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I snapped this shot at the Somalia exhibit at St. Paul’s Minnesota History Center. I wanted a picture of the plow, that wooden contraption in the far corner, a venerable, ox-drawn ancestor of, well, this 21-bottom plow pulled along by a Big Bud behemoth, 900 horsepower, if you’re measuring muscle.

Imagine, for a moment, coming from the mud hut above–a typical Somalian domicile–to the massive agri-world below. That Big Bud could open up more prairie ground in an hour than you could hope to see in a decade behind a sweaty team of oxen and that old wooden doohickey.

Welcome to America.

Traditionally, Somalis were largely nomadic.  They carried their shelters on camel back across a divided country that is, save for valleys and coast lines, hot and desert-like. Today, tens of thousands Somalis live in Minnesota, an unlikely adopted homeland for so many black African Muslims. Just this week, a heat wave has descended over the “land of 10,000 lakes”; temps are expected to amble along in the balmy 40s. I’m not kidding. Strange weather.

Twenty below isn’t rare here this time of year. Natives take some pride in their blessed deep freeze–“thirty below keeps out the riff-raff,” some whisper. But if you’re a Somali “nomadic pastoralist,” accustomed to scorching heat, Minnesota must be far beyond night-marish. What’s more, to black Africans, Minnesota must seem to overflow with the pale faces of blonde Nordics, their descendants anyway. 

If blondes have more fun, Minnesota must be endless bacchanalia. But they’re Lutheran anyway. So they know their sin, right? And yours too. They’re people who’ve been known occasionally to smile.

Imagine, for a moment, being a devout Muslim Somalian displaced by never-ending bloodletting in a civil war that all too regularly takes the lives of people you love. Imagine escaping the danger all around that house in the museum display, leaving that thick grassy roof behind, getting on a jet in Mogadishu, then flying across the world, getting out at the airport, and walking into the Mall of America. It’s as easy to underestimate the intense struggles of immigration as it is overestimate them. Somewhere in all of us, after all, a desire to be free is bunked beside the deep need to be loved.

Across town, Minnesota’s Swedish Institute is housed in a castle in downtown Minneapolis. Seriously. I’m not making this up–right there, downtown Minneapolis, stands a European-looking castle built to a design its wealthy owners determined they wanted to bring to Minnesota. Think I’m kidding? Look for yourself.

Swan Turnblad and his reclusive wife, Christina, wanted to bring a bit of Europe to the Twin Cities, and had the bucks to build it, so they did. All of that is the American Dream, really, and the Turnblads, dirt poor immigrants from Sweden, are quintessential Dreamers.

Just one of the features of this castle, inside, is a gallery of wood carvings that are just plain stunning. See for yourself.

It’s an incredible piece of work, four-feet tall. This Neptune-like bearded man is cutting a suspiciously randy pose, one arm sweetly up over his head, starlet-like, the other holding back a breech cloth we’d just as soon not see fall. There’s probably intent in this art, some abiding moral, but I didn’t care to stick around to discover what meaning it carries.

Right there beside it in front room, where you ascend the stairs, you’ll find a couple of weighty banister carvings that feel classical, but are meant, our tour guide told us, as symbols–a pair of lions outfitted with eagle’s wings. 

They were deliberately ordered up by the Turnblads and carved out by some old country craftsman to represent the world as Turnblads knew it. What they wanted was something to combine the cultures they loved–American eagles and the Swedish lions. 

Makes for a pair of unlikely front room greeters.

But let me remind you that Christina Turnblad’s very first job, in Worthington, Minnesota, paid no salary whatsoever, no wage, no money, not a dime. She and her parents had less than nothing when they came to this country, so the best she could do–with no English, no education, and no work experience–was on-the-job training for a banker named Smith, room-and-board for endless work that would teach her to become a good domestic. 

She and her husband ended up ascending golden stairways attended by hand-carved lions adorned with eagle’s wings. In a castle too yet.

Is it any wonder why people have forever arrived on our shores? And is it any wonder why so many of us, descendants of our own ancestors’ “yearning to be free,” resent those most recently arrived? Is it any wonder why the very first order of business in a reconstituted U. S. House of Representatives will be immigration? 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

12 Comments

  • mstair says:

    “And is it any wonder why so many of us, descendants of our own ancestors’ “yearning to be free,” resent those most recently arrived?”

    Ouch.

    re·sent
    /rəˈzent/
    verb
    verb: resent; 3rd person present: resents; past tense: resented; past participle: resented; gerund or present participle: resenting
    1 feel bitterness or indignation at (a circumstance, action, or person).

    Is that why we are are so slow to proclaim and share the freedom message of The Gospel too?

    • Kent says:

      “Resent the recently arrived”? Really? I don’t. Do you? Do others on here? I don’t presume to know.

      • Jessica A Groen says:

        I do, Kent. I worked in City of Chicago farmers markets for 15 years in 80s and 90s and my boss/relative, a Dutch Christian truck farmer, regularly harassed first generation immigrant customers who spoke to one another while near our stand in their first language to their co-shoppers: “Speak English, don’t you know you are in America now? Go back if you don’t want to learn it.” She reminded us often of the elderly Roma and Hungarian immigrants’ propensity for stealing peppers and made us aggressively and publically dump out bags and recount peppers selected by immigrant buyers in Lincoln Square, but we were told to trust the counting skills and honesty of the wealthier white yuppies in Lincoln Park. She mimicked mannerisms of non or low English proficiency speaking habits of Asian immigrants. We are all implicated in this, Kent, as vocal perpetrators or silent witnesses/bystanders, of these repeating and repeating and repeating acts of resentment and xenophobia.

        • James Schaap says:

          I was blown away the juxtaposition of the Somalian exhibition at the Minnesota History Center–and then a visit to Turnblad mansion. It was all about immigration, always an incredible story. As we read and listened to the displays at the History Center, my wife told me what a woman she worked with a couple of months ago told her, a woman whose kids live in a small Minnesota town with a lot of Somalians. She said her kids claimed the Somalians were arrogant, acted like they owned the place. That’s a species of resentment, I think.

      • James Schaap says:

        I honestly thought that J. D. Vance, in Hillbilly Elegy, wasn’t all wrong. Lots of people resent immigrants: they take our jobs and get all our attention. They have anchor babies to make sure they take every advantage of our social welfare system. Sometimes their kids are vastly more driven to succeed than are our own, and when they and their children succeed and we don’t, we’re mad. I don’t share those attitudes personally, and I’m not saying you do. What I am saying is that such attitudes exist today, just as they did a century ago–or a century and a half. I grew up in Oostburg, Wisconsin, where over 200 Dutch people died in November of 1847, when the steamship Phoenix burned and sank just off the Sheboygan harbor. No one was keeping track of how many immigrants were aboard that ship because, well, they were just immigrants. I’m certainly not advocating that kind of prejudice, but I do believe it exists–and has throughout the history of this country.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Nice, Jim. My own immigrant Meeter oerpake and oerbeppe were illiterate. Their occupations in Friesland? Field-workers, in the employ of the Reformed Church. But they ended up owning their own little dairy in Prospect Park, New Jersey.

    • James Schaap says:

      If the Turnblads were the only immigrants who went from rags to riches, there would be no such cliche. It happens.

      • Daniel J Meeter says:

        And they could, and nobody resented them, because they were white and Protestant. They had no problem getting in either. I wasn’t clear that that was my point.

  • Anne Kennedy says:

    What??? Resenting newcomers? Yes, it’s true that there’s often conflict between long-timers and new arrivals whether it be Native American vs Europeans, old money vs nouveau riche, or original village settlers vs new families from “away”. But I’m just not understanding your point. Wouldn’t a Christian response to immigrants fleeing war and famine, particularly when those Christians are themselves descended from immigrants fleeing troubled homelands, be not only understanding of the newcomers but appreciation of and generosity toward them? It sounds as tho you think Minnesota’s blonde Lutherans are justified in taking a NIMBY stance.

    • James Schaap says:

      I’m sorry if what I wrote comes off as an accusation about Minnesotans. It’s certainly not meant to be that. What I didn’t say–and maybe should have–is that the Somalians in Minnesota claim that one reason they choose to stay in cold country is that Minnesotans are so kind, so hospitable.

      I’m not advocating for a remedy to our national problems with immigration. I’m simply awed by the phenomenon itself, by what’s there in the Emma Lazarus poem, even my own family story. That picture on the site page is my immigrant great-grandparents, a portrait they had taken to prove to the relatives in Holland that they were just fine. Well, they weren’t; they lasted out there in South Dakota for less than three years. What I’m saying is immigration is really, really something.

  • John vanstaalduinen says:

    Can you show is the polling results that back up your statement “that so many of us resent”? Or did you just make up a statement that fits your agenda?
    We can only hope that the newly reconstructed Congress will have immigration as an agenda item. There are a few newly elected that have openly stated some nefarious agenda items.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    I happen to live in the great state of Minnesota. I happen to work in Willmar, MN – a hotbed of Somali settlement, largely due to available labor in agricultural processing (turkeys). I happen to work in the old downtown area, where much of the Somali population resides due to the affordability of old apartment units that rise above old storefronts. I too marvel at the stories and journeys of these recent immigrants. Often I try to think of what it would be like to be born into a country of such upheaval, instability, violence, and poverty. It’s a sad testament to the human ability to sabotage the order and fruitfulness of the God’s good creation.

    At times I have felt compelled to push back against those notions of resentment that Jim mentions; unfortunately too often amongst (at least nominal) Christians with whom I work. I love my Somali neighbors. I welcome them here. I appreciate what they offer in the community. I long for them to hear the gospel and be saved from spiritual darkness. I enjoy interacting with them, even if our communication is sometimes only through the universal language of laughter.

    Our Christian school owns and operates a thrift store in Willmar. Recently I had the opportunity to spend the better part of the day (during one of my sessions of mandatory volunteerism) with a young Somali man who was working at the store. It might seem like an odd fit – the young Muslim working at the Christian school thrift store – but he fit in quite well. He was in the process of working off a public debt assigned by the court due to his poor choices. He seemed to be learning from his mistakes. He appreciated that the Christian manager of the thrift store allowed him the opportunity to work, and he did his work cheerfully. We hit it off quite well, as he was particularly interested in, and taken aback by, the fact that I had played and previously refereed high school soccer in the area. It was a fun touchstone in establishing a sense of commonality. I never presented the gospel directly to him during this day, in part due to the fact that I knew he was having those discussions with one of the managers there. I was able to love him unconditionally, and thus hope to adorn the gospel message he was receiving. Whoopee for me? No, just trying to be kind. Human interaction tends to rise above political labeling.

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