Haji Yusuf can’t really remember the incredible play that saved the Minnesota Vikings’ season. For those that might have missed it, with 10 seconds left in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, the Minnesota Vikings had the ball on their own 39 yard line and were trailing the New Orleans Saints by a score of 24-23, but Yusuf couldn’t bear yet another crushing defeat.
A Somali-American who currently lives in St. Cloud and whose first job was as a security guard at the previous Vikings stadium, Yusuf has been a Vikings fan practically since he arrived in Minnesota in 1999. But with the clock ticking down, unable to shake the memories of recent gut-wrenching playoff losses, he abandoned his perch on the couch.
Pacing back and forth in his kitchen, he kept one eye on the television hoping against hope that somehow, some way, they might be able to pull off a miracle.
Of course, an honest-to-goodness miracle was mere moments away. On third down, quarterback Case Keenum connected on a desperation 25-yard heave to wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Just as it appeared Diggs would skip out of bounds and maybe set up a potential game-winning long field goal, Saints cornerback Marcus Williams mysteriously whiffed, lunging just to the left of Diggs and landing on his face. The field opened up before him and Diggs was able to tiptoe past the lone and suddenly prone defender and scoot the final 35 yards for a 61-yard touchdown. Truly, it was a Minnesota Miracle.
For Yusuf, it’s all a bit of a blur. As the play was unfolding, he can remember seeing the ball leave Keenum’s fingertips and Diggs plucking it out of the air. The rest has vanished. “Honestly, I blacked out,” he said.
The world snapped back into focus once Diggs was standing in the back of the end zone, his arms triumphantly outstretched and the home crowd raining down near-apoplectic cheers. From his home, Yusuf joined in on the frenzy. Luckily, he maintained his wits enough to record his reaction:
Yusuf is part of a growing number of Somali-Americans in Minnesota who have, as he puts it, “completely [fallen] in love with American football.” To be sure, the Vikings’ stellar season and subsequent march to the NFC Championship Game played a part in attracting newfound fans, like Halima Aden, a 19-year-old Somali-American and Muslim fashion model who posted a photo of herself wearing a Vikings-emblazoned hijab:
But for the Somali-American Vikings fans who spoke with The Daily Beast, getting hooked on football has been more than joining in with the madding local crowd—it’s a way to access something ineffable and yet central to American culture at a time of heightened nativist fears and Islamophobia. At times, the games have proved a necessary diversion, in the best sense of the word.
“The potential for us Minnesotans, the potential for this country just to go beyond colors, go beyond religion, go beyond culture,” is how Yusuf described watching his team win, a moment he plans to cherish and share with his 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.
“As an American citizen, for me to see, you know, a play like that,” he said, his voice drifting off for a moment. “It spoke to something essential about the beauty of this country and its history, and what people who have come to this country have been able to contribute and make it successful.”
As of 2015, there were approximately 150,000 Somalis living in the United States, a dramatic increase since the 2010 census, which pegged the total at 85,700. Minnesota and specifically the Twin Cities, boasts the largest concentration, up to 70,000 by some estimates.
Somalis began arriving following the outbreak of the civil war in 1991, and many were relocated to Minnesota. The ongoing civil unrest, droughts, and famine meant a steady stream of immigration over the last 20 years, and an influx of refugees. According to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has been acting with greater impunity under the Trump administration, close to 9,000 refugees from Somalia arrived in 2015 alone.
Despite what the Somali-American community has brought to Minnesota, they were targeted by then-candidate Trump.
During a November 2016 rally in Minneapolis, he stoked racial and ethnic tensions, stumping for what he called “extreme vetting.” Without evidence, he claimed that in Minnesota, Somali-Americans were joining ISIS “large numbers,” and sweeping changes were needed because Minnesotans have “suffered enough,” an assertion that community leaders and politicians have strongly rejected.
In August of that same year, he announced that the Somali community in Minnesota was, “a rich pool of potential recruiting targets for Islamist terror groups.” After an investigation that began in 2014, nine Somalis were arrested and charged with providing material support to ISIS, though law enforcement was able to make arrests thanks to the efforts of the Somali-American community. Somalia has been included as one of the majority-Muslim countries listed on all of Trump’s proposed—and subsequently blocked—travel bans.
While in the process of being deported in December, 92 Somali refugees on an airplane leaving the country were brutalized by immigration agents, who “kicked, struck, choked and dragged” them, a recent lawsuit alleged, keeping them in shackles for two days. A total of 521 Somalis were deported in 2017, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Further, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the total number of anti-Muslim hate groups in the U.S. has tripled since since 2015, from a mere 34 to 101 in 2016. Per the FBI, the number of assaults and acts of intimidation suffered by Muslims also spiked in 2016.
One of those victims was Asma Jama, an Somali-American, activist, and Vikings fan who came to the U.S. in 2006. Back in October 2015, she was at an Applebee’s in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, eating dinner with her family. In a nearby booth, Jodie Burchard-Risch, a 43-year old white woman, noticed that she was wearing a hijab and speaking Swahili. Burchard-Risch grew enraged, telling Jama to “go home” and screaming, “When you’re in America you should speak English.”
When Jama calmly responded that she was more than capable of speaking English, but this is her home and she’ll use whichever language she desires, Burchard-Risch slammed her in the face with a beer mug. The resulting injuries, including a badly split lip, required 17 stitches.
Burchard-Risch was found guilty and received a six-month sentence. At the conclusion of the trial, Jama forgave her attacker.
“I just want you, at the end of all this, to understand that we are all the same,” she said. “I am an American citizen, and I fight for this country... just as much as you would.”
Since then, Jama has received support from friends and family, but also Burchard-Rich’s sister, who reached out to help Jama get over the lingering trauma of the incident. She told The Daily Beast that while her faith demanded an act of forgiveness, she wanted to provide a public example for all Americans.
“If we all stood up, just regular people like me, and we all show each other that regardless of what is being said at the level of how our president is talking, we’re so much better than that,” said Jama. “And I know we are, because after what happened to me I saw the love that I received.”
Football helps Jama to decompress, or “forget about your life and how serious it is,” as she said, over the past year that saw a spike in ICE raids and a 40 percent increase in immigration arrests in Minnesota. Still, like Yusuf, she couldn’t bear to watch the final play, leaving the room and covering her eyes. “I don’t want to see it. We’re done. We’re done!” she said at the time.
These days, Jama can’t get enough of watching the highlight online.
She’s been a sports fan ever since she was young. Jama started out rooting for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, but, over time, her affection gravitated to the Vikings. Now, she’ll host and attend meetups with groups of friends to watch the game, and keeps those that can’t make it in the loop via group chats. But when asked if football had helped her to understand America, or at least one particular facet of America, she rejected the premise of the question.
“Football, tailgating, all these things we do because we are Americans,” said Jama. “It’s not like we’re pretending to fit in or we’re trying to assimilate.
“I enjoy screaming,” she continued, whether it’s howling at the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles or rejoicing in Diggs’ catch. “I’m just like anybody else.”
Similarly, Muhktar Ibrahim, a Somali-American reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, caught both Vikings playoff games with some friends. He said that he was far from alone in this regard, as he’s seen an uptick in the number of Somali-American restaurants that have recently been transformed into purple-clad Vikings enclaves.
At the gatherings he attended, the conversation shifted back and forth between Somali and English, and the subject matter wasn’t much different, pinging back and forth from the game itself to pressing political concerns and idle gossip. In this setting, “[Somali-Americans] can be fully Minnesotan,” he said, while remaining true to their Somali identity.
“They can be fully American, but also they can be who they are. You can’t take that away from anybody,” he said.
“There are people who really enjoy the game, but stay true to their Somali identity and culture, and also try to be more authentic about it without losing specificity.”
That was very much the experience for the Irish, Italian, Jewish, and German immigrants who emigrated en masse at the turn of the 20th century. Instead of the NFL, they embraced baseball as both a means to understand their newfound home and to revel in the successes of Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Honus Wagner, and many more.
“That’s the beauty of being an American,” said Ibrahim. “You can be whoever you want to be, and that’s an amazing thing.”
Thrilling season or not, Jama does have one major complaint about her team—beyond hoping they hold on to soon-to-be free agents Keenum and their injured former starter, Teddy Bridgewater, that is. She wishes that the Vikings would speak out about the rising incidents of hate crime and white supremacist hate groups that have sprung up in Minnesota. For all the activist efforts by NFL players this past season, it’s a subject that the Vikings, let alone the league itself, have rarely broached.
“It’s time Minnesota had a conversation, and I think that’s what’s missing,” she said.
“If I could only talk to them, this is what I’d say: ‘To them, I’m a nobody. I’m just an immigrant girl who lives in Minnesota that is an American now, but the thing is, sometimes I feel if we talk to each other, they will understand.’”