Minnesota is known for its 10,000 lakes, the mall of America, and some of the largest populations of immigrants.
On the intersection of Pillsbury and Lake Street, just outside of Uptown, Minneapolis, you'll find a unique building that has become a staple to one community. Step inside and it's almost as if you've been transported to Somali. Most, if not all the vendors in Karmel Mall are of East African descent and mainly hail from Somalia. Sandol owns a coffee shop in the Somali Centric shopping center. He immigrated to the United States 13 years ago. And today he says, he's living the American dream not only as an entrepreneur, but as an engineer and a land developer.
We came to Minnesota as a community to be American.
Minnesota is home to 70,000 Somali's, the largest Somali population in the U.S. After the civil war erupted in the early 1990's, many fled their country in search for safety, security, a better life. Many of those Somali's sought political asylum in America, where Minnesota became their very own Little Mogadishu.
While that's the common journey of many Somali immigrants, it's not everyone's story. "I'm finally speaking up. I do want to be an American, I just don' want to lie about it. I've been lying about it for years. My friends think I'm American." Mona has been living in the U.S. since she was 13. And like many others from her birth country of Somalia, her parents and seven brothers and sisters migrated to the west in fear of what the war would bestow. But after Canada denied their grant of asylum, Mona's mom decided to take her family to America, where her husband was already living. Hiding in the back of a semi-truck with her mother and siblings, Mona illicitly crossed into the land of opportunity. "My mother did that truly [because] she was misguided, one. And two, she's always look for acceptance in citizenship and Canada didn't want to give it to her, so maybe the U.S. wanted to give it to her. So the whole time we're migrating, we're immigrants that are migrating through literally the world and finally this was our resting place. The only place we entered illegally on the planet.
That is how I became an illegal immigrant.
In 2004, the family was summoned to court after Homeland Security began cracking down on non-US citizens applying for visas in efforts to catch terrorists and criminals living in America. Their status was revoked and they became illegal. They told no one and life became more difficult living in secrecy.
That's when it changed dramatically. Everything came to a stop. we thought we were getting deported. Or maybe sent back to Canada. Or even worse, back to Somalia. But the war is still going on today technically, so in 2004, 13 years ago, it was still very bad. So we got a temporary protected status because they can't send anyone back to a war ravaged country.
For more than 10 years, Mona has been living illegally in America. For the first time, she's sharing her story. When I ask her if she is afraid she'll be deported by outing herself, she says 'not so much.' "I don't have the protection that people believe I may need to not be deported. However, I am here. I have a legal status. So even though I am an illegal immigrant, my status here is legal."
Mona's status is called withholding of removal, which usually involves people who've committed crimes in the U.S, but cannot be deported because their country of origin is too dangerous to return to. Jerzy Guzior, Mona's lawyer says although her status grants her certain protection, it's only temporary. "If the country condition is going to change in her country, this protection disappears. So she is not really granted forever. "
Why a Growing Number of Undocumented Immigrants are Voluntarily Leaving the United States
The colors are vibrant, the food is authentic, the aroma flowing throughout the mall. Of the 400 vendors, nearly 80 percent in Karmel Souq are owned by women. "We believe in the freedom and the opportunity," says Sandol.
But not everyone in the Minnesota Somali community is living the American dream.
Recently a growing number of undocumented Somali's are fleeing the U.S. and illegally entering Canada. Bihi, a leader and activist in the Twin Cities Somali community is surprised that more and more undocumented Somali's are leaving America.
In the early 1990's, tens of thousands of Somali's migrated to the West after the civil war began. The majority who were brought to the U.S. were refugees and asylum seekers. "Lately that's a different case," says Bihi. "We've got a huge number of young men, women, parents, elders that came here through the Mexican boarder seeking asylum. And as the crisis in Somali gets worse like the famine, instability, more people are fleeing.
Those people who came here after staying in detention for months were very afraid to be deported back, so that's how they started to cross to Canada after the Prime Minister said he will welcome any refugees.
Today, there are over 11 million illegal immigrants in America. Since Donald Trump became President, he has placed two travel bans on 7 mainly majority Muslim countries, which now have been overturned. He vows to deport up to 3 million undocumented immigrants, deporting hundreds already across the country.
Bihi says he knows of some Somali's who have recently left the U.S. for perhaps a better life. But crossing into Manitoba, Canada during the harsh, cold winter months left many to brave dangerous weather conditions. "There are a lot of crazy stories. In the winter, people were walking hours, sometimes days in the snow just to get there. There were frostbites. There are people that nobody knows if they made it."
While some undocumented immigrants are fleeing the country voluntarily, sanctuary churches around the Twin Cities have pledged to protect those who want to stay in the U.S. and are in danger of being deported and possibly separated from their families.
The First Universalist Church is one of 15 congregations across the Twin Cities prepared to house undocumented immigrants. "As a person of faith and a community of faith, the teachings of our traditions and many religious traditions, ask us to house, to take care of, to be with those who are most vulnerable, who are in danger of being deported, in this case of having their families in their communities torn apart," says Justin Schroder, Reverend of First Universalist Church.
Churches are considered safe spaces by federal law and are protected from law enforcement, such as ICE from entering.
The efforts to protect undocumented immigrants through sanctuary is led by ISAIAH. "Members of our own organization from the Latino community, the immigrant community, came to the rest of the organization and said, 'we're terrified. we need help.' The help they were asking for is 'could our congregations start considering becoming sanctuaries for those who need sanctuary from deportation orders that they're currently working on through the legal system?" explains Reverend Grant Stevensen, ISAIAH's clergy organizer.
Currently, none of the sanctuary churches are housing undocumented immigrants, but have in the past and are prepared to do so once again. "Churches that declared themselves sanctuary congregations understand that they are offering to shelter someone for an undetermined amount of time. So that could be two weeks, or it could be 6 months or 12 months. And they know it's an undetermined amount of time, depending on the legal proceeds of the undocumented immigrant that they're sheltering and how long that takes."
There are over 6 billion people in the world from all walks of life, religions, cultures, traditions living in prosperity, in poverty, in fear and many in war. 21 million are refugees and over half are under the age of 18. The United Nations says the world is facing the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945.
Every year, refugees from around the globe start anew in America. Tika lived as a refugee in Nepal for 21 years before her and her family were granted asylum in the U.S. "At first, when we were in Nepal, planning to come here, we were so excited. We would just see buildings and we would be using fancy stuff or expensive things and we will be having car and stuff like that. But once we came here, it's not easy to achieve that. So a lot of struggle."
"Refugees used to be living in refugee camps that came to the United States for about two, three years when the program started. Now, refugees that are coming, have been in camps for almost two decades." Jane is the Executive Director of the International Institute of Minnesota who work with refugees resettling in the state. "We get a notification that a family is arriving. So our staff find housing for them. They fill their house with furniture. And then our staff meet refugees at the airport and we have a very international team, so if we're picking up our refugee from Ethiopia or a refugee from Burma, we have staff that speak those languages."
An average of 700,000 people a year become naturalized citizens in the United States, many chasing the American dream. Tika and her family are now green card holders and await the day they too become citizens.
For Mona, America has been home the moment she step foot in the country. "I wouldn't want to leave anywhere else in the world."
Millions like Mona agree and await their fate, hoping for immigration reform, which may be the only route Muna has to citizenship. "Her case would be resolved positively only if there is going to be some positive substantial changes to immigration regulation," says Mona's lawyer, Jerzy Guzior.
Congress has debated immigration reform for decades, unable to reach an agreement and some experts are wiry that any sort of reform will take place with the current President in office.
Today, Mona says life is brighter, happier, more promising after sharing the secret that wreaked havoc on her and her family for too many years. "I was always living in fear, not fear of deportation, but fear of being found out I'm not American."
Mona's son just turned 9. She's says her outlook on life changed after having him. For now, she plans to continue sharing her story in hopes of reshaping the immigration system in order to create a path to citizenship and maybe one day travel abroad with her son. "I'm happier because I have hope that it will change. I see a very bright future."