More than two decades after the first refugees from Somalia arrived in Barron, immigrants from that war-torn country account for nearly a quarter of the city’s population.
While the Somalis gradually have integrated into the community, their involvement has not extended to city government — so far.
But that may be about to change, as two Somali candidates — Isaak Mohamed and Faisal Ahmed — are running for one open at-large seat on the six-member Barron City Council. Mohamed and Ahmed will join Barron native Paul Solie on the ballot in the Feb. 19 primary, when the field will be trimmed to two candidates for the April 2 spring election. The winner will serve a two-year term.
It is the first time a Somali has run for public office in Barron, city officials said, and Mohamed and Ahmed believe they are the first Somali political candidates in Wisconsin history.
“It’s time,” said Mohamed, president of the Barron Somali Community Association and Barron school district Somali liaison. “I want to be a voice for my community because the Somali community has been a part of Barron since 1997, but I also want to represent everyone who lives in Barron.”
Likewise, Ahmed, a production line supervisor at Jennie-O Turkey Store in Barron, believes the Somali candidates can demonstrate to other Somalis that they can play a larger role in the community.
“I wanted to show that we can do more than just live here, work here and mind our own business. We also can help with the management of the community,” Ahmed said.
Both Mohamed, 33, and Ahmed, 31, were born in Somalia, came to the United States as young men and since have obtained their U.S. citizenship. Mohamed arrived in Barron in 2013, while Ahmed has been in Barron all but one year since 2007.
The Somali candidacies represent a symbolic breakthrough for Barron’s Somali community, according to a pair of UW-Eau Claire historians.
“The biggest thing about these candidacies is, I hope, the most obvious. The Somalis have been becoming Americans, in law and in their actions,” said UW-Eau Claire history lecturer emeritus Oscar Chamberlain. “They are invested in their community, in the city of Barron and its surroundings.”
Beyond just being part of the workforce, many Barron Somali residents helped raise money for Jayme Closs, the 13-year-old girl who was abducted from her Barron home in October and missing for 88 days, and also assisted folks near Chetek who were hit by a tornado in 2017, said Chamberlain, a member of the Rice Lake Planning Commission who worked briefly with area Somali leaders about a decade ago.
“That two Somali-Americans are running for office is another step in that process,” he said.
After a Somali flag was desecrated and other disturbing incidents of racism were reported in the first decade or so after Somalis started settling in Barron, mostly attracted by plentiful jobs at Jennie-O, the bids for office suggest the Somalis finally feel like Barron is their home and are ready to claim their space, said history professor Selika Ducksworth-Lawton.
“I would say this is a great step forward for the community,” she said. “It shows that the people who wanted to welcome the Somalis are being effective and the people who wanted to stay insular haven’t been able to promote that to the rest of the community.”
The milestone is reminiscent of when Joe Bee Xiong won an Eau Claire City Council race in 1996 to become the first Hmong candidate elected to municipal office in the United States and also when the first German immigrants overcame discrimination by the Scandinavian majority in northwestern Wisconsin to run for office earlier in the 20th century, Ducksworth-Lawton said.
Win or lose, the Somali candidates should serve as an inspiration to other Somalis in Barron and prompt more interaction with the white majority, she said.
Kim Frandsen, director of the Barron school district’s English as a Second Language program that works with about 150 students, said she is excited to see the Somali candidates running for public office and believes their family connections and community understanding would enable them to effectively represent the whole city.
“I think our community has come a long way,” Frandsen said. “It is about time that they have a voice.”
Barron Police Chief Byron Miller Jr. also said he was pleased to see Somali residents showing they are ready to serve the community by running for office.
“I’m in support of their willingness to take that step,” Miller said. “That’s a big step to take, whether you’re a natural born citizen or an immigrant.”
Ironically, Solie, 63, also has ties to Africa, having worked for 1½ years in infrastructure development for a church mission to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in the early 1990s before being evacuated when civil war broke out.
That background has him somewhat torn about running against the two Somalis because he recognizes the potential benefits of having a Somali member of the City Council.
Standing in the way of such a milestone was never his intent, insisted Solie, who jumped in the race out of fear that nobody would run.
After moving back to Barron in 2013, Solie started occasionally going to City Council meetings and was disappointed to see that few members of the public attended and that some council elections were determined by write-in ballots.
When nobody had stepped forward a week before the latest filing deadline, he filled out the paperwork to run for office to avoid the “pathetic” situation of having no candidates. Solie was shocked to learn later that two other candidates had decided to seek the same seat. He acknowledged he would not have entered the race if someone else had filed before him.
Solie, who left Barron shortly after graduating from high school and spent 20 years working for the Grantsburg water and sewer department before retiring to a hobby farm in Barron, said he doesn’t plan to spend any money on his campaign or put up a single campaign sign, even in his own yard.
“I have to be perfectly honest with you. If I don’t win, life goes on and I will be just fine,” Solie said. “If I do win, I will enjoy it.”
“I won’t be mad either way. It really doesn’t matter.”
If he wins, Solie vowed that one of his first steps in office would be to reach out to the Somali community and learn more about their concerns. His primary mission, he said, would be to make Barron a better place while still being fiscally prudent with taxpayer money.
The Somali candidates both expressed a desire to take a more active role in the community.
Ahmed, a father of four children, said his family is the most important thing in his life.
“I want my children to see their father serve the community and be a role model for them,” said Ahmed, who expressed hope that his election also could encourage the entire Somali community to believe they can do whatever they want.
That is a difficult adjustment for many Somalis, who came from a culture where many people don’t trust the government or the police, Ahmed said, noting that their background has led almost all Somalis in Barron to close ranks and live in two or three adjacent apartment buildings.
While Ahmed said racist acts still happen in Barron and he personally has been told to “go back to Africa,” he called such interactions the exception rather than the rule.
“Mainly, Barron is a very good community, and no matter who wins we need to work together to do what’s best for Barron,” said Ahmed, who also has worked as an election observer and done some translation for community institutions.
To address another cultural difference — that Somali women don’t like to exercise in the presence of men — Ahmed said he hopes to get the Barron Area Community Center to offer fitness classes solely for women.
Mohamed has been extremely involved in the community. Beyond working with children in the schools, he has served as a translator for the Barron Police Department and several other local agencies, aided recent refugees through the Barron Somali Community Association, worked in human resources at Jennie-O, led workshops to teach Somali language and culture to teachers and staff in Barron schools and volunteered to organize and coach multiple youth sports teams and tournaments in the city. He earned a social work degree in Uganda before spending several years there providing humanitarian aid for agencies including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Now he believes he is ready to take the next step by serving in local government.
“I was originally a refugee and was helped by people in this country,” Mohamed said. “Now I want to give back by helping this community and the United States government in any way I can.”
With his background of working with children, Mohamed, a father of three, said his dream is to develop a youth sports center in Barron, where children of all colors could go and engage in healthy activities.
“The youth are the future of this country,” he said. “We want to produce young boys and girls that can help this community in the future.”
If elected, Mohamed said he hopes to serve as a bridge to connect the Somali community with the rest of its Barron neighbors.
“I want to end this blocking between the two communities,” he said. “I want this to be one single community. We need to come together.”
Both Mohamed and Ahmed talked about the need to address Barron’s shortage of affordable housing and emerging problems with drugs and vaping among the city’s youth.
At Barron City Hall, Mayor Ron Fladten is ecstatic about the abundance of candidates for the City Council seat being vacated by Tony Allen. It represents a stark change from some recent elections that have produced few or even no candidates.
“Not too long ago we had a council person elected by one write-in vote,” said Fladten, who personally asked eight people to consider running in hopes of generating a competitive election and more involvement in local government. “I beat the bushes and we just happened to get a bigger result than what I was actually aiming for.”
He maintained the primary, as well as attention given to the groundbreaking Somali candidacies, has heightened community interest in the election, which he believes can only be good for the city.
Fladten said all three of the candidates appear to be well qualified.
While he wants to be careful not to show favoritism, Fladten did go so far as to say electing a Somali candidate could help the rest of the community develop more of a dialogue with Somali residents.
“Either way,” he said, “it should be a win for the city and a positive for community relations.”