Somalis in Wisconsin

By Joshua R. Brown, University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire

As a result of the devastating Somali Civil War, approximately two million Somalis sought refuge in neighboring African nations and abroad. The massive death toll to Somalis—with some estimates as high as 500,000 (White 2012)—came about due to violence and also blockades of refugee camps. The war became an international issue in 1992 when twenty four nations deployed military troops with the purpose of subduing violence and aiding food supplies (Yusuf 2012). Eventually, the United States withdrew its troops from Somalia following the Battle of Mogadishu, and then opened up its borders to asylum seekers. Between 2008 and 2019, Somali is the third most spoken language of refugees admitted to the United States with nearly 57,000 individuals (Refugee Processing Center 2019).

The majority of Somalis have settled in Minnesota; in fact Somalia’s fourth Prime Minister Abdirizak Haji Hussein lived there for the last fifteen years of his life. Urban pressures like increasing crime, decreasing job opportunities, and overcrowding forced some Somalis living in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) metropolitan area to move to Wisconsin. Since the 1990s, Barron — the county seat of Barron County — in northwestern Wisconsin has a total population of 3,000 with approximately 400 Somali residents. Local initiatives such as a larger ESL program, a soccer club, and cultural information nights have provided increased awareness and welcome to Somali refugees.

As part of a longitudinal critical ethnography in the community, researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire have been collecting oral history narratives from Somalis in Barron (Brown forthcoming, Brown & Carpenter 2017). Language attitudes in the community vary, perhaps due to the transitional and uncertain status of refugees in the United States. Some of Barron’s Somalis maintain Somali alongside English as they hope to return in the near future. Others prefer English and remark on the differences between their Somali and that of their parents.


Somali-owned business on LaSalle Street in Barron, Wisconsin.
Trilingual (English, Spanish, Somali) sign on entrance door to Barron High School.


Brown, Joshua R. Forthcoming (2019). Somali refugees and their urban and non-urban linguistic landscapes. Critical Multilingualism Studies.

Brown, Joshua R., & Benjamin Carpenter. 2018. Heritage Somali and identity in Barron, Wisconsin. Journal of Language Contact 11 (2): 348-371.

Refugee Processing Center. 2019. Top 10 languages spoken by arrived refugees, Retrieved June 24, 2019.

White, Nathan. 2012. Necrometrics: Twentieth century atlas—death tolls and casualty statistics for wars, dictatorships and genocides. Retrieved January 31, 2019.

Yusuf, Ahmed Ismail. 2012. Somalis in Minnesota, The People of Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press.