As Minnesota immigrants watched the killing of George Floyd and unrest that followed, an unsettling reminder of traumas suffered back home

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‘This is Honduras in Minneapolis,’ thought one, as she watched South Minneapolis burn

Mama Safia’s Kitchen is among the local businesses impacted by fire in the George Floyd Protests in Minneapolis, MN in June, 2020. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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When Saida Abdi recently visited the Somali restaurant Mama Safia’s Kitchen in Minneapolis, she saw people lining up for food. Only this time, the restaurant had been burned down and the food was free for those affected by the protests against the killing of George Floyd.

“It is a war zone,” said Saida Abdi, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Minnesota,. “My aunt was with me and she said, ‘It’s like we’re back to Utanga,’”a refugee camp in Kenya for those fleeing Somalia’s civil war.

For South Minneapolis’ Somali and Latino immigrants, protests against the police killing of George Floyd erupted in their backyards. Witnessing violence, militancy and unrest is provoking trauma in immigrants, many of whom endured similar incidents prior to coming to the United States, according to Saida Abdi, who specializes in refugee trauma and resiliency.

Safia Muniye, the owner of the restaurant, left Somalia during the civil war with her children in the 1990s. After retiring from an outreach position with the Somali Women in Minneapolis, Safia put all of her savings in 2018 into her dream — Mama Safia’s Kitchen.

“We made it, it worked,” Safia said of migrating from Somalia. “I felt like I was almost at that American Dream.”

Safia refused to compare the violence of today’s protests to the trauma she suffered in Somalia. But since Safia visited her burned-out restaurant, she constantly paces, has trouble sleeping and hasn’t been cooking much, according to her daughter, Saida Hassan.

The walls of Mama Safia’s Kitchen are now boarded up for protection against riots. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

When Saida Hassan first took her mother to evaluate the damage to Mama Safia’s Kitchen, she said it looked like ground zero. Safia mustered the strength to enter the restaurant, but Saida Hassan had to drag her into the kitchen.

“I felt bad, but that was the first moment in my entire life growing up with my mom to see her tear up a little bit,” Saida Hassan said. “But she pulled herself back together.”

Saida Abdi said it’s difficult to measure trauma right now, but she predicts a great setback in recovery for people who fled war. In a war zone, people tend to be hypervigilant, she said.

“You’re worrying, you’re feeling anxiety. All those things are very normal, because they all go back to our survival instincts,” Saida Abdi said.

Once a person who has suffered such anxiety comes to a seemingly safe place like Minneapolis, Saida Abdi said, instilling a sense of safety and security is essential to recovery. Reminders of loss can trigger a traumatic response.

“Now, it’s no longer the reminder — it’s the reality of loss,” Saida Abdi said of those who have lost jobs, businesses, even the ability to shop for food.

The police killing of Floyd, for example, is a reminder of a loss of life and safety. Despite losing their business, Safia and Saida Hassan want to see justice in the case. Saida Hassan has participated in a number of protests.

“We watched that video over and over and over again, and I remember [my mother] pacing around the house,” Saida Hassan said after they watched the video of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck.

A sign posted on the boarded up walls of Mama Safia’s Kitchen displays support to owner Safia Muniye. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Jill Davidson, a social worker at the Center for Victims of Torture, said some of her immigrant clients have experienced asphyxiation. Watching the video of George Floyd can trigger a strong reaction in them.

Many of Davidson’s clients were also activists who were tortured by police in their home countries.

“Many of them find it difficult to trust police,” Davidson said. “Having this confirmation that even here, police may not be trustworthy or safe authority figures is going to set back their recovery in a huge way.”

When a person experiences a traumatic event, their nervous system is primed to respond in a similar way the next time they’re reminded of it, according to Davidson. The sound of a helicopter for example, could lead a person who has lived in a war zone to feel anxious or have trouble sleeping.

Davidson said victims of torture by police can learn coping skills, but that it’s essential police be trained in communicating with people who are having a trauma response. One of the biggest physiological responses to trauma is dissociating.

“If an officer is trying to give directions to a person, and the person is in a trauma response, the person is not able to actually process the words that are being spoken, especially if the intensity increases,” Davidson said.

Once their trauma response takes over, a person won’t actually hear the officer giving directions, let alone follow it, Davidson added.

Alejandra A. and her three children migrated to Minneapolis from Honduras two years ago. Alejandra spoke on condition she only be identified by her middle name because she is undocumented and is seeking asylum.

Alejandra had trouble relaying why she left Honduras. Just remembering the violence she escaped made her want to cry. She attends therapy once every two weeks to treat her depression and anxiety.

She lives five minutes from the protests and saw buildings burning at night. Between Alejandra and her three kids ages 17, 9 and 7, they took turns staying up at night to keep watch.

“Seeing this, I thought ‘this is Honduras in Minneapolis,’” Alejandra said in Spanish.

Despite her heightened sense of anxiety, Alejandra still empathizes with the death of George Floyd.

“It never should have happened. They never should have killed a young man, and it’s just not right,” Alejandra said.

AJ Awed, a Minneapolis city council candidate for Ward 6, which covers the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, has organized community patrols and clean-up crews. About 15-20 youth have been patrolling the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Their mothers are worried about them, AJ said, but the fear subsided when they realized how essential youth are to the movement.

“Mothers came down, they made some tea, they brought in some snacks,” he said. “They started participating and had a sense of security.”

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-MN, has also seen Somali families out protesting with their children, including parents who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If there’s a community that understands what a war zone looks like and can survive it — this is one community that has that level of resiliency,” Jaylani said.

While Saida Abdi is concerned about the mental health effects of recent events, she’s hopeful that Somali immigrants will draw strength from the resilience they learned before coming to the United States.

“The only way, for example, that those communities survived is reliance on each other, supporting each other, feeding each other,” Saida Abdi said. “None of us could have survived the war without that communal sense of responsibility.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.