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Society

Protests Reveal Generational Divide in Immigrant Communities

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn.  — When protests began in a Minneapolis suburb after a white police officer fatally shot a Black man, 21-year-old Fatumata Kromah took to the street, pushing for change she says is essential to her Liberian immigrant community.

Meanwhile, 40-year-old Matilda Kromah feared stepping outside her home as trauma associated with the Liberian civil war suddenly rushed back into her life, two decades after she escaped the conflict.

The two women, whose shared last name is common among Liberians, have seen their lives changed amid the unrest that has sometimes engulfed Minneapolis in the months since George Floyd's death. Their behavior also reflects a generational split: While Fatumata has been drawn into the protests, Matilda has tried to avoid them, focusing instead on running a dress shop and hair-braiding salon that is essential to sending her children to college.

The same divide has played out across the Twin Cities' burgeoning Somali, Ethiopian, Liberian and Kenyan communities. Young people have thrust themselves into movements for racial justice, often embracing the identity of being Black in America. Older generations have been more likely to concentrate on carving out new lives rather than protesting racial issues in their adopted homeland.

When Fatumata visited Matilda's shop this past week in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, the topic was unavoidable. Matilda's strip-mall storefront — Humu Boutique and Neat Braids — was vandalized in the aftermath of the April 11 death of Black motorist Daunte Wright. Thieves smashed windows and doors and took nearly everything of value, even stripping mannequins of their African dresses.

Tears formed in the elder woman's eyes, and her hands shook as she spoke. Memories of the atrocities she had fled during the Liberian civil war had returned.

"Maybe war is starting again," Matilda said of the demonstrations. "I was traumatized. For three days, I didn't want to go out of my house. I was hiding in my room."

But she needed to figure out a way to pay for her son's college tuition, so she posted an "open" sign on the plywood covering the shop's broken windows and began accepting customers. She did not have insurance to cover the losses, she said.

Fatumata, who chanted and yelled at protests, grew quiet as Matilda spoke. She agreed that the United States offered opportunities for education and a "better life," but she had also made up her mind that such a life would not be complete without justice for Black people.

After moving to Brooklyn Center from Liberia in 2015, she said she was treated differently as a Black person. People commented on the color of her skin, disapproved of the clothes she wore and once called the police on her and a friend for being too "loud."

"I started to realize like, 'Oh, America is not what it says on TV,'" she said.

Then Floyd's death sparked protests, and she decided that "this was not the American dream I was promised."

Kromah is not alone. Young people in the city's East African communities came out to protest in droves following Floyd's death. Despite tension, at times, between Black immigrants from Africa and Black people whose long history in the U.S. began with slavery, protesters united around decrying police brutality they said plagued their communities.

The verse, "Somali lives, they matter here," often followed the protest refrain of "Black lives, they matter here." And one of the most widely shared images of last year's protests was a video posted on social media showing a protester in a hijab and a long skirt kicking a tear gas cannister back toward law enforcement officers in riot gear.

"I am Somali, I am Black American, I am Muslim," 21-year-old Aki Abdi said. "If a cop pulls me over, he don't know if I'm Somali or Black. They go hand in hand."

When former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in Floyd's death, celebrations broke out across the city, and Abdi and two friends made their way to George Floyd Square.

On the sidewalk down the street from where Floyd took his last breath, they scrawled the names of two Somali men — Dolal Idd and Isak Aden — who were fatally shot by Minnesota police in recent years. They hoped some people in the crowd would search those names on the internet. Police defended their actions in both shootings, saying the men had guns, but the men's families have pressed for more thorough investigations.

Many older immigrants grew up in countries where speaking out against the government resulted in punishment, and some are so focused on making a living after escaping war-torn countries that they do not have time or energy for anything besides their famililes' immediate well-being, said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Younger Black immigrants who were born in America or came at a young age often know firsthand both their parents' struggles and America's history of racial injustice, Hussein said.

"By being squeezed by these two pressures, they have no option but to fight and to try to change the system." he said. "The younger generation is propelled by this legacy of the fight that is happening in the country that they've adopted, but also the fight that their parents have been teaching them about in the country that they left."

Fatumata Kromah's mother, Rebecca Williams Sonyah, said parents like her fear for their children's safety both in interactions with police and at demonstrations, all while trying to stay focused on the jobs and businesses essential to their livelihoods.

"Our children should have freedom. They should have equal rights," Williams Sonyah said. "They shouldn't judge our children because of their color or because of where their parents are from."

She recognized her daughter's activism as important to those goals but still pleaded with her to stay home after Wright's death, knowing that destruction was likely. They compromised by agreeing that Kromah would return home before the curfews set by city authorities.

Williams Sonyah's job in medical home care prevented her from joining in the marches in front of the police department. But she seemed sympathetic to the movement.

"If I had a way to go protest," she said, "I would protest."

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