melting pot

Why the future face of the Midwest looks like this Somali immigrant

Yoni Brook / ybpix.com

It might come as a surprise to some, but Minnesota—a state where 85% of the population is white—has one of the Midwest’s largest and most visible immigrant communities.

Large numbers of Somalis fled to Minnesota shortly after a civil war broke out in the eastern African country in 1991. Today, there are at least 26,000 living in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

Despite this community’s sizable population, however, America only hears about Somalis in Minnesota whenever they’re connected to terrorism. For example, one recent article said three Somali-American men from Minneapolis were found guilty of planning to join the Islamic State.

But filmmaker Musa Syeed hopes to change that with his new movie, which debuts on Friday. A Stray follows Adan, a young Somali immigrant wandering the streets of Minneapolis, after his mother kicks him out for stealing her jewelry. In it, we see Adan struggling to make a life for himself as an outsider.

As a Muslim American from Indiana, Syeed wanted to present a new immigrant tale set in the Midwest, a region largely considered to be sleepy (and racially homogeneous) farmland territory.

“Everyone associates New York with immigrant stories,” Syeed told me. “But telling the story in the heartland of America points more towards the future of what America is now, and what it’s going to look even more like in the future.”

I spoke to Syeed about filming A Stray and the Somali-American experience.

In general, national news coverage of Minneapolis’ Somali community is negative. We only hear about the community when a select few have been apprehended by the FBI for becoming “radicalized” or plotting to join ISIS in Syria. Your film addresses that full-on. Were you thinking about the way Minnesotan Somalis are depicted in the media when you decided to make this film?

I didn’t start it as a response to media coverage. I’m Muslim and grew up in Midwest, and I was just interested in the community because it has built up so quickly. To me, it’s a major center of Muslim life in America (in terms of the people there and the institutions that are built there). So, my initial attraction to the community was that there were a lot of visual possibilities for the audience in this complete world.

But I think as I got to know the community more and spent more time there—seeing news cameras in the neighborhood—that helped me understand where a lot of people [are] coming from. [Negative media portrayals are] something Muslims in America are so conscious of; and I think in Minneapolis, specifically, it’s so pronounced because it’s such a hyper-visible community. Even in the local news, there has been tension, just because the coverage has been very intense at times and also insensitive—or just maybe not fully informed.

Through Adan’s eyes, who is the main character in the film, we see an American dream just beyond his reach: fancy condos in plain view of the housing projects he grew up in, a visit to his old girlfriend’s college dorm, and a late-night stroll through the city’s tony riverfront district. I was wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about class and class consciousness in the film.

Something that I’ve been constantly aware of in the film is Muslim representation. I think for a lot of people like my family, who immigrated decades ago to America—for some people, there’s an impulse to portray ourselves as a monolith; that we’re a model minority, that we’re professionals and doing well, that we’re good citizens. So I think … there hasn’t been as much space to explore class issues within the Muslim context.

But something I was very conscious of—especially in Minnesota—from neighborhood-to-neighborhood, you could kind of get a sense that people were sort of separated along class lines. Cities are designed in many ways to keep people apart. So in just thinking about coming from a neighborhood: What are the structural designs that keep someone from being successful? And that was something we tried to portray visually in some way.

Minneapolis is a major character in the film. In many of the city’s famous landmarks, Adan appears uncomfortable, an outsider. It’s only in Somali spaces that he seems truly comfortable. Can you talk to me more about Minneapolis as a character in this story?

I think I was interested in telling the story in Minneapolis because there isn’t a lot known about it, and I think it being a Midwestern city, it has a different resonance. Everyone associates New York with immigrant stories, but telling the story in the heartland of America—a story about immigration—I think, points more towards the future of what America is now and what it’s going to look even more like in the future. Obviously, there’s this large Somali population, but there’s also this large population of Native Americans, there’s a large Hmong population. I was just curious to see how [Adan] could navigate all these communities, and where he could find opportunities for connection with all these different people.

There are several other oppressed communities represented in the film: when Adan comes across a Hmong woman on the light rail, or when news of Syria’s refugee crisis blares in the background. What were you trying to do with these representations?

I think just putting into context those different communities tells the bigger story of immigration in America. There hasn’t always been as much discussion about what happens when people get to a new home, and what is the process of creating that new home; that itself is a new journey. Putting all these different displaced peoples in the film was a way of showing the one universal experience of being an immigrant: trying to create a sense of home away from home.

Throughout the film, the only constant person in Adan’s life is the FBI, which is always there to give him what he needs or what he thinks he needs: a phone, money, a new home. Other characters in the film have seemingly abandoned Adan for behaving badly, but the FBI always seems to be there to catch his fall. What is the significance of this?

The FBI and other law enforcement have had such a heavy presence in the community, and a lot of young men have been aggressively recruited to be informants; some, who have refused, have had their employment threatened or their status in the community threatened. To me, the sort of ever-presence of the FBI investigator speaks to the distrust that has sometimes been [created] by the presence of law enforcement in the community. Also, just [the fact] that informants do exist in the community is designed to make people question each other or distrust each other.

Tell me how you developed Layla, the dog, as a plot device in the film and as a character of her own.

I think man and dog stories are such an American thing, and I was curious about how to tell that story from a new perspective—a new America, in a way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.