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Muslim Workers Face Culture Clash In Minnesota

Many who maintain Muslim prayer times during the workday and wear modest clothing have been fired from manufacturers across the state.

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Fatuma Hassan and five of her Muslim co-workers lost their jobs at Mission Foods tortilla factory last month after they said that wearing a new uniform with pants violated their Islamic beliefs.

''For me, wearing pants is the same as being naked,'' said Hassan, 22. ''My culture, my religious beliefs, are more important than a uniform.''

Over nearly 20 years, thousands of Somali refugees have come to the Twin Cities to escape a violent civil war in their homeland. Yet they are not assimilating as fast as some other immigrant populations.

Many who maintain Muslim prayer times during the workday and wear modest clothing have been fired from manufacturers across the state. And Minnesota courts have seen an increase in religious discrimination complaints.

''For the average Minnesotan, this is entirely new,'' said Bruce Corrie, an economist at Concordia University who specializes in immigration research. ''The Somali community is highly assertive and politically engaged. ... It's part of who they are as a people.''

''We have a saying in Somalia that 'he who approaches the lion does not know what a lion is,''' said Abdi Sheikhosman, an Islamic law professor at the University of Minnesota. ''Many Somalis arrive here not knowing the history of racial divide in this country. They don't know the lion they are up against.''

Nationally, religious discrimination complaints have nearly doubled since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In Minnesota, Muslims filed 45 such cases with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2007, up from eight in 2004.

For Abdisalam Adam, director of the Dar Al-Hijrah Cultural Center in Minneapolis and an imam at an area mosque, the issue comes down to cultural differences.

''You would think this would have been more of an issue in 1993 or 1994,'' when Somalis started arriving in the Twin Cities in large numbers, he said. ''But now, Somalis and employers have gotten to know each other, and the situation is only getting worse.''

Many Somalis come from tribes that move with their herds in search for safe grazing land, Sheikhosman said. These nomads are independent and believe freedom means being left alone.

Sheikhosman said each time he returns to Somalia, he is struck by ''the general chaos of the place,'' he said. At a Somali airport counter, he said, the only way to be served is to yell and push through a crowd.

''Imagine that a person comes coming from that environment is suddenly subjected to all these regulations and rules'' in the workplace, he said. ''He may think these are an intrusion to the freedom that he had at home. He's not afraid to take a stand.''

Twenty-three percent of Somali workers in Minnesota are in manufacturing jobs, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. And many of the religious discrimination complaints revolve around the Islamic prayer schedule. Praying five times a day is required, but prayer times vary based on the times of sunrise and sunset.

In 2005, 16 workers at Celestica's circuit-board manufacturing plant in Arden Hills were fired or suspended for taking unauthorized breaks at sunset.

Faysal Haliye, 43, is a former Celestica employee who said he was heading to the company's prayer room one day when a manager ordered him to return to his post. He and 22 other workers have filed a class action lawsuit against Celestica. The religious discrimination lawsuit is pending.

The Mission Foods clash has also led to a lawsuit. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, filed a religious discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Mission Foods had implemented the new dress code for factory workers and said the traditional Muslim clothing was too loose-fitting and posed a safety hazard near machines.

Sheikhosman says Somalis are also different from other immigrants because many hope to return to their home after the civil war, so they see assimilation as less of a priority.

In 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated there were 24,430 Somalis in Minnesota, but immigrant groups say the population is higher because many Somalis don't respond to census surveys.

Mary Marsden, owner of the janitorial firm Marsden Building Maintenance, says her Somali workers are loyal.

''They are very loyal workers,'' Marsden said. ''We wouldn't employ them unless it made good business sense.''

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