Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In Faribault: How connecting & listening can trump ignorance & fear December 17, 2015

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A snippet of businesses along Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault.

A snippet of businesses along Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault.

I NEVER EXPECTED the conversation to turn away from college as I chatted with a young man Saturday afternoon on a downtown Faribault street corner. But it did. One minute we were talking about his future and life in southeastern Minnesota. And then he was asking me what I thought of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump.

But first, I’ll back up and explain how I even struck up a conversation with this 20-something. He noticed my long-lensed camera as he strode down the sidewalk toward me, hamming it up for the camera. I didn’t click the shutter button. Now I wish I had. Just to show you this millennial with the wide smile and warm, welcoming persona.

Mike Fuchs guided his horses along Central Avenue on Saturday afternoon for free rides in Santa's Wagon.

Mike Fuchs guides his horses along Central Avenue on Saturday afternoon for free rides in Santa’s Wagon.

I felt I owed him an explanation. So I pointed to the horse-drawn wagon traveling along Central Avenue, the reason I was there with my Canon DSLR. Together we admired the team of horses.

Then I noticed his University of Minnesota sweatshirt and I asked if he is a student. He was, for a semester. He’s lived in Faribault for awhile, found people mostly friendly, but the town too small.

Soon he’s moving to South Dakota’s capitol city with his dad. I inquired about his future; he’s interested in business. “Promise me,” I said, “that you’ll go back to college.” He nodded, then high-fived his youthful brown palm against my aging white hand. It’s one of those spontaneous moments in life that I will always remember. He appears to be the type of person who will accomplish his goals and I told him so. I genuinely meant that and he thanked me.

Then he brought up Donald Trump, expressing his deep concern over Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from coming into the U.S. I told him exactly what I think of this Presidential candidate and how I fear for our country if he is elected President. I should have listened more than I talked. But I sensed that it was important for this young man to know that I, for one, don’t support Trump’s proposal. I don’t want to start a heated political debate here because that’s not the point of this post.

Adding to the artsy aspect of Car Cruise Night, was this colorful attire worn by Faribault

I photographed these Somali women walking through downtown Faribault during a Car Cruise Night in July. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

The point is that I connected with this young man. I’ve heard way too many stories and reports in my community of locals afraid to come downtown Faribault, where many Somali families live. Complaints range from Somalis hangings out on street corners to a lack of respect, unpleasant odors and more. I didn’t feel afraid or uncomfortable. Not on this Saturday. Or any other day. I was treated with respect and always have been.

This teen represented Somalia at the International Festival Faribault

This teen represented Somalia at the August 2015 International Festival Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

How many people, I wondered, pause to speak one-on-one with our newest immigrants? Sometimes that’s all it takes to begin to break down barriers, to understand one another, to see someone as an individual rather than a person of a different color, faith or ethnicity.

These young Somali women represent the changing face of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

These young Somali women represent the changing face of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

Look into eyes. Listen to a voice. Hear hopes and dreams. Connect.


FYI: Click here for a must-see photo collection of Somalis living in Minneapolis. I found this link on Bob Collins’ NewsCut column at Minnesota Public Radio.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Pride and Prejudice March 19, 2015

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Different cultures, all the faces of today's Faribault, mingled during the Fall Festival.

Different cultures mingled during the 2011 Fall Festival in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

8:45 a.m. on Saturday:

A Somali man sweeps the sidewalk in the 300 block of Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault before shops open at 9 a.m.

Late Saturday afternoon:

A woman throws money at a Somali teen working as a check-out clerk at a downtown Faribault grocery store. Throws, not hands.

Why am I writing about these two events observed last Saturday in my southeastern Minnesota community of some 23,000 with a significant Somali population?

These young Somali women represent the changing face of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

These young Somali women represent the changing face of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I am sharing this because an undercurrent, OK it’s not even an undercurrent, of prejudice exists in Faribault. If your skin is any color other than white, you are open to possible disdain and contempt.

Vendors, like Riyaam, peddled their wares at the 2011 festival.

A Somali woman peddles her wares at the 2011 International Festival in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I’ve heard it all:

They are taking our jobs, taking government hand-outs, hanging around where they don’t belong. They smell. They dress weird. They don’t know how to drive.

Two weeks ago a young man left his car running, unattended, while tending to business in a residential area of southwest Faribault. Afterward he commented that he shouldn’t have done that because of “the Somalis.” He’s from Northfield, a neighboring town.


Banadir, a Somali restaurant, is located in historic downtown Faribault.

Banadir, a Somali restaurant, is located in historic downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

For awhile, complaints ran rampant about Somali men hanging out on Central Avenue street corners. People said they were afraid to go downtown. These men live downtown above businesses, some of which are Somali-owned. Sidewalks are their front porches, their place to gather and converse. This is part of their culture, to meet and talk.

I wish those who continually criticize our newest immigrants could have seen the Somali man sweeping a downtown sidewalk. His efforts show respect for and pride in community.

A 60-something white woman throwing money at a Somali teen simply doing her job shows lack of respect.

No matter our ethnicity/skin color, we really need to just respect each other as human beings.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Minnesota Faces: Friends February 27, 2015

Portrait 9: Nimo and Nasteho

Friends, Nimo, left, and Nasteho.

Friends, Nimo, left, and Nasteho.

“They assume I’m a terrorist.”

I’ll always remember that statement shared with me 2 ½ years ago by a then high school senior who asked me to photograph her and a friend at the International Festival Faribault.

Nasteho, a native of Kenya, posed with Nimo for this beautiful portrait of the pair. They were among students volunteering at the fest.

What Nasteho told me that August day in 2012 broke my heart. She’d been subjected to ongoing insults from a customer in her workplace, felt stares at the grocery store, been flipped the bird while driving. All because of the way she dressed, her skin color and her ethnicity.

“There is no respect for Somalis,” she concluded.

I couldn’t disagree with her. I’d heard the negative comments, too, about Faribault’s newest immigrants.

Despite the outright prejudice Nasteho had already endured at such a young age, she did not appear bitter or angry, only desiring of respect and understanding. She seemed wise beyond her years. Poised. Thoughtful. Well-spoken.

I recall thinking, if only those who hold disdain for Somalis could meet Nasteho. They would see her as the beautiful, young and spirited woman I photographed.

It is the personal connections that bridge differences. I believed that then. I still believe that now.


This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A threat that strikes incredibly close to home February 26, 2015

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IT’S A BIT LIKE THE ELEPHANT in the room. Do I write about it or not? To avoid the topic seems akin to closing my eyes and pretending I don’t see that which exists.

“It” would be the terrorist threat against the Mall of America.

I live 45 minutes from the mall, which the Somali terror group al-Shabab specifically names as a possible target for attack in a video released this past weekend.

Tucked away in the north land, most Minnesotans likely have felt secure here, far removed from such terrorist threats.

But I’ve always thought this mega shopping center in Bloomington could be a target for attack by terror groups or individual extremists.

Consider the name, Mall of America. “Mall” represents commerce and trade and, probably in the eyes of those who dislike Americans, consumer greed. And the “America” part of the mall’s name, well, that’s a bonus. Precisely the place these terrorists hate.

The Mall of America draws some 40 million visitors annually. With its 520 plus stores, 50 restaurants, LEGO play area, aquarium, theme park, movie theaters and more, the complex is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, according to the MOA website. Perfect target.

I’ve never been to the mall. I simply have no desire to visit. So, for me personally, I don’t need to consider whether I would feel safe going there now.

But for those planning a trip here, this threat certainly must weigh on minds, consciously or subconsciously. Northfield Middle School recently canceled an eighth grade band trip to the mall. The Orono Middle School likewise canceled a physics class visit.

How about you? If you had a daughter or granddaughter who is crazy about the American Girl doll, would you now take her to the MOA American Girl store?

Would you celebrate a child’s birthday at Nickelodeon Universe®?

Would you tour SEA LIFE® Minnesota Aquarium?

Would you see “American Sniper” in a mall theater?

A friend’s daughter works at MOA. You can bet both mom and daughter now carry a level of concern. Who wouldn’t?

The ever-changing/growing diversity of Faribault High School as seen in this post commencement gathering outside the school.

This photo shows the ever-growing diversity in my community as seen in this gathering after Faribault High School’s 2012 commencement. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And I have to wonder about Minnesota’s Somali population. Do they now feel like they are under scrutiny? My own community of Faribault has a significant Somali population. Even before this threat, tension has existed here between some long-time locals and these newest immigrants. I hope this current situation does not heighten tensions.

I have to trust that Minnesota Nice will prevail.

Al-Shabab has also successfully recruited young Somali men in Minnesota to join its cause. That’s already been a major cause for concern among officials and those in the state’s Somali population.

I have to believe that most Minnesotans will stand sensibly strong and watchful in the face of this latest threat.


© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Speaking up against prejudice in my Minnesota community April 28, 2014

AWHILE AGO, I DECIDED I would no longer remain silent.

And Saturday afternoon, while purchasing a Betsy Bowen print and greeting cards at the Northfield Senior Center thrift store, Used A Bit Shoppe, I spoke up.

While I waited for my framed print to be wrapped in newspaper, I chatted with the friendly woman behind the counter. We talked about the spinning glasstop table crafted from three monkey statues—“hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”—and the other unique recycled merchandise in this jam-packed shoppe.

I’d never been here, I told her, didn’t even know that this place existed, that I didn’t live in Northfield. The business had moved not all that long ago, she said, to this larger location.

About that time a hulk of a man wedged in beside me and interrupted, adding that he remembered the old store, that he used to live in Northfield and now lived in neighboring Faribault.

A Somali family waits to cross a street in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

A Somali family waits to cross a street in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

But he wanted to return to Northfield, he said, “because of all the Somalis in Faribault.” Disdain colored his words.

He’d just said the wrong thing to me.

I turned, looked him in the eye, and told him I did not appreciate his disrespect for Somali people.

That set him off. I can’t recall every word spoken, but I do remember the bit about his grandmother being a war bride and speaking seven languages. Not once did he explain why he so disliked Somalis. Not that an explanation would have mattered.

As his agitation grew, I began to feel threatened.

“Sir, I don’t want to argue with you,” I said, attempting to diffuse the situation. “I’m just sharing my opinion.”

“I don’t like you forcing your opinion on me,” he responded, ever-growing anger tinging his voice. “When they (Somalis) respect me, I will respect them.”

He finally walked away, edging toward a cluster of other shoppers, including my husband, who’d overheard bits of the mostly one-sided conversation.

I turned back to the elderly clerk, picked up the four dollars and some odd cents change she’d laid on the counter.

“Welcome to Northfield,” I said. “Oh, that’s right, he’s from Faribault. I feel sorry for people like him who cannot respect others.”

Then I exited this shoppe where a “speak no evil” monkey hunches with a hand clamped across his mouth.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Yearning for respect & equality, “no matter what color you are” August 26, 2012

I HAVE PHOTOGRAPHED them from a distance, their long skirts swaying as they walk across Central Park toward me.

Now the young women are standing before me and I am confused for a moment until Nasteho Farah tells me she wants to look her best and asks me to photograph them again.

Friends, Nimo Abdi, a sophomore at Faribault High School, left, and Nasteho Farah, a senior.

I agree as I already envision the portrait possibilities—the expressive brown eyes, the warm skin tone, the way Nimo Abdi leans toward her friend, her hijab brushing Nasteho’s cheek. They are beautiful young women and I take only one shot, knowing I’ve captured a memorable portrait.

I love this image of  a fest performer and her single audience member for the message it portrays– the one on one connection that helps us understand one another, no matter our culture or skin color.

These Faribault High School students are among those participating in the International Festival Faribault on Saturday, an event designed to connect cultures through music, arts and crafts, kids’ activities, international cuisine, education and, on a personal level, conversation.

That same little boy who was so intently focused on the musician performing in the band shell.

After I photograph the friends, we talk about their experiences living in Faribault. And what Nasteho shares with me so upsets me that I apologize to her for the utter disrespect shown to her and her friend, who stands silently listening.

The native of Kenya, a Faribault resident for five years and prior to that a resident of Rochester, Owatonna and Waseca, says she is criticized for the scarf she wears, for her culture, for her…

“They assume I’m a terrorist.”

Her words temporarily stun me and I can feel my jaw drop.

She doesn’t define “they” specifically, but says the insults, the prejudice, happens randomly—in school, in the streets, even at work.

A group of young Somali dancers perform on the band shell stage during the festival.

When I ask for examples, Nasteho mentions the middle-aged man who comes through the drive-through at McDonalds in Faribault where she works. He tells her she should stop wearing her head scarf. She’s talked to her manager about it and he’s been supportive. For now, she mostly tries to ignore the customer’s spiteful comments.

When she walks into other businesses, like the grocery store, she feels the stares. When driving, she’s been flipped off.

“There is no respect for Somalis,” Nasteho assesses.

Yet, she doesn’t seem visibly angry, choosing instead to speak up or to take the position that those who choose to attack her or her culture do not know her or understand her.

I admire Nasteho’s positive attitude. She tells me she didn’t experience prejudice living in Rochester—a larger and more diverse community—but that it’s been much harder in a smaller town like Faribault. She was too young to remember what life was like in Owatonna or Waseca.

Faribault High School seniors Shukri Aden, left, and Khadra Muhumed.

Faribault High School students Shukri Aden and Khadra Muhumed, who are volunteering with STOPS, Students Together Offering Peer Support, at the International Festival, have also been subjected to hurtful comments from those who tell them to go back to their own country or that they smell.

“I try to talk to them,” says Shukri, who has lived in Faribault for seven years, since she came to the U.S. at age 12.

She wants everyone “to be equal no matter what color you are…to get to know each other.”

Lul Abdi shows off beautiful wood crafts from Kenya and Somalia for sale at the fest.

And this FHS senior has dreams—of going to college to become a nurse and then returning to Somali to help those in need.

On this Saturday, at this International Festival, the words of these young Somali women evoke mixed emotions within me. I am saddened by those in my community who fail to see beyond the scarves, the culture, the skin color, the language.

Mother and daughter check out the artwork from Kenya and Somalia.

These women are not terrorists. They are someone’s daughters. They are high school students. They live here, work here, shop here, worship here.

Despite the clear prejudice which angers me, I feel hope. These young women possess a maturity and poise beyond their teenage years. They yearn for understanding, for respect, for the personal connections that define them as individuals.

And on this Saturday afternoon they are trying, through their volunteerism at the International Festival Faribault, to, as Nasteho says, “bring everybody together.”

A mother’s love and care, the same in any language, any culture, any skin color.

CHECK BACK FOR A FUTURE post with photos from the seventh annual International Festival Faribault. Thank you to the organizers and participants in this festival who are trying to connect cultures, to make Faribault a better place to live, no matter your culture, skin color or country of origin.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling