BARRON — 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.”
One after another they arrived in a downtown parking lot on a bitterly cold Tuesday night, seeking winter clothing, or food, or water, or advice, or solace, or maybe a mix of all of that.
A man with a gray-white beard speckled with frost approached a group of volunteers with Chippewa Valley Street Ministry and sought gloves and a bottle of water. He chatted with two volunteers, thanking them and describing the rigors of spending a frigid day in which the temperature failed to climb above 0 degrees on the street.
“It’s hard out here on days like this, that’s for sure,” the man said, then turned to cross South Barstow Street toward the Sojourner House homeless shelter where he hoped to spend the night.
A moment later Street Ministry pastor Mike Henry talked with a frail-looking man who seemed overwhelmed by surviving as a homeless person. The white puffs of breath escaping his mouth as he talked were testament to the temperature of 14 degrees below zero.
Henry talked with the man, asking him about his day and telling him the street ministry would be there again the following night, part of the group’s expanded hours during the week because of the relentless cold.They finished their conversation and the man ambled slowly and unsteadily toward Sojourner House.
“That poor guy has a brain tumor,” Henry said as the man continued across the street. “He seems so tired. I don’t know how he’s going to make it through the winter.”
Then Henry turned to help another man seeking assistance. The man grabbed a pastry and learned from Henry that street ministry volunteers would be at the same parking lot across the street from Sojourner House, 618 S. Barstow St., Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings.
“Thank you for what you do,” the man said, then crossed the street as a snow cloud buffeted by a strong wind enveloped him, then quickly swirled past.
On this arctic night on which the temperature would plummet to 30 degrees below zero and windchill readings reached minus 48, each step into a brisk breeze felt like a trying endeavor. The faces of many seeking assistance from the street ministry were painted red after too long spent in the frosty conditions. Others faces were a ghastly, pale color not much different from the snow around them.
One woman, who said she was 38 but appeared much older, bowed her stocking-capped head as she trudged along a sidewalk. When she reached ministry volunteers, she asked for gloves, food and water.
“Damn it’s cold out here,” she said as she munched on a pasty half frozen in the bitter air. “Living on the streets in this weather is tough.”
Standing in the cold among homeless residents and street ministry volunteers brought back a flood of memories.
Five years ago, during a historically cold winter in Eau Claire, former Leader-Telegram photojournalist Marisa Wojcik and I spent several months with members of Eau Claire’s homeless population. We went with them to Sojourner House. We spent time in a bus and other vehicles where some lived. We hung out with them at the Positive Avenues day shelter. We walked the streets with them, at all hours, in some of the coldest temperatures recorded in this city.
During that winter, bit by bit, person by person, we got to know some of this city’s people without homes of their own. As we spent time with them, they shared their stories with us.
They described how they had become homeless, how their lives had unraveled with a lost job or a major medical malady or a broken relationship or the death of a loved one. They told how addiction had gotten the best of them, how mental health problems had transformed once-promising lives into chaos, how their dreams seemed so far away. For some, those dreams seemed to have disappeared.
Homeless people shared good times too, how they helped one another, how they freely gave what little they had to each other, how they sometimes found joy among shared misery, how they gave up coveted beds at the shelter on the coldest night to others and headed out into the dark, uncertain of what was to come. Some still aspired to their dreams.
On this bitterly cold Tuesday night, a night that reminded me of so many similar frigid ones five winters ago, I decided to resurrect the past and return to Eau Claire’s streets to see how the city’s homeless residents were faring amid potentially deadly cold temperatures.
An elderly, bearded man strode slowly, deliberately toward the Chippewa Valley Street Ministry gathering. The vehicles assembled there rumbled, engines struggling hard against the surrounding cold, the exhaust forming in seemingly solid clouds in the arctic air.
The man’s eyes looked as tired as his slow gait. He hunched forward to offset the weight of his backpack. He asked a street ministry volunteer for water, then looked off in the distance. Then he told me he had spent the previous night outdoors, a night on which the overnight low had reached 24 degrees below zero.
“Well, I didn’t sleep much,” the man told me. “I walked around as much as I could. I was afraid if I fell asleep, I might not wake up.”
A short time later the street ministry volunteers packed up and headed home. Bundled in many layers, I headed north through downtown, my eyes peeled for others out on this bitter night.
The streets were mostly empty. An eerie silence surrounded me, broken briefly by the crunchy sound of boots on snow, then a man entering his car, the door closing and his engine chugging off into the distance.
I turned a corner and continued north, the wind searing my eyes and nose, the only part of my face not covered by a facemask. My eyelashes were frozen, coated in thin ice. The two pairs of gloves on each hand weren’t enough to ward off the cold, and my fingers stung.
As I continued my trek I thought back to five winters ago, to coming across homeless people wandering desolate downtown streets on late nights, trying their best to stave off the cold, to remain alive. I turned another corner and nearly walked into a large man similarly bundled in multiple layers lugging a large backpack and a plastic bag.
I asked him if he was homeless. He stopped and looked at me quizzically, as if he didn’t understand. He seemed disoriented, and the streetlights showed his face was bright pink. After a moment he shook his head affirmatively. I told him Sojourner House, just a few blocks away, likely had space for him. I asked him if he knew where it was and he mumbled “Yes.” I urged him to go there, and he shook his head again, then headed in that direction.
I walked for a bit again, then crossed the Grand Avenue Bridge. As I made my way over the Chippewa River the already piercing wind bit even harder, inducing an instant headache. The small bit of my exposed skin burned and I felt momentarily dizzy.
“How does anyone survive a night on the streets in these conditions?” I thought as I continued through the howling polar gale.
A homeless man who would only tell me his first name, Larry, knows all about surviving overnights outdoors in all kinds of conditions. He said he has been homeless in Eau Claire for years. His weathered face is evidence of the tough conditions he endures.
Wrapped in many blankets, Larry survived last week’s historic cold snap, making it despite overnight nighttime windchill readings that were as low as 54 below zero. When I spoke with him Wednesday, he discussed living outdoors in a matter-of-fact manner.
“I’ve survived cold nights before, and I’ll keep surviving them,” he said.
Steven Shipman survived too. The homeless man said he slept overnight Wednesday, when temperatures plummeted to 30 below, in layers of clothing and two sleeping bags in a garage in downtown Eau Claire. He said he hoped to land a space in Sojourner House the following night.
I recrossed the Chippewa River Tuesday night, this time under the bright glow of the lighted Phoenix Park Bridge amid the dark nighttime sky, and continued past the Pablo Center at the Confluence, the arts center lit blue and green. A short time earlier I had seen evidence of a camp along the river’s west bank but nobody was there.
I turned east and walked along the pedestrian/bike path hugging the Eau Claire River’s south side. Just before the path crossed the river footprints left the path and headed into a wooded area. I followed, knowing that site and a nearby cave along the river were places homeless people sometimes spend nights.
Moments later I spied a tent in an out-of-the way spot, but its inhabitant wasn’t there. Nobody was in the cave either, although the many footprints in the new-fallen snow were evidence that spot was being used.
Some of my fingers still burned while others had lost feeling. Despite being protected by three layers, my legs were nearly numb too. I had been out in this deep cold for nearly three hours, and I decided it was time to head home.
I made my way back through downtown, eager to reach warmth. As I turned my head I spied two homeless men, huddled in a doorway, trying to escape winter’s icy fingers. I directed them to Sojourner House. No, they said. They would be OK. I wondered how.
In some ways much has changed regarding homelessness in Eau Claire since this newspaper published a series of stories, photographs and videos titled “On the Streets” depicting the lives of homeless people. Those articles prompted strong reactions by many and served to help kick off a series of efforts to help that population.
In the wake of those stories, churches and others donated money to various homeless-related causes. Various groups formed to address challenges faced by homeless people. Polices were changed. A new program, Housing First, designed to provide housing for chronically homeless residents, was implemented in Eau Claire. Just as importantly, those stories served to shine a light on homelessness in Eau Claire, to make more people aware that some people in this city simply don’t have homes.
But my frosty walk reminded me that in other ways, despite the good efforts of many local agencies, much work remains to address homelessness in our community. Just like five years ago, the Sojourner House, operated by Catholic Charities, and other shelters overseen by Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley, Western Dairyland Community Action Agency and Hope Gospel Mission report being full much of the time, and waiting lists of people hoping to receive shelter and services are common.
Exact figures regarding how many people in Eau Claire are homeless are tough to come by, but the numbers are at least in the hundreds. In addition to full shelters, more than 300 Eau Claire school district children are homeless annually. Some people call cars, garages, the outdoors and other places home. Many others stay with whomever will take them in, often changing locations frequently and at a moment’s notice.
The issue could become even more challenging. A shortage of available housing in Eau Claire has driven up the cost of renting or owning a home significantly in recent years, making it harder for many to afford housing. People with past evictions or convictions face difficulties finding landlords willing to rent to them in such a tight market. Western Dairyland recently received federal funding to expand its Housing First program but can’t find enough willing landlords to provide housing to more homeless clients. Maples Mobile Home Park on Eau Claire’s north side is in danger of being shut down because of its ramshackle condition, and many of its residents likely would wind up homeless.
Many people across the Chippewa Valley do many good deeds to help homeless people, including donations of winter clothing, blankets, food and other items. Last week such efforts and a fundraiser organized by acting City Council President Andrew Werthmann that resulted in more than $36,000 for Chippewa Valley Street Ministry garnered news headlines.
Those acts and others show the caring spirits of many here. But a more comprehensive approach is necessary to make substantial strides to reduce Eau Claire’s homeless population. Local government officials are attempting to come up with money to work further with New York-based homeless consultant Erin Healy to devise a new plan to curb homelessness here.
Regardless of what strategy is attempted, it seems that more resources will be needed to seriously reduce homelessness. Where those assets come from, and whether Eau Claire will make people living on the streets a priority, remains to be seen.
The Eau Claire school board will disclose Monday whether schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck will remain in her position at the district, according to meeting materials.
Sources told the Leader-Telegram last week that Hardebeck, who was hired as superintendent in 2012, sought another contract extension but some board members balked at that request. Her current two-year agreement will expire June 30.
Board President Joe Luginbill confirmed the board’s decision will be announced Monday, but he declined to comment further.
The board typically meets once or twice every year to discuss and evaluate the superintendent’s job performance as part of an annual review. But since Nov. 19, the board has met in closed session on six occasions to discuss Hardebeck’s job performance and whether to renew her contract.
The board met for that purpose Tuesday and was scheduled to meet again Wednesday, but that meeting was later canceled. No further meetings were scheduled before Thursday, the date the board had previously said it had to make a decision by regarding Hardebeck’s contract.
This year doesn’t mark the first time the board has met on multiple occasions to discuss Hardebeck’s job performance. In a 2015 evaluation, the board criticized Hardebeck’s top-down management style and her unwillingness to share responsibilities, ordering her to work with a Madison-based job coach to improve her job performance. At that time, board members cited those issues as signals of Hardebeck’s lack of trust in them and district staff, which in turn hampered morale.
Hardebeck also was praised in 2015 for work in other areas, like efforts to boost academic rigor, her backing professional development opportunities for teachers and her promotion of Advanced Placement classes.
Since that evaluation, relations between the board and Hardebeck seemed to improve, and the superintendent drew praise for her help in garnering voter approval for the 2016 referendum as well as other district initiatives.
However, in recent months concerns regarding morale across the district, staff development opportunities and what some have called a lack of transparency have arisen during board meetings. As the board contemplated making cuts to staff retirement benefits, teachers and other staff members flocked to board meetings to express their frustration.
In other news
At its Monday meeting, the board will also hear more information about the potential of creating a virtual charter school.
The report will outline the research and advisory work that has been completed so far, as well as what next steps would need to be taken to make the school a reality.
Luginbill said the district loses students every year who are hoping to pursue the virtual school route. The school, Luginbill said, would be a way to retain those students and attract more through open enrollment.
“This possibility is very exciting for a school district of our size, not only because this provides not only an additional option for our students and families, but it would also help us at the school district maintain a balanced enrollment in schools,” Luginbill said. “The educational landscape is changing every single day and we have to make sure we’re providing education opportunities to meet that.”