America the beautiful

Abdulwahid Osman in his Midtown Global Market law office Monday afternoon: “America has always been that beacon of freedom.” Photo by Jim Walsh

Abdulwahid Osman didn’t have much time to talk late Monday afternoon, so he spoke fast, and with the urgency of a man on a mission. As I interviewed him in his Midtown Global Market law office, six of Osman’s Somali-American clients sat outside in the waiting room, eager to see their lawyer about deportations and other legal family matters.

Me, I wanted to talk to Osman, one of the few Somali-born immigration attorneys practicing in Minneapolis, about the United States Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate Donald Trump’s travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries (Somalia, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Yemen and Libya), which came Monday morning after two federal appeals courts blocked the order. Instead, I got the greatest pre-Fourth of July pep talk ever.

“I came to this country as a refugee, and today I’m a licensed practicing attorney in the state of Minnesota, and I have benefited a lot from freedom of religion in this country,” said Osman, after explaining how the travel ban “could have been worse,” in that it doesn’t include immigrants coming to America to be reunited with family. “I understand what it means to be a refugee seeking to enter the United States, and I understand what it means to become a refugee who made it in this country. I have a family, I have young children, I have a house, I have a legal practice and I am a proud former refugee.

“If that doesn’t mean anything to Donald Trump, it’s up to him. But it means a lot to America. It reflects the American value. America is an idea to us; it’s not a specific country or religion. We come here for a few ideas, one of which is freedom of religion, that you won’t be judged by the color of your skin, that you have equal opportunity as anybody.

“I’m living example of that. I litigate cases in court every day. I go up against white Anglo-Saxon Caucasians who were born here and come from rich families, and sometimes, or many times, I win the cases against them. It doesn’t mean that … me being … 17 years ago, having nothing … being able to graduate from the University of Minnesota Law School … only in America that is possible. I couldn’t have made it in any other country, and if Donald Trump has a problem with that, excuse me? He should do what he’s doing, but he’s not going to change the nature of America.

“America is to us that idea: diversity, respect, rule of law. Those are the key things that make America exceptional. If he wants to make America a country of specific people or a specific religion, he is a traitor to America itself. Because the idea of America has always been that beacon of freedom where everybody says, ‘OK, I could make it. Nowhere else, but in America that’s the only place you can make it, regardless of the color of your skin.’ That’s why Americans voted twice for Barack Obama — someone who has such an international background, who grew up in different countries, born here. … That is the America that we feel is under threat. And I’m glad we have the court system — which is the last line of defense against transgressions that infringe upon our constitutional rights.”

Osman speaks with the passion and assurance of a man who came to Minneapolis as a refugee 17 years ago and who has worked to become an Islamic law scholar, an adjunct law professor at the University Of Minnesota, a Hennepin County Human Services Officer and a vital resource for the Somali-American community in the Twin Cities. As he spoke, surrounded as he is by one of Minneapolis’s most multi-culti malls and neighborhoods, he proudly pointed to the diplomas and certificates of achievement hanging on his office wall.

“To us, the travel ban reflects a very dark history,” he continued. “It’s known that any country that tries to exclude certain religions and people in the history, that country is doomed. It didn’t work in Nazi Germany, it didn’t work in any other empire throughout history. And Muslims around the world? 1.6 billion people of all races, all cultures. You can’t ban them. You can’t ban half of the world.

“So this travel ban is actually an assault on the very foundation of America. This has nothing to do with security. People can be vetted for security reasons, but that’s not going to make America secure. It will only make America look bad in front of others. This country came through a lot: internment camps, slavery before that, civil rights movement, economic inequality, all of that. And now if Donald Trump wants to take us back and to play to the worst instincts and the worst insecurities of rural America — if that’s what he wants to do, he doesn’t represent America. He doesn’t know what ‘refugee’ means. The Syrian kid who is being bombed by Russian aircraft? He’s not a threat to America. If Trump doesn’t want to help, that’s up to him, but that’s not America. And I hope that our courts, especially the Supreme Court, which has always been the refuge for upholding the basic rights of what’s best about this country, will ultimately resoundingly rule against this draconian so-called travel ban.”

These days, business is more than a little brisk at Abdulwahid Law Firm (2929 Chicago Ave., suite 110, 612-501-7384), and it has been since Trump promised to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants in his first 18 months as president.

“I’m very busy, as you can see,” said Osman. “I’m one of the very few Somali-born lawyers here, and our community is such a large community that uses our services. We not only practice law, we assure the community, we are the eyes of the community, we explain the legal system, we explain the rule of law, we explain the constitutionality of the human rights that these people have, so we have a lot of work. I’m a very busy guy.

“Somalis are doing very well. And our president came to the hangar at the airport before the election to give a hate speech against refugees, that’s all he came for, and then he left, that’s how irresponsible he is, to enflame the Minnesotans against us when he doesn’t even know who we are, and he doesn’t care. And he wants to be our president?

“The fact is, Somalis have a lot of success stories. We are a very vibrant community, and we are so proud of Minnesota and the way it welcomed us, and the way it is, despite everything that’s going on, trying to understand. And Minnesotans, and Americans also, need to understand that we came with a culture. We have our own baggage. It will take time to integrate into the Minnesotan culture. We are the first generation. I’m not going to dress or speak like you, but my kids are now fully Americanized. They speak like you, but I don’t, I have accent, and I can’t help.

“That’s how we grew up. That’s the story of every first generation in this country. When the Italians came, and the Jewish came, and Eastern-Europeans, and Polish, and Irish, they were made fun of and discriminated against, just like we are. So this is a typical American story, and if Donald Trump’s not happy with that … he has no more claim on this country than I have.”


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]