigrated from East African nations understand how American schools operate, how to work with the schools, and how to help their children. Likewise, the Seattle city government translates all of its essential documents into several languages, including Somali, to ensure that more people can access the information.
Even with this cushion of a well-connected community, Somali immigrants have faced significant hurdles. Some of the immigrants hail from Somalia's cities and have attended school, many of them having earned college degrees in Somalia or abroad. These immigrants and their children have been able to adapt to life in Seattle more easily than those who have come from the country's rural areas, having had little access to formal education. A lack of formal education has made acclimating to city life and public institutions more difficult.
The Somali Bantu
Beginning in 2004, a new wave of immigrants, the Somali Bantu, began arriving in Seattle. This ethnic group struggled with discrimination in Somalia because of their history of having come to that country two centuries ago as slaves. Though slavery was abolished in the 1900s in Somalia, the Somali Bantu have remained a separate and persecuted minority. The Somali Bantu have suffered in the civil war because their lack of membership in the clans that define Somali society has left them devoid of allies and protection.
The agencies that resettled the Somali Bantu here in Seattle questioned whether the local Somali community would accept and assist the Bantu. It appears that the Somali immigrants, in addition to putting aside clan conflicts, have also welcomed the Bantu. According to Robert Johnson of the International Rescue Committee, "Somali neighbors have brought clothes, food and have stopped by to make sure everything is fine" (Vinh).
The Muslim Faith
The Somali immigrants' near-universal Muslim faith has also complicated their settlement in Seattle. Although Seattle has had a Muslim community since at least the 1960s, the Muslim community remains a small percentage of the total population. Somali immigrants have had to learn how to reconcile their religious practices within the structure of Seattle's schools, workplaces, and stores.
Somalis in Seattle are largely Sunni Muslims. Some attend long-established mosques while others go to one of the more recently established mosques, such as Masjid Al-Karim and Masjid Abu Bakr that Somali immigrants have founded. There is also a small but growing community of Somali Sufis.
The Muslim faith's requirement for how animals are butchered makes shopping at American grocery stores such as Safeway difficult. As a result, a number of small, Somali-run groceries have opened in Seattle. These groceries, such as Maka Mini Market and Towfiq Hallal Meat and Deli sell foods used to make traditional Somali foods, have employees who speak Somali, and stock halal meats, which have been butchered according to Muslim requirements.
A number of Somali restaurants have opened in the last two decades, including Karama East African Cuisine and Banadir Halal Cuisine in Seattle. These restaurants offer familiar food that adheres to Muslim dietary rules and a place for Somali immigrants to socialize.
Discrimination and Harassment
After the terrorist attacks of 2001, being a Muslim in Seattle presented a different kind of problem. Some Seattleites associated all Muslims with the terrorists and harassed local Muslims and mosques. There were several incidents of vandalism at area mosques. Many Seattleites joined with the Muslim community and called for tolerance.
On November 7, 2001, the FBI raided several Somali-owned businesses because of their possible connection with a wire transfer company, Barakat Wire Transfer Company, which the FBI accused of funneling money to terrorist organizations. The allegations against the local businesses proved groundless, but not before several business owners had lost considerable stock and business. It also caused hardship for local Somalis who were not able to wire much-needed money to relatives in refugee camps or in other foreign cities.
The next year the FBI again raided several Somali businesses because of suspected food stamp fraud. The storeowners defended themselves by explaining that the suspicious transactions resulted from the customers' practice of ordering large amounts ahead of time and sharing transportation to the store, thus resulting in several rapid transactions for large amounts. The FBI eventually dropped its investigation and repaid the stores for their lost inventory.
Somali Politics in Seattle
Problems from Somalia have sometimes reached around the globe to affect families directly here in Seattle. The FBI has investigated the activities of al-Shabab, an Islamist organization that may have recruited young men from Seattle to return to Somalia and fight on their behalf.
According to The Seattle Times, "Omar Mohamud, a Somali American -- reportedly drove a truck bomb into a peacekeepers base in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, in September 2009, killing 21 peacekeepers and himself" (Carter). This was an isolated incident, but Somalis worry that the younger generation was susceptible to the al-Shabab recruiters.
A Growing Community
Estimates of the number of Somali immigrants in Seattle area vary widely, from just several thousand to more than 30,000. This is because some Somalis avoided the 2000 census out of fear of the government or because they could not read the form. Also, immigration statistics only trace those who settle in Washington state directly from overseas. They do not track those immigrants who first settled in other American states and then moved to Washington.
It is hoped that the 2010 census will produce a more accurate count. Several organizations worked with census officials to increase awareness of the census' purpose among Somalis in the community.
Somali students are the second largest group of bilingual students in Seattle Public Schools, and the school district has worked to accommodate their needs, hiring a community liaison and translating school documents into Somali so parents are able to be more connected with the school. This has also helped with family stability because parents do not need to rely on their children to translate, which undermines parental authority.
There are two Somali-language news sources based in Seattle. A news magazine, Runta News, publishes articles in Somali and English about current events and community news. Somali TV, on Seattle's cable access network, presents a weekly news show in Somali. Somali TV has also produced Somali-language programs for government agencies, such as the video "Tukwila SeaTac in Motion," created for King County Department of Transportation and describing how to use public transportation in King County.
Somali immigrants come together to celebrate a number of holidays, many of them based in their Muslim faith. The birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Eid al-Adha, and Eid al-Fitr are all celebrated annually. Somali Independence Day, marking Somalia's independence from British control (as a protectorate) is also celebrated annually around July 1. People gather at mosques and in community centers for celebrations.
Somali women in Seattle have faced a number of unique challenges. First, there are a significantly higher percentage of single mothers in the immigrant community than there were in Somalia. This is due to husbands lost in the war in Somalia, others that remain in refugee camps, and also because the strains of living in a new culture have led to higher divorce rates.
Traditionally women in Somalia manage the household and men manage the family finances. In addition to learning a new language, living in radically different housing situations, and adjusting to different cultural expectations, the women have had to learn how to manage on very tight budgets, with very large families. Organizations like the Refugee Women's Alliance offer parenting classes and counseling to help women with these challenges.
Changes and Successes
As property values and rental rates have increased in Seattle, many in the Somali community have moved to suburban cities to the south. The SeaTac Mosque used to serve the Cham community (who immigrated from Southeast Asia), but is now largely used by Somali immigrants. Numerous businesses in Tukwila and SeaTac cater to the Somali community.
Many Somali immigrants have now been in the United States for about 20 years. The younger generation is acclimating to American life and succeeding at school and in work. A number of Somali American students attend Washington's universities and many of the immigrants have succeeded at establishing careers and businesses. Somalis are joining the immigrants that preceded them in becoming part of Seattle's richly diverse community.