Fartun Weli left her home in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1988.
That was before the wars that eventually enveloped the capital, but there was still no opportunity to be found. Weli was the fifth of six children born to a mother who couldn’t read but worked hard to provide for her children and instill in them the need to care for others.
Nearly a quarter-century later, Weli is applying her mother’s lessons in Minnesota—an environment that couldn’t be more different from where she was born.
The Hopkins resident, who received her citizenship in August, organized 12 other Somali women and three Somali men to attend Tuesday’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party caucus. All of them will be going on to attend the district caucus March 17 at St. Louis Park High School, and Weli emerged from the caucus as a precinct chair.
“This was the largest caucus Somalis have seen—at least in this area,” she said.
Participating in the caucus is no small feat for new citizens. The jargon of the political process makes it even harder to overcome language barriers that, by themselves, pose a challenge.
Cultural differences can also lead to misunderstandings and suspicion between immigrant groups and the larger community. In 2008, Hopkins attracted unwanted attention when an election judge initially refused to give a ballot to a Somali woman who spoke little English.
The woman got her ballot when other residents stepped up to defend her, and the judge was not allowed to return. But such incidents make the political process more unwelcoming to a community that already finds it intimidating.
“They’re coming out of a climate where there is a huge amount of distrust for anything having to do with government or power,” said Eric Margolis, the state DFL affirmative action officer and Hopkins caucus organizer.
'The hurdle was hard, but what made it easier was we did it together.'
Weli has made it her mission to change that.
She participated in the making of a Somali-language video that the Minnesota DFL Party produced to inform the community exactly how the caucus process works. She then recruited neighbors to attend and, by her own admission, prodded them into joining her at the caucus itself. One woman even found a babysitter for her 20-day-old infant in order to attend.
“(I tell them) I’m going to break a lot of barriers, but I need you to come behind me or beside me or whatever. I’m not going to do this alone,” she said. “The hurdle was hard, but what made it easier was we did it together.”
Sixteen people is not a huge number in the overarching scope of Minnesota politics. But the immigrants’ ability to move further along in the process grants them access they wouldn’t otherwise have had. For example, candidates for office need delegate support to gain the DFL endorsement, Margolis noted.
“That means these representatives will now be courting those delegates. That means they’ll have dialog they might not have before,” he said.
Conceivably, they could even progress past the district convention to arenas as big as the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
“It all starts in a little precinct caucus in ,” Margolis said.
Actually, the story starts back in Mogadishu where Weli learned leadership by watching her mother counsel neighbors on their marriages, mediate disputes and make peace. It continues with Weli on her journey through the Middle East, as she worked to provide for her family. And it arrived on American shores with Weli 12 years ago.
“To (make) change, we have to be part of the movement,” she said. “The end result is our voice is going to be heard.”