Teaching English to Somali students is a high priority for the Barron school district, where the number of Somali students has more than doubled in the past five years. From left, Hamdi Mohamed, Layla Mohamed, Martin Ocon, Awalow Bundid and Kamal Hassan participate in a class exercise during a recent English as a second language math class at Riverview Middle School in Barron.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series profiling the Somali community in Barron. The first part, detailing the Somali community’s reaction to President Donald Trump’s travel ban, ran in the Feb. 5 edition of the Leader-Telegram.

BARRON — At first glance, Barron looks a lot like many other small towns dotting the Wisconsin countryside.

Farm fields run right up to the edge of town, shops line both sides of classic downtown streets and an agriculture-related industrial plant looms over the city center.

But a visitor doesn’t have to venture far into town — in fact only to the city limits — to see that something out of the ordinary is going on here.

The Barron Business District sign that greets visitors also advertises one of the city’s two Muslim mosques right alongside the local Lutheran, Methodist and Catholic churches. In the downtown area, the usual eateries offering burgers and Friday night fish fries share the street with a pair of Somali restaurants serving such East African delicacies as goat meat and sambusa, a pastry filled with spiced beef or fish.

Evidence is seemingly everywhere of the influx of refugees from war-torn Somalia who first arrived in Barron in the late 1990s in search of work at the city’s Jennie-O Turkey Store plant, the largest employer in Barron County. The immigration wave began slowly — 20 Somalis made up less than 1 percent of Barron’s population in 2000 — but has accelerated to the point that the city now is home to an estimated 800 Somalis, who account for nearly a quarter of all residents.

By most accounts, the city has handled this dramatic demographic change remarkably well, although the transition was rocky at times in the early days, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that prompted anti-Muslim sentiment to pop up around the United States.

“We had growing pains like anywhere that has an influx of cultural diversity, but things have gotten a lot better,” said Barron police Chief Byron Miller. “It was a big change, but overall I think things are going well.”

City administrator Bob Kazmierski said the large Somali community makes Barron stand out from its neighbors in west-central Wisconsin.

“We’re not homogeneous like many other communities in small-town America, and I think that makes Barron a special place,” Kazmierski said. “The challenge is trying to celebrate the diversity and build upon it as a strength.”

‘Crazy time’

No place was the impact of refugee arrivals more dramatic than in the schools, which suddenly had to provide educational services to children who didn’t speak English or understand the basics about American culture. Initially, the schools didn’t even have interpreters or an English as a second language program.

Existing students in Barron schools didn’t understand why they couldn’t wear hats but Somali girls could wear hijabs, or headscarves, as required by their faith.

“It was a crazy time to say the least,” said Kim Frandsen, who was the district’s first ESL teacher and now is director of a program with four teachers and 133 Somali students.

When 9/​11 hit, tensions ratcheted up, with a 2012 report from the Wisconsin Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights citing the desecration of a Somali flag and other altercations in Barron. In those uneasy days, some white Barron residents told Somalis to “go back to Africa” and openly questioned whether their new Muslim neighbors might have terrorist ties, Frandsen said.

“At that time, I believe the Somalis had three strikes against them: They were Muslim, they lacked language skills and they were black,” she said.

School staff focused on promoting cross-cultural acceptance among elementary students in hopes that it would filter through the higher grades, Frandsen said, “and it worked.”

Now interracial mixing is a common sight at all levels, Barron schools Superintendent Craig Broeren said, but especially in elementary school, where “most of the kids could care less” about the skin color or religious affiliation of their friends.

Frandsen said she believes white parents’ attitudes have softened too after seeing their children enjoy playing with Somali kids.

Former Barron schools Superintendent Monti Hallberg testified to the Civil Rights panel that he believed the biggest reasons for the chilly reception from some Barron residents were that they weren’t accustomed to cultural diversity and they didn’t understand why the Somalis had showed up in town, much less that they had arrived as refugees fleeing civil wars in their homeland.

But most of that intolerance has faded, thanks to the passage of time and a record of peaceful coexistence, according to community leaders and local Somalis.

Abdulqadir Noor, who arrived in Barron in 2011, described it as a welcoming community.

“We work and shop together and don’t have any problems,” Noor said.

Noor’s wife, Fadumo Jimale, who joined him in Barron three years later with the couple’s children, agreed, saying, “Since we have lived in Barron, we didn’t see any hate toward the Somalis.”

Safety concerns

The Barron Police Department hasn’t taken any complaints about the Somali community for quite some time and receives far fewer calls about domestic disturbances in Somali families than in other households, Miller said.

While he works with the FBI to monitor potential threats, Miller said he isn’t aware of any Barron Somalis who have ever had ties to domestic or international terrorism.

The police are always on the lookout for bad guys, regardless of race or religion, but Miller acknowledged that longtime Barron residents initially had a harder time adjusting to all of the changes.

“I don’t know if some people will ever be completely comfortable, just with the state of the world and things going on, but I just hope our community continues to be understanding,” he said.

Much of the credit for the good relations should go to the Somali residents themselves for the informal self-policing they do to keep potential troublemakers out of town, said Miller, who monitored race relations in Barron schools as part of his previous job as a school resource officer.

“They’re pretty good about being on top of those issues,” he said. “The ones living here want this to be a good place for their families to live too.”

Isaak Mohamed, a bilingual aide in the Barron school district and director of the Barron Somali Community Association, explained that local Somalis are aware that several Somalis in the Twin Cities have had problems with law enforcement, with a few even convicted of ties to international terrorist organizations.

Barron has had a handful of young Somali males show up in town seemingly intent on stirring up trouble, but the Barron Somali community hasn’t welcomed them, and they have left after a short time, Mohamed said.

“The Somalis we have in Barron are very peace-loving,” said Lynn Emmons, an ESL teacher in the Barron school district. “They love our country.”

Culturally, Somalis tend to like to stay together, which limits interaction with the wider community and also helps explain why 81 of 82 units in the Town Edge Apartments complex are occupied by Somalis. But Mohamed indicated Somali residents are slowly spreading out to more neighborhoods and even some surrounding communities.

One Somali family even recently bought a house in Barron, an uncommon occurrence because the Muslim faith frowns on its followers taking on debt, he said.

Turkey call

Jennie-O, which is the reason Barron calls itself the “turkey capital of Wisconsin,” initially attracted Somali workers because of its large number of available jobs that didn’t require advanced training or strong English skills. Workers said they appreciate the plant’s tradition of accommodating prayer breaks for its Muslim workers.

Nearly two decades later, Mohamed said, most Barron Somalis still work at the turkey processing facility, and a few have advanced to supervisory jobs.

Jennie-O officials declined an interview about their Somali workforce but released the following statement: “Our company respects all cultures and values and appreciates diversity in our workplace. People like to work where they are appreciated and respected, two core values important to our company. We believe in developing our workforce and have provided pathways for advancement to many within our organization.”

The company is so ingrained in local Somali life that even many Somali high school students work full time at the plant, racing to second-shift jobs right after school.

It can be tough for those students to get enough sleep and keep up with school work, Emmons said.

“I have students who can barely read and still want to work even though they need a lot of help at school,” she said. “When I ask them about it, they just say they need the money.”

Nearly all of the Somali families in Barron send money monthly to relatives who fled the violence in Somalia and now are stranded in refugee camps and awaiting resettlement to the United States or other countries.

Lessons learned

The language challenges were on display in a recent ESL math class in the district’s Riverview Middle School. The class included one Hispanic and 11 Somali students. The Somali girls all wore dresses and hijabs, while the boys generally donned jeans and T-shirts or sweatshirts.

Emmons, who comfortably rattled off Somali names such as Hamdi, Kamal and Rahma, patiently taught the children that any number times one equals itself, and they recited several examples. Later, they practiced saying numbers up to six digits out loud, with Emmons noting that familiarity with large numbers might help them when they grow up and pay rent or deal with a bank.

For the most part, the students seemed to grasp her English words, but bilingual aide Isaak Mohamed occasionally translated into Somali when he sensed kids didn’t understand something. Emmons later pointed out that it typically takes five to eight years for ESL students to gain academic language competence.

When Emmons instructed the students to put on their thinking caps for a particularly challenging problem, one of the girls joked that her hijab is her thinking cap, prompting giggles throughout the traditional American classroom lined with artwork, word lists and grammar reminders.

One of the girls, Khadijo Hussein, who had only been in Barron for six weeks and had no prior schooling, received one-on-one attention from Mohamed.

In some ways, even though the ESL program is well established, today’s new arrivals present a greater challenge than the original Somalis because now they often come straight from Africa, some without even the ability to write their name, Frandsen said. The first wave frequently arrived in Minnesota and learned at least a few basics about American culture before the secondary migration to Barron.

Language hurdle

The ultimate goal for the district’s high-impact English instruction approach to ESL is simple: “We want to give them a good education and help make them contributing members of society,” Broeren said.

It helps, he said, that the Somali population embraces education as the way to get ahead.

Still, the challenge never goes away because new Somalis keep moving to Barron, and the city’s adult Somali population still has many people who struggle with English.

As a testament to the language imbalance, 10-year-old Abdikafi Garad and his 15-year-old sister, Warda Garad, recently confided that they often read mail and translate documents for their parents, Noor and Jimale, who both work at Jennie-O. The family’s six school-age children are all fluent in English and Somali.

The language barrier remains the biggest obstacle preventing Somalis from more completely integrating into Barron society, even though most of them are working to overcome it, Mohamed said.

“The more they learn English, the more diversity understanding there will be in the entire community of Barron,” Mohamed said. “That helps people to get to know each other and communicate better.”

Not just for kicks

Despite all of the effort in the classroom, even the ESL teachers acknowledged that one of the district’s greatest success stories has taken place out on the playground, specifically on the soccer pitch. Emmons referred to the No. 1 international sport as a “unifying force” in the schools.

Even the Civil Rights panel pointed to the district’s 2002 decision to start a soccer team at Barron High School as an important turning point for the city, calling it “the watershed moment towards the Somali students and other students of Barron bridging the cultural divide that kept them apart.”

The sport has made teammates out of kids from different ethnic backgrounds and given white and Somali parents something to cheer about — together.

As a case in point, the Garad children said students of different races routinely play soccer together without a second thought.

“We wait until we have enough people, and then we just play,” Abdikafi said, grinning at the thought.

His oldest brothers, Abdullahi, 14, and Aliduh, 12, are part of a Barron Area Soccer club team and eventually hope to join the high school team that, buoyed in part by a strong Somali contingent, has made multiple state tournament appearances.

Diverse future

While evidence of the Somali migration to Barron is everywhere in the small town, some residents may not realize the impacts they can’t see — things that didn’t happen because of the population boost.

Like many rural school districts in the state, the Barron district struggled in the early 2000s with declining enrollment and the resulting loss in funding. No more.

“It was the Somali children and other immigrants’ families coming in that saved our schools,” Frandsen said. “We didn’t have to do those major cuts because we had new kids coming in.”

Though Broeren maintained the district still could use more funding to expand its ESL program, he acknowledged that Barron is doing better than many of its rural counterparts.

“We’re in a good spot financially, and we’re not laying off staff,” Broeren said.

Likewise, the availability of labor has helped Jennie-O and other companies prosper at a time when Barron deals with the rare situation of having more jobs than workers, said Kazmierski.

The unusually diverse population is what makes those things possible.

Kazmierski recalled recently having a group of second-graders take a tour of City Hall and noticing that almost half of them were minorities.

“That’s our future,” he said, “and we’re embracing it.”

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