Earlier this summer, The New York Times ran a story about the rise in anti-immigrant activism and violence in St. Cloud, Minn., a city that has experienced an 18 percent growth in nonwhite residents in the last 30 years, primarily fueled by East African immigrants. Like many communities across the state, changing demographics in St. Could have deepened political divides. But Ayan Omar, who lives in the city, is on a mission to propel social change in St. Cloud by emphasizing some of her core values - understanding, acceptance and empathy.
But when asked about the best moments in her work as an educator and a frequent speaker on interfaith and cross-cultural issues, Ayan refers to a question that epitomizes those exact ideologies.
“Do you want to kill me?”
The question was posed by an older, fragile-looking white woman, probably someone’s grandmother, Ayan remembers. Although the asker may have surprised her, the question did not.
When Ayan moved to St. Cloud and enrolled at St. Cloud State University in 2006, she was often the only person of color in her classes. “I remember being asked where I’m from very frequently. I quickly learned that the question was not a matter of where I grew up,” she recalls. “It was a matter of: Where were you born? What religion do you practice? How are you beneficial or a threat to me?”
Those questions represented a major departure from the experiences that form the fabric of Ayan’s personal history. She was born in Somalia and lived with her family in a refugee camp by the Kenyan border until they relocated to Clarkston, Ga. - a predominantly Black community.
Ayan says, “In school, we had about 40 different nations represented. It consisted of the refugee narrative, the immigrant narrative, along with the African-American narrative.”
Growing up in Clarkston “shielded me from a lot of the ideologies that are present in St. Cloud - Islamophobia, racism and the anti-refugee rhetoric that’s so prevalent,” she says. “I have to say, it was one of the best areas to grow up with my narrative.”
In Clarkston, Ayan was never asked where she’s from. And in the Somali culture, which values lineage and family lines, the question that’s typically asked is “Whom are you from?”
Finding herself in a new city, with a new culture and a slew of new questions, Ayan needed to figure out for the first time how to answer some of those difficult questions, how to articulate her identities. “I had to study and learn a lot about myself and my religion because I took so much for granted down in Georgia,” she explains.
She started by studying the Hadith, the record of sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and visiting the Sterns County Museum. She taught herself the history and the current demographics of her new city, becoming familiar with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant stereotypes that many St. Cloud residents perpetuate.
In St. Cloud, Ayan is surrounded by neighbors that may take stock in deeply racist, Islamophobic stereotypes. For example, she might encounter one individual who believes that Somali immigrants are innately less intelligent or more predisposed to violence than white Minnesotans. Another might assume that Muslims are settling in St. Cloud with the intention of promoting an extremist, anti-Christian Sharia law. Yet another may buy into the concept of “white replacement," a racist conspiracy theory predicated on the fear of deliberate extermination of white people around the world.
Soon, Ayan was prepared to defend herself and her experiences when presented with an accusatory question from a particularly bold resident. But she realized in her research that many of her neighbors who hold misconceptions about Muslims, Somalis or immigrants have never actually interacted with one. They simply have no other narrative.
So, Ayan offered up her own story, in her own words. “I felt like I had a record that I would not mind sharing with people if that's what they're looking for,” she says.
She started participating in interfaith groups. She joined campus clubs. She put herself out there.
In the spring of 2006, Ayan joined a small group of priests, nuns and Christian laypeople to form what would eventually become known as the St. Cloud Interfaith Dialogue Group. This group, which would expand to include a Jewish man and five other Muslims, was founded by the late Sister Toni Rausch, a Franciscan nun and a role model to Ayan, who lives by Sister Toni’s motto: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Alongside Sister Toni and her neighbors of diverse faiths, Ayan organized community gatherings, wrote letters to local editors and encouraged faith-based dialogue wherever she went. As her introduction to interfaith work, she says, “St. Cloud Interfaith Dialogue molded me." Her professional, personal and advocacy life was permanently transformed by this group and particularly by Sister Toni, who always led by example.
More recently, Ayan joined UniteCloud, a group that provides education and actionable solutions aimed at alleviating tension and restoring dignity to all people in Central Minnesota. As a member of the UniteCloud speaking team, she travels to nearby towns - many with populations well under 10,000 people - to lead trainings or workshops and to lend her voice.
But Ayan knows that, although ignorance plays a role in Islamophobia, at its core is fear. Certainly that was the case for the woman who wondered whether Ayan wanted to kill her.
“You can’t argue with fear. You can’t argue with a person’s feeling,” she says. “It’s a matter of getting to the heart of why people feel the way they feel.”
So Ayan reassured the woman gently, answering her question sincerely and honestly. By the end of the evening, that woman approached Ayan and offered a hug.
Ayan believes in “practicing and celebrating dialogue with our Muslim neighbors.” And she believes that this faith-based dialogue is the way to bring about permanent, sustainable social change in St. Cloud and beyond.
“The goal is to humanize those Muslim neighbors who look like me. To see the humanity of Muslims as professionals, as parents, as community members — as people.”
In sharing her story, openly and bravely, Ayan is transforming fear into harmony and community. With patience and persistence, she’s changing minds and hearts. She’s not only living out her values as a Muslim Shero — she’s also encouraging others to do the same.
As Lead Storyteller at Reviving Sisterhood, Sarah Gruidl writes for the Muslim Sheroes of Minnesota storytelling project, centering the lived experiences and the diverse accomplishments of female trailblazers and change-makers.
In collaboration with Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment (RISE), we've shared a range of stories about Muslim Sheroes in Minnesota - women who are making a difference in their community without waiting for permission. Get inspired by their stories.
Like Ayan Omar, Dr. Ayaz Virji is on a mission to bridge a divide in understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. After moving his family to Dawson, Minn., to practice rural medicine, Dr. Virji swiftly encountered a slew of harmful stereotypes residents expressed about his religion and his background. One Greater Minnesota reporter Kaomi Goetz travelled to Dawson to learn more about this efforts to combat Islamophobia.