FARGO - The week after the video of a woman calling for the death of all Muslims in a parking lot here went viral, a leader in the Somali-American community told city commissioners they are partly to blame.
"The state and the city asking for how much it costs to have refugees in the community, while a sensible question from the financial standpoint, it has negatively impacted our image in the community," Hukun Abdullahi said at the City Commission's Monday, July 31, meeting. "And it also has increased the number of hostile incidents against the refugees."
The head of the Afro American Development Association, he said his agency helps Fargo-Moorhead refugees integrate into the community but many feel the community doesn't want to give them a chance and won't recognize their contributions.
The cost question he referred to was one first raised by Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, who has said he believes resettling refugees here has been a great burden on taxpayers and he accused the resettlement agency, Lutheran Social Services, of fraud. The commission agreed to study the issue but Piepkorn dismissed all three reports from city staff and the Human Relations Commission that either suggested the costs were not great or was inconclusive.
State lawmakers, who initially tried to give local and state governments the ability to block refugee resettlement, faced enough opposition that the Legislature eventually settled on funding a study on refugee resettlement costs.
On Monday, Piepkorn was silent as Abdullahi and HRC members decried the hostile atmosphere against refugees. HRC members suggested laws to specifically punish hate crimes may be necessary.
Asked if he could comment, Piepkorn said, "Nope, I'm not a fan of The Forum" and walked away.
'Tip of the iceberg'
The now infamous video was recorded July 25 by three Muslim women who had parked too close to Amber Hensley, a Mapleton woman, at the Walmart on Fargo's 13th Avenue South. "We're going to kill all of ya," Hensley told them during a confrontation. "We're going to kill every single one of you (expletive) Muslims."
The incident has since had a happy ending with Police Chief David Todd bringing two of the victims together with Hensley, and they made up.
But Abdullahi said the incident is only the "tip of the iceberg." "Many other similar incidents, racially motivated and otherwise, do go unreported," he said.
Mayor Tim Mahoney congratulated the chief on his work but suggested that more could be done. "Fear is really hard to get rid of and the community is fearful."
Barry Nelson, an HRC member, said he has heard from many refugees about harassment, violence and intimidation. "The thing that pained me the most was sitting with a group of individuals this morning who talked about part of the reason they don't want to even have the members of their community report is because they're afraid."
After Shuib Ali, a Somali-American man, was beaten while moving into an apartment by two men yelling racial slurs on July 2 Nelson said he tried to help but realized he was in over his head. One of the assailants pleaded guilty to simple assault the next day, paid a $250 fine and was released from jail. However, Ali only learned of it a week later, Nelson said. The victim was fearful of retribution because the assailant knew where he lived, Nelson said.
There was no restraining order and no restitution for Ali, Nelson said, noting the shortcomings of existing laws.
He and HRC Chairwoman Rachel Hoffman said the group will be studying a hate-crime law that it may recommend to the City Commission.
Hoffman told The Forum it's a difficult situation because the state, which has jurisdiction in felony cases, doesn't have such a law. The best the city can hope for is misdemeanors, she said, though that could still carry a 10-day jail sentence. She said further study is needed to see if a law is even possible.
Mahoney and Commissioner John Strand encouraged the HRC to continue its work.
"I'm a firm believer that problems create opportunity," Strand said. "These are moments to define ourselves going forward."