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Gustavus documentarians tell the stories of motivated young Somali-Americans




ST. PETER — A documentary about young Mankato area Somali-Americans aims to redress stereotypes.

Gustavus Adolphus College professor Martin Lang and student Noah O’Ryan produced a short film about the ambitions and hurdles of nine area college students who were born in Somalia.

“Our Somali-American friends and neighbors have expressed exasperation with the ways they have been represented in the news and other media, with so much focus on turmoil, suspicion and negativity,” Lang said. “So Noah and I decided to collaborate with some of those friends and neighbors to add more stories to the mix. These are stories that Somali-American people themselves decided they wanted to share, and we think that’s important.”

The 35-minute documentary will make its premier Thursday at St. Peter High School. Guests who come a little early to the 7 p.m. screening can try a cup of Somali tea. A panel discussion with some of the Somali-Americans featured in the film will follow the showing.

Approximately 74,000 Somali-Americans live in Minnesota, according to U.S. Census estimates. Minnesota is home to approximately a third of all the Somali immigrants in the U.S.

The documentary explores how nine of those immigrants came to the U.S., their culture, their faith, their goals and more.

“These young people are working very hard, pursuing challenging careers, becoming active at work and school, and learning to value their Somali culture and their American culture together,” Lang said.

Ikra Gaarane, who immigrated to the U.S. at age 7, said she agreed to participate in the film hoping it would help others better understand her people. The nursing student at Presentation College in Fairmont said she was a little apprehensive about putting herself out there.

“But I told myself this is a film that could help people see who Somalis are. We’re just people like everyone else who came here to have a better life,” she said.

Gaarane said she hopes the film inspires native Minnesotans to reach out and get to know their Somali neighbors.

O’Ryan said a misconception he had about Somali immigrants was that they all spent time in refugee camps. Through making the film he learned they take many different paths to come to the U.S.

Now a graduate of Gustavus, O’Ryan said he also was enlightened about the Islam faith. He learned that Islam shares many of the same core values as Christianity, he said. And like there is within his own faith, he said he learned there is multiple sects of Islam with some differences in beliefs.

Lang said he was most struck by the conversations they had with Muslim women about why they wear hijabs.

“They speak brilliantly, and at times hilariously, about why covering their heads is an important part of their lives, and it’s hard to hear them and conclude that they must be oppressed because of it,” he said.

Lang said he also was struck by the young immigrants’ work ethic.

“The people in our film showed a dedication to self-improvement — through education, hard work, ​and other means — that was truly impressive,” he said. “Nothing is taken for granted, because they know first hand how hard their families had to work to help give them the opportunities they now have.”

Lang said he hopes viewers come simply with an open mind toward hearing stories about Somali-Americans “and that they let it add some new facets to their understanding of Somali-Americans and immigrant populations in general.”

“It is far too easy to fall into the trap of a simple story. None of our stories is simple, least of all these, and we will be a stronger community if we really respect that,” he said.

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