MINNESOTA: Gustavus professor, student to show documentary on Somali-Americans

The hopes and experiences of several Somali-Americans are shown in “(Mid)west of Somalia,” a documentary by a professor-student team at Gustavus Adolphus College.

The film will be shown in its first local public showing at 7 p.m. March 1 at St. Peter High School Performing Arts Center.

Communications studies professor Martin Lang said it was project he embarked on, knowing there was more to the Somali-American story than the reports about terrorism recruitment or conflicts with new neighbors.

“As I’ve lived here in St. Peter for a dozen years now, I’ve come to know more and more of the population in St. Peter and the Somali population in particular,” he said. “I’ve come to know diverse sides of them. It was such a contrast with what I had learned and had known about Somali immigrants smashed up against the people I was meeting and I knew I can’t be the only one surprised at what is below the surface here.”

He and student Noah O’Ryan did the bulk of filming in the summer of 2016.

They talked with Somali-American community leaders as well as people they knew personally, and those connections helped them network more widely. The documentary subjects are all at least part-time students with at least part-time jobs. They primarily live in Mankato or St. Peter; a few are from Faribault.

Lang said they didn’t set out for the film to focus on people pursuing education. He suspects that is a product of the location and so many young Somali-Americans are seeking to do their best.

“Education is a really high priority for Somali families, especially for the first generation,” he said. “The millennial generation feels a really strong responsibility to do right by the family’s sacrifice.”

Lang said Somali-Americans are like many Minnesotans. They value education, want their hard work and effort respected and intend to be “fully fledged, contributing members of our communities in a variety of ways,” he said.

Hanan Mohamud is a senior at Gustavus Adolphus College from Faribault. She is pursuing a psychology degree and wants to be a physician’s assistant. She’s one of the Somali-Americans profiled in the documentary.

She was approached by Lang about being in the film a few years after she was in his public discourse class. She agreed to be involved because “It was empowering and I had a lot to say.” She also connected him to two others.

Mohamud said she agreed, in part, to combat demeaning stereotypes.

“Most people honestly have no idea,” she said. “They think we’re living off welfare and whatnot. A lot of us go to school and only came to the country to get an education.”

Education is something that can’t be taken away and can help their home country. She said the documentary shows what she and others have experienced in the U.S., along with their aspirations and their priorities.

“It’s a very good film,” Mohamud said. “There’s some humor in it and, obviously, there are serious parts. It looked well put-together and he made sure the voices of people he was filming were well heard.”

Some of the documentary’s subjects will be part of a panel with Lang after the showing. The documentary, which runs about 35 minutes, has been shown a few times to small groups, but this is the first large public viewing.

The showing comes as part of the first Thursday film series by the Nicollet County Historical Society and Community and Family Education. It is also sponsored by the college, city Department of Leisure and Recreation Services and Senior Center.

“I think this is an important film because it tells the story of people who live, work, and attend school in this area,” Community and Family Education Director Tami Skinner said. “I hope that it will generate conversations in the community which will lead people to reach out to their new neighbors.”

Lang said he hopes it spurs understanding and conversation.

“The bigger picture for me is communication and dialog and in sort of a difficult political time, dialog is so much harder than it used to be,” he said. “It’s so important for all of us to be able to talk and pay attention to each other at least a little bit. I want to inspire conversation across divides that keep us apart.”

I think this is an important film because it tells the story of people who live, work, and attend school in this area. I hope that it will generate conversations in the community which will lead people to reach out to their new neighbors.