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Students encouraged to be curious about their diverse neighbors during tour of downtown Willmar

Confirmation students from Calvary Lutheran Church in Willmar recently spent time learning a little bit about their neighbors during a tour of Somali- and Latino-owned businesses in downtown Willmar.

Amin Grocery owner Abdiweli Yusuf speaks to students from Svea Lutheran Church and Calvary Lutheran Church in his new store that is currently under construction during a tour of downtown Willmar on May 4, 2022.
Amin Grocery owner Abdiweli Yusuf speaks to students from Svea Lutheran Church and Calvary Lutheran Church in his new store — which is currently under construction — during a tour of downtown Willmar on May 4, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR, Minnesota — Confirmation students at Calvary Lutheran Church in Willmar recently had the opportunity to get to know their diverse neighbors, taking a tour of different stores in downtown Willmar, eating ethnic foods, and hearing about the life of a Somali refugee who settled in Willmar with his family.

“I think it was good to get away from what you are used to to try something new and learn things that you didn’t learn before about downtown, because I live here and I didn’t know half the things,” said seventh-grader Brooklyn Mathews.

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Students from Svea Lutheran Church and Calvary Lutehran Church make their way through the downtown district of Willmar on May 4, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The theme for the events was “Being Curious about Our Neighbors,” according to Pastor David Severtson. “We hope these evenings will give us opportunities to develop new relationships we can continue to develop,” Severtson said.

The first evening took place May 4 when Willard Huyck, Willmar’s Main Street Coordinator, led the group on a tour of several Somali and Latino businesses downtown, including Abdiweli Yusuf’s Amin grocery store.

“The hope of my community is that we learn about what’s going on downtown, the new businesses — happy to learn about it and try new stuff,” Yusuf said. “That shows me that our community is coming together and we are building a bridge together for the community. The young generation wants to know more about the new entrepreneurs, the immigrants, that are happening with downtown business, learning the business, learning the cultures. It’s interesting that they want to do it. I’m happy that I wanted to be part of this.”

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Willmar Main Street Executive Director Willard Huyck speaks to students at Svea Lutheran Church and Calvary Lutheran Church while giving a tour of downtown Willmar businesses on May 4, 2022.
Willmar Main Street Executive Director Willard Huyck speaks to students at Svea Lutheran Church and Calvary Lutheran Church while giving a tour of downtown Willmar businesses on May 4, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The students had an opportunity to eat Somali/East African food while at the new building for Yusuf’s Amin grocery store, as well as interact with other business owners on the tour.

“I learned that Muslim food is actually really good, and learning more about Willmar’s history and going downtown — I haven't been down there very often, so that was fun,” said seventh-grader Hudson Sjoberg.

The following Wednesday, May 11, students ate a Mexican-themed meal at the church, followed by Yusuf telling them about his life, how he came to be in Willmar, and how he became a business owner.

The importance of learning about our neighbors

Yusuf wanted to participate in this event due to his belief in the importance of community building.

“Everyone is welcoming in this town, but one thing you can see is our community is not that much together,” he said.

He said he believes the best way to start building community between the different cultures in Willmar is to start with those who are young, helping them to understand that, despite the differences, there are also similarities. “I’m glad to help you guys. Whenever you have questions, feel free to ask me. I will answer the best that I can,” he told the students.

Students from the confirmation class affirmed that this was an experience that helped open their eyes and be more curious about their diverse neighbors.

Willie Gonzalez, a partial owner of Spurs Grill & Bar, speaks with students about following their dreams as they grow older during a tour of downtown businesses in Willmar on May 4, 2022.
Willie Gonzalez, a partial owner of Spurs Grill & Bar, speaks with students about following their dreams as they grow older during a tour of downtown businesses in Willmar on May 4, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

“I really got a good feeling that I know I can trust people down there, and they have wonderful things and wonderful shops,” said seventh-grader Levi Swanson. “It was a fun time.”

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Many commented that they had not ever really been downtown before, they liked the food, and they thought the people were nice. It also opened their eyes to what can be accomplished despite life’s hardships.

“It's very interesting to see how many things from different cultures are downtown, and not just American restaurants and stores,” said seventh-grader Lola Nelson.

Students listen to Amin Grocery owner Abdiweli Yusuf speak outside his business in downtown Willmar during a tour of the area on May 4, 2022.
Students listen to Amin Grocery owner Abdiweli Yusuf speak outside his business in downtown Willmar during a tour of the area on May 4, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Yusuf tells the students about his life

Yusuf was born in Somalia, and, when the war happened, his family lived in refugee camps in the Africa region for several years before coming to the U.S.

“Sometimes we get food, sometimes we don’t get food,” Yusuf said about living in the refugee camps. He is the oldest of three immediate siblings between his mother and father. He has five older siblings from his mother’s first husband, who died in the war. His father also has two more wives, and Yusuf has 22 siblings total.

His father and many of his siblings still live in Africa, and Yusuf and his family that live here in the United States help to support the entire family.

Yusuf told the students that his dad inspired his desire to own a business. “I always had a dream when I saw my dad working all the time. I used to help my dad when I was young. I didn’t have the opportunity to go to school because I had to survive myself to help my dad to have food on the table,” he said.

He remembers his father working as a butcher before getting a job at a bakery. When the bakery owner decided to move elsewhere, Yusuf’s father started his own bakery business. From the age of seven until he was 13, Yusuf worked at his father’s bakery.

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“I was just helping my dad, waking up at four in the morning baking those old breads,” he said, noting they made 5,000 to 10,000 loaves of bread every day.

Yusuf, his mother, and his immediate siblings came to the U.S. on June 8, 2006, first moving to Virginia for three months. They came to Minnesota after his grandmother told them to come, settling in Willmar.

He attended Willmar High School and was part of the first soccer team that made it to the state tournament. Many of his teammates were also Somali and practiced Islam. Part of the soccer season takes place during Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. He told the confirmation students that his non-Muslim teammates tried to fast in solidarity with the Muslim teammates, but they could not handle it.

After high school, Yusuf worked at Jennie-O Turkey Store for two years before he became a translator and transporter for Somali residents going to and from different appointments in the community. “That’s how I started being in the community a lot,” he said.

When he married his wife in 2013, according to his culture, he could not leave his house for seven days. He ended up losing all his translating and transporting clients, so he got a job at Roosevelt Elementary School. “I was lucky to get a job at that time,” Yusuf said. “I was broke. I didn’t have enough money to pay my first month’s rent.”

After working at the school for about two years, Yusuf started his own cosmetics business. Business was going well, but his mother and wife told him about a business for sale downtown, encouraging him to buy it.

“I survived the first three years,” Yusuf said, noting the business did well enough to pay rent and buy food. “That’s how I became a businessman,” he told the students.

He told the students to pursue their dreams. Although there may be hardships, keep getting up and trying again.

Related Topics: WILLMARMINNESOTA
Jennifer Kotila is a reporter for West Central Tribune of Willmar, Minnesota. She focuses on local government, specifically the City of Willmar, and business.

She can be reached via email at: jkotila@wctrib.com or phone at 320-214-4339.
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