What It Means to Be ‘One of Us’

Laurie S. Fulton (Ambassador to Denmark, 2009-2013)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Fulton’s October 3, 2013 special to The Huffington Post.


Since last week’s headlines about al-Shabaab’s attack at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, I have been troubled. The terrorist attack was a shocking expansion by al-Shabaab. I am troubled because it also is a reminder of the challenges of inclusion and the repercussions of terrorist recruitment when we fail to be inclusive.

From July 2009 to February 2013, I served as the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark. My grandfather was a Danish immigrant to America in 1910; my great-grandfather, a small farmer, was a member of the Danish parliament from 1918 to 1940. I grew up feeling a kinship with the fairytale land of castles and princesses (one now is Queen Margrethe II), and made my first visit to Denmark in 1970. Serving as President Obama’s Ambassador to Denmark provided a perfect opportunity to experience more fully a land of my heritage. It also provided a surprising opportunity to reflect on migration and the importance of inclusion.

While U.S. media last week reported unverified claims that dozens of Americans might be with al-Shabaab in Somalia, Danish media reported that 40 Danes may have traveled in past years to train with al-Shabaab. The reports are a stark reminder of issues of inclusion I observed in Denmark, a country which historically had been a homogenous, mono-cultural society until the 1990s, when the welfare society became a popular destination for people seeking asylum or refugee status. It continues to be a very organized and predictable society. Most Danes live by the same cultural norms and rules, with an almost innate sense of what it means to be Danish — most Danes, except the “immigrants and their descendants,” the term used by Statistics Denmark to describe those popularly referred to as first-, second- or third-generation immigrants. No one answered my naïve question of when can immigrants become Danes.

Denmark is among our most reliable partners across a broad range of issues, from sustainable economies and commercial relationships to NATO, international law enforcement and counter terrorism. I do not mean to suggest that Denmark alone faces challenges of dealing with immigration; we face the same challenges. Because Denmark is a good partner and often looks to the U.S. for best practices, I sought to identify American communities confronting similar issues.

This led me to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Boasting the largest population of Somalis outside Africa, Mayor Rybak, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the Ramsey County Sheriff, among others, created amazing public and private programs. Learning about the needs of the Somali communities and focusing efforts to help meet those needs, they encouraged new Somali-Minnesotans to become actively engaged in the Twin Cities. The late Hussein Samatar was a role model and activist for inclusion. A banker before he emigrated, he described himself as being among the last generation of Somalis to be educated in that country. He won elective office to the school board and founded the African Development Center (ADC), which serves clients by teaching financial fundamentals, such as opening a bank account and developing a household budget. ADC helps provide mortgages for homes and loans for small businesses. Vibrant new shops and businesses made possible by these programs add richness and economic growth to Twin City neighborhoods.

Minneapolis-St. Paul exemplifies the successes that result when newcomers feel included and can envision a bright future in their new homeland. As Ambassador, I sponsored and promoted opportunities for public officials, youth and entrepreneurs from cities in Denmark with large Somali populations to meet with their counterparts in Minneapolis. The dynamic of learning from each other has expanded the relationships between Danes and Minnesotans to include law enforcement, university officials, imams and other religious leaders, and young artists and activists.

I was touched when I read an interview in the New York Times on Sunday with youth leader Ahmed Hirsi that the Somali community in Minneapolis is “holding its breath” again, hoping that none of its residents had any role in the Kenya bombing. They fear that it will be confirmed that some Minnesotans were involved. They reflect on why al-Shabaab is able to recruit young members from their community and what they can do differently to prevent it.

These are proud new Minnesotans and loyal new Americans. The rest of us can help prevent radicalization by welcoming each new citizen to feel included as one of us. When you are not one of us, it may be too easy to become one of them.


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