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Like a true East Coast liberal elite, I spent my flight from DC to Minnesota listening to This American Life. They’ve been running a series on the recent election, and one recent episode especially resonated with me.
The episode looked at growing anti-Somali sentiment in St. Cloud, Minnesota as a microcosm of America’s recent backlash against refugees, immigrants, outsiders and “others.” It explored how many Americans – otherwise good people – came to reject their neighbors who have been through unimaginable tragedy and hardship, all because right-wing pundits have whipped up a storm of xenophobia, racism, islamophobia and hatred. The tragedy of the rejection of Somali immigrants among a wave of anti-immigrant bigotry disguised as well-meaning concern for communities hit especially close to home. Members of my family were once strangers in this same strange land.
This is my first trip to Minnesota, though I do have roots here. Like many other Lithuanian and Russian Jews, my great -great (-great?) -grandparents decided that the Minnesotan tundra reminded them of home and decided to settle there. After a generation, my family eventually ended up in what is now part of Minnesota’s 8th district: Swanville, MN.
So of course, when I first arrived, I mentioned my grandparents’ roots to anyone who would listen. No one I talked to had heard of Swanville until I met Congressman Nolan, who recognized it immediately. He went on to describe the paths and histories of families just like mine. He talked about the one or two Jewish families in each small town, otherwise comprised of a majority Catholics and Lutherans and tall blonde descendants of Scandinavians. They usually ran small businesses. In Emily, Nolan’s hometown, the Jewish family ran the hardware store.
My family ran the seed store in Swanville, but left and opened a series of family businesses in Florida in the 40s. My grandmother and her brothers returned from Jacksonville, Florida to Swanville, Minnesota for a visit, about two decades after they left the rural town they used to call home.
Clearly outsiders, they sat down for lunch at the local diner where they used to buy soda and candy as children. The way I’ve heard the story, they barely placed an order before my great-uncle Don rose and announced: “Hey! Does anyone here remember the Cohns?”
The Cohns had been the only Jewish family in Swanville.
From across the restaurant a man responds, “Oh sure! I remember the Cohns.”
“Well I’m Don Cohn. I grew up here.”
“Don Cohn!” The man rose to shake his hand. “I remember the first line of your valedictorian speech! Your father saved my father’s farm.”
Here’s where the story gets a little fuzzy. It was the height of the depression, and the man’s father’s farm was failing. My great-grandfather told him to load up whatever he could sell, and he would bring it into the cities and bring back whatever cash he could. It’s still unclear as to whether my great-grandfather actually managed to sell the crop, but he did come home with enough cash to save the farm.
My grandparents’ story is that of a second-generation immigrant family assimilating and contributing to their community. Many of the Somali-Americans interviewed for TAL wanted the same things they did: an escape from persecution, a chance for a better life, a stable roof over their heads and to contribute to their communities.
I know it wasn’t always so easy back then, and it’s not like America was free of bigotry in the 1940s. But I also know that the US and Minnesota gave them another chance, and I hope that we, as a country, will continue to give families shelter from war, danger and persecution. That’s why it’s so important that we use our votes on Tuesday to reject the small-minded, anti-immigrant fanaticism of the Right, to repudiate the presidential candidate that said “Minnesotans have suffered enough” in reference to the very Somali refugee influx discussed in TAL. Trump is the new standard-bearer for American xenophobia. It’s our duty as Americans to fight for a safe haven for those fleeing crises around the world – to create the America that saved my great-great-grandparents from pogroms. After all, we never know when their kids will end up saving us.