Protests reveal generational divide in immigrant communities

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Matilda Kromah, center, braids a clients hair at her salon, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Brooklyn Center, Minn. The salon was looted after a white police officer fatally shot a Black man this month, and Kromah faced a resurgence of the trauma from the civil war in Liberia she fled over 20 years ago. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. – When protests began in a Minneapolis suburb after a white police officer fatally shot a Black man, 21-year-old Fatumata Kromah took to the street, pushing for change she says is essential to her Liberian immigrant community.

Meanwhile, 40-year-old Matilda Kromah feared stepping outside her home as trauma associated with the Liberian civil war suddenly rushed back into her life, two decades after she escaped the conflict.

The two women, whose shared last name is common among Liberians, have seen their lives changed amid the unrest that has sometimes engulfed Minneapolis in the months since George Floyd's death. Their behavior also reflects a generational split: While Fatumata has been drawn into the protests, Matilda has tried to avoid them, focusing instead on running a dress shop and hair-braiding salon that is essential to sending her children to college.

The same divide has played out across the Twin Cities' burgeoning Somali, Ethiopian, Liberian and Kenyan communities. Young people have thrust themselves into movements for racial justice, often embracing the identity of being Black in America. Older generations have been more likely to concentrate on carving out new lives rather than protesting racial issues in their adopted homeland.

When Fatumata visited Matilda's shop this past week in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, the topic was unavoidable. Matilda's strip-mall storefront — Humu Boutique and Neat Braids — was vandalized in the aftermath of the April 11 death of Black motorist Daunte Wright. Thieves smashed windows and doors and took nearly everything of value, even stripping mannequins of their African dresses.

Tears formed in the elder woman's eyes, and her hands shook as she spoke. Memories of the atrocities she had fled during the Liberian civil war had returned.

“Maybe war is starting again,” Matilda said of the demonstrations. “I was traumatized. For three days, I didn't want to go out of my house. I was hiding in my room.”

But she needed to figure out a way to pay for her son's college tuition, so she posted an “open” sign on the plywood covering the shop's broken windows and began accepting customers. She did not have insurance to cover the losses, she said.