The Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History researches the histories of migration and refugee resettlement in Minnesota, focusing on the Somali community and the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. She has created documentaries, presentations, web archives and exhibits, and has spoken at conventions all over the world.
Wilhide, who has been a public historian for over a decade, is dedicated to collaborating with the Somali community to document the oral histories of people of all ages. She believes that stories are a powerful way for people to share experiences and reflect on their own histories. The stories she gathers are part of Minnesota history, Somali history and global history, since the Twin Cities community is connected to Somali communities around the world, she said. She sees digital technology as extremely useful in engaging immigrant and refugee communities in sharing and documenting their stories, and is exploring innovative ways to use digital media to make these stories accessible to public audiences.
One of Wilhide's research projects is called “Minnesota 2.0”, a collaboration with the U's Immigration History Research Center. The digital archive project, which started in 2009, considers social media a platform for immigrant and refugee youth to make sense of their identities and connect to others with similar experiences. Wilhide worked with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff to document the discussions Somali, Hmong and Mexican youth were having on Facebook about topics such as ethnic identity, tradition and culture, education, struggles, religion, politics and adjusting to new places.
Out of the Minnesota 2.0 project emerged Sheeko, a web archive of Somali youth oral histories created in 2010 by Somali-American students at the University of Minnesota. (Sheeko means "story" in the Somali language). For one year, Wilhide and five students interviewed Somali youth ages 18-25 in the Twin Cities and London. They recorded the young people's thoughts on self-identity, migration, navigating two cultures, educational experiences, and hopes for the future.
Wilhide seeks to understand how the Twin Cities have become a central place of settlement for Somali immigrants. Both the strong social networks and sense of community within the group have played major roles in the community's success, she said. They learn about available housing, jobs and educational opportunities in Minnesota through family and friends.
Government policy and organizations that offer services to immigrants are also key factors behind the large Somali community in Minnesota. Wilhide notes that Minnesota shows "a willingness to understand new cultures and people."
Looking at past migration is important in understanding present immigrant and refugee communities, Wilhide says. She researches patterns of migration in Cedar-Riverside, an area historically attractive to immigrant groups, as well as groups of European immigrants who began settling on the Mississippi River's Bohemian Flats during the late 1800s to the early 1900s. The Bohemian Flats community "persevered through difficult circumstances to create a home for themselves," similar to how modern-day Somali immigrants have developed a sense of home in the Twin Cities, despite the struggles of leaving their homeland and adjusting to a new place, Wilhide said.
Wilhide's passion for immigration history and commitment to working with the Somali community began in 2000, when she worked as a youth staff member at the Brian Coyle community center in Cedar-Riverside. The Somali community in Minnesota was still growing at the time, with people seeking refuge from violence and political instability in Somalia, which was in the midst of a civil war. Struck by the "incredible stories" that the children told about survival and their journey to Minnesota, Wilhide was inspired to write her undergraduate thesis on the history of immigration and community-building in Cedar-Riverside.
A Twin Cities native, Wilhide came back to Minneapolis after graduating from the University of Wisconsin - Madison with a bachelor's in history. She worked for the Minnesota Historical Society for several years before deciding to pursue a graduate degree. She was drawn to the U because of its proximity to several Somali communities and to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, as well as her desire to work with two scholars in the Department of History, Donna Gabaccia and Kevin Murphy. She has valued learning from others in her classes and appreciates the interdisciplinary and collaborative environment fostered at the U.
After she graduates, Wilhide plans to continue working in public history and with immigrant and refugee communities, and is exploring job opportunities in academia and public institutions. This year, she will teach a public history May-term class at the U that focuses on the vibrant history of Cedar-Riverside and the Bohemian Flats.
-- Lyra Fontaine