In 2018, a queer woman named “K” traveled to Somalia to visit her father. Shortly after she arrived, she vanished. This week, we head to the city of Minneapolis with the Afroqueer team to hear the story of how K’s chosen family did everything they could to find her and bring her back to safety.
In 2018, a queer woman named “K” traveled to Somalia to visit her father. Shortly after she arrived, she vanished. This week, we head to the city of Minneapolis with the AfroQueer team to hear the story of how K’s chosen family did everything they could to find her and bring her back to safety.
Charlie: Welcome to Tales of Your City, an exploration of queer identity and community across America brought to you by Netflix. My name is Charlie Barnett and I’m the host of this weeks’ episode, Minneapolis.
Charlie: In partnership with Tales of the City, the new limited series now streaming on Netflix, we are working with independent queer storytellers each week to shine a light on the cities we inhabit, the ways we connect, and the moments in which we find space to be our true, authentic selves.
Nakessa: Because it’s one thing we all always hear about this. Like our communities or our families doing this rehabilitation to make people straight. But you never imagine that it would happen to someone you know.
Charlie: Queer people around the world know what it means to lose family because of who they are, blood relatives deciding their LGBTQ+ loved one is no longer welcome. In the face of this rejection, sometimes friends or even strangers step into the role of kin. Water thickens to blood, and LGBTQ+ people discover a different type of family, a chosen family.
Charlie: But what happens if your blood relatives not only don’t accept you for who you are, but also decide to try and fix you? In 2018, a woman from Minneapolis named K went missing. We traveled to Minneapolis to hear the story of her chosen family that did everything they could to find her. So get ready for K’s story.
Woman: Testing 1, 2, 3? Okay. So can you please introduce yourself?
K: My name is K. Namaste.
Woman: That’s K. That’s not her real name, but that’s what we’ll call her to protect her identity. K, who is 27, is tall and thin, tomboyish, sports a nose ring, and has a massive afro. She has a large, warm smile and is charismatic. And where are you from?
K: I’m from Somalia, living in Minneapolis.
Woman: And what brought your, what brought your family to the US?
K: The war in Somalia.
Woman: Cool. And how long have you lived in Minnesota?
K: Since I was five years old.
Woman: K is part of a generation of young Somalis that grew up outside of Somalia and have a foot in both worlds.
K: I think for me, growing up in Minneapolis or Minnesota in general, you learn how to navigate. Because you go home, you speak fluent Somali all day. You go meet [unintelligible 00:02:43]. Go to school. Like I get, I get those fries. It’s like you’re in between cultures regardless. So it’s really like you got to finesse all day, every day.
Woman: When the civil war broke out in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled the country. Many settled in Minneapolis, which now has the largest Somali population in the United States. The Somali community has thrived. The city is filled with hundreds of Somali-owned businesses: barbershops, daycare centers, shopping malls, and restaurants. It’s also a very close-knit community.
K: You tell one person something, all of a sudden and it’s like in south Minneapolis, north Minneapolis. Your secret’s out there.
Woman: K is the eldest of seven kids. She had to take care of her brothers and sisters because her mother worked long hours. She often felt like a parent to her younger siblings. And she grew up fast. At 18, she surprised everyone by announcing that she was getting married, something she swore she would never do.
K: I met when I was 16 actually. He was just a cool Somali guy. So I became that girl that I used to laugh at in high school who was a Somali girl who got married.
Woman: But inside of the marriage, her dreams were put on hold.
K: Before I met him, I felt like I knew who I was. I like used to have these catalogs of NYU. I’m like, yo, I’m about to go to this school. I’m about to be this person.
Woman: K realized the marriage wasn’t what she wanted. She didn’t recognize herself anymore. She decided to break up with her husband and was divorced by the time she was 22.
K: I had to restart. And I moved to New York to like re-find myself. And that’s when I was like you know what? Like I found out that I really was queer. I was able to liberate myself in ways that I could never do that being in Minnesota at that time. I met a woman. She was from the Bronx. And she was raw as fuck. And she was my first girlfriend. And that’s my first experience really, being with like, having like a actual woman, very sensual black woman. And I was, from then on I was like this is who I am. Like it feels so real, it feels so raw, it feels so comfortable. And I never looked back after that really.
Woman: K had put down roots in New York. She got a job working with kids. But her family was miles away. And growing up how she did, when they call for you, you come.
K: I’m the oldest, again, so I had to come back to Minnesota, help my mom raise the kids.
Woman: In K’s experience, there was a big difference between the freedom she felt in New York versus how she felt coming back to Minneapolis.
K: Coming back, I was still very not queer. Even though I wasn’t straight in New York, because there was not a lot of Somali people. So I was able to be all the queerness I wanted to be. Hold hands, kiss in public, all that. And come back to Minnesota, I had to like put that all back in, and then navigate as a straight woman.
Woman: But then she discovered a community of queer Africans in Minneapolis.
K: I actually started seeing a lot of queer Somalis out. And that was like astonishing to me. Because I was like, whoa, like this actually exists. And it made my heart melt because I felt like I wasn’t alone.
Woman: Minneapolis is home to a small community of LGBT Africans. They brunch, lunch, and party together. And they also look out for each other. And perhaps that’s why she let her guard down. K fell in love with a woman named Joe.
K: Growing up, emotion was not a thing. Hugs and kisses, I love you. You had to be a G. You cry, you cry in the bathroom. You don’t talk about emotions.
Woman: But inside of her new relationship, K found intimacy and K found herself.
K: So she taught me a lot about myself and being comfortable in my sexuality. And I found myself holding mys-, holding her, kissing her in public, and then forgetting that I’m in, I’m in Minnesota. Then, yo, shit. That taxi driver could’ve been my uncle. Like, you know, like just seeing people and not knowing they could be my family member. But then also being okay with it.
Woman: She was living at home with her family. She couldn’t come out to them, afraid of how they would react and because of how they could be seen in the Somali community.
K: So like my family in a way started catching up into the feelings that I have. I would have her at my house as my friend. But mom would see how I’m looking at her. “Like, yo, you looking at her like not like a friend. I see the eyes.” And I’d be like no, no, no. She’s my homie, she’s my friend. They’re like, “Yo, like we’re not born yesterday. I see how you look at her.”
Woman: In the spring of 2018, K’s father was deported from Minneapolis. This hit K hard. A few months later he called her. He wanted her to come visit him in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.
K: And so my dad was like, “Come and visit me.”
Woman: K hadn’t seen him in months. She was very close to him and saw this as a chance to spend time with him and her grandmother, who also lives in Somalia.
K: And I love him. So I went. I quit my job at the co-op to go visit my dad.
Woman: K got on a plane and journeyed from Minneapolis to Mogadishu. Her first few weeks in Somalia were picturesque. She posted photographs on Instagram of her standing along white, sandy beaches with the blue-green Indian Ocean behind her, wearing elegant tunics that flow with the breeze and a large smile. On a day that seemed no different from the rest, her father and grandmother took her for a drive to go buy her grandmother medication.
K: And they walked me into a building and a woman just grabbed my hand and pulled me between curtains. And my family was gone. So this woman tells me to take off like my jewelry, my nose piercing, brings me out a whole hijab and [abaya 00:08:27]. And I’m asking questions, but I’m also trying to keep my composure. And she’s like, “Oh, we’re going to, we’re, this is, this is for you to like, to give you Qur’an, to read a Qur’an on you.” And I’m like this not Qur’an thing that I’ve ever been through in my life. I don’t—This is kind of weird. And she’s like, “No, no, no, like—” And I’m like I just want to see my grandmother, I just want to see my dad. She’s like, “Oh, like you’re going to see them.” And I see all these beds lined up. An hour goes by. My backpack is, my backpack is brought in with a shampoo, toothbrush, deodorant, some [batis 00:09:02] for me to wear. And I have no phone. I have no one to call. My legs are chained. Like nothing. There’s nothing I could do.
Mustafa: So the Somali word for this is like [unintelligible 00:09:21], which is basically like the return to the culture. You know? Like someone that needs to be reintroduced, reintegrated into what their culture is.
Woman: Mustafa’s a community organizer in Minneapolis. He has lived there since he was a baby. Like many others, he and his family were forced to flee Somalia when war broke out.
Mustafa: You know, K’s parents probably thought that was the best thing for her to do. Like go into this rehabilitation facility. They call it rehabilitation, but it’s definitely not.
Woman: It’s a place where people are sent for an Islamic education geared towards getting rid of behavior that has been deemed culturally unacceptable. There are no experts, psychologists, or doctors. No mental health support, but a reliance on religious education to fix people. People have been sent to these facilities for offenses like getting caught smoking a joint or dating someone who is not Somali and, like K, for being queer.
Mustafa: I think it’s something that was developed as a result of like people thinking the best knowledge, right, is like back home, best like spiritual practices, and like to reintegrate yourself is, all of that is connected back to Somalia. And nowadays it’s just a, it’s an industry. You know? It’s like there’s multiple facilities people can go to. It’s just a business.
Woman: It’s also a lucrative business for the people who run the center. The families pay them a monthly fee.
K: Each girl cost 300 dollars a month. It’s not free. Each girl. There’s 40 girls. Each girl costs 300 dollars, whether you’re local or a diaspora.
Mustafa: And so you’ll see these places where all types of people who really need help are not getting the help that they need but are in chains, you know, being detained.
K: They put me in a room, bring me all these clothes to wear, take off all your clothes. They like make sure like I don’t have anything underneath.
Woman: K is in the room with three other women who have been brought into the center that day.
K: And I’m asking questions, but I’m also trying to be calm because I’ve seen another girl come after me and her have attitude, trying to swing. And she’s from like Denmark. Her mom did the same thing to her. She’s swinging. And they beat the fuck out of her. I’m panicking in the inside, but I’m like don’t act a fool because that’s how, like you about to get beat the fuck up.
Woman: She looked around the room. All the women now wearing hijabs, which are scarves to cover their heads, and abayas, which are long-sleeved, floor-length garments. She was starting to realize where she was and quickly learned to be quiet.
K: So they chained my legs together. And the fact that I was cooperating, they allowed me to have a good amount of space between my legs to have, to be able to walk. Some girls only have one, so they’re walking like this, like really close to each other. And the first day I got in there, I got beat up by like the teacher, the [unintelligible 00:12:21]. Because there was a girl from Canada who got beat up and I talked to one of the girls. I said, “Yo, like is this really happening?” And he heard me and he called my name and he started hitting me. And he said to me, “Did you come here with her? Is she your sister? Why do you care?” And he started hitting me. And like my hands, all of this was like bruised like green. Like all my hands. Literally every-, there’s not a day that we have not gotten hit. And like we get tied up. Like our, my eyes shut, my mouth. I’ll get beat from my legs to point that it would be swollen and I had to walk in, like by the sun where we hung up our clothes and my feet had blister on the bottom. Like, and we wake up every day at 2 in the morning and were unable to go to bed by 10 p.m. I was like why am I in here? And I knew it was because I was queer. It was a way of correcting me.
K: K says there were around 40 women at any given time at the facility. They came from everywhere: Canada, Australia, the US, Denmark, and from Somalia. Every now and again, relatives were allowed to visit.
K: My dad would call, be like, “Hey, I want to see my daughter.” Be like, “Oh, today we’re busy. Come next week.” Because she knows that my hands are swollen. She doesn’t want to see—So she wants my family to come when the swollen goes down on my hands.
Woman: It’s hard to know exactly what K’s parents knew about the methods that were used in the rehab center. She says they weren’t aware of how she was being treated.
K: And then when my dad comes, mom’s in Somalia, mom’s in America, by the way. So when they come visit me, they’re bringing me, you know, like fish or snacks, tamp-, pads. You know? New [batis 00:14:00], pillowcases. Because where I’m living right now. And I cannot tell them what’s happening because the door’s open. If I tell them something, I’m going back in here and I have to answer for that.
Woman: Her girlfriend Joe noticed she was missing. She could not reach her on the phone. Her social media had gone silent. Joe panicked. She sensed something was wrong. She began calling members of the African queer community in Minneapolis to get help. One of those people was Nakessa.
Nakessa: Because it’s one thing we all always hear about this. Like our communities or our families doing this rehabilitation to make people straight. But you never imagine that it would happen to someone you know.
Woman: Nakessa’s a queer community organizer living in Minneapolis. She had seen K and her girlfriend around at parties. She knew about these rehab centers and how badly queer people are treated inside of them.
Nakessa: And so when I got this call, this is what I was imagining. It’s beyond being enraged and saying how dare we do this. It’s can we get her out? And that’s what we set out to do.
Woman: She called her friend Mustafa, who we heard from earlier. They came up with a plan. Mustafa knew the State Department would get involved because K is an American citizen. He began leveraging his networks there. They got in contact with Keith Ellison’s office, who was a Minnesota Congressman at the time. And his office wrote to the US Embassy in Kenya about K’s disappearance. But they had to be careful with the language they used. They could not say she was being held at the rehab center because she was queer because that could put her in more danger. Nakessa got in contact with women’s rights organizations in Kenya, hoping they knew people working in Somalia and Mogadishu. And the final part of their plan was to engage the Somali community in Minneapolis in order to get support and have them put pressure on K’s family to bring her home.
Nakessa: And we also knew that many people in the Somali community in Minnesota would not approve of someone being held in a facility like this. And so we were hoping that we could use that to speak against it.
Woman: But it got complicated when the Somali elders they were reaching out to realized that K was queer.
Nakessa: What was happening is once this, our elders that we were talking to, once they talked to her family, her family would say, “Oh, she’s gay.” And then silence.
Woman: Meanwhile, the American Embassy alerted the FBI that an American citizen had been kidnapped in Somalia and was being held against her will. This put Nakessa and Mustafa in a difficult position. For years the relationship between the FBI and the Somali community in Minneapolis had been strained. Somali men had been arrested by the FBI as part of its antiterrorism efforts. And there was ongoing surveillance of the community. So working with the FBI was not an easy decision for them. But Nakessa and Mustafa felt that they had exhausted all other options. They started communicating with an FBI agent who was based in Kenya, a country that borders Somalia.
Nakessa: He was strangely very helpful and also very understanding of the cultural context. He understood that he had, her safety was first. He understood that he had to negotiate with her family. And he also promised not to file charges against them. So in all the interactions that he had, so he came and he sent an agent to see the family here in Minnesota to try and get them to release her. And then he did the same thing. He went to Mogadishu, was with her dad on the phone several times. The family in Mogadishu, I think the heat was beginning to raise for them. They were getting pressure to show that she was fine. They posted a picture on her social media or tagged her in a photo. And we couldn’t tell when this photograph was taken. Was it taken before or after? But we had asked for something, for a live video.
Woman: Soon they had a breakthrough. One of K’s younger siblings reached out to her friends in Minneapolis and shared the location of K’s father in Mogadishu. With this new information, the FBI asked the Somali police to question K’s dad.
K: They came to my dad’s house and he was sleeping. And they took him and said, “Where’s your daughter? Where’s she at?” And he brought them to me.
Woman: K was driven from the rehabilitation center to a police station. She was put in a room and a laptop was placed in front of her. She stared into the face of a US government official.
K: First of all, he shows me a picture of my passport. “Is this you?” I’m like, yeah, this is me. By the time, I’m wearing, I’m wearing a whole hijab and also just taking just me being free.
Woman: K hadn’t been outside of the rehabilitation center for three months. She wasn’t sure who this man was on the screen or if this was a trick. She was nervous.
K: And he’s like, “Have you been harmed?”
Woman: K’s immediate instinct was to protect her family.
K: Because I’m now thinking about my mom, my dad, my siblings. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize my parents. Even though I’m fucking angry. So he’s like, “Are you been hit?” I’m like, you know, like I’m not going to say I’m in the best place. But I’m safe, I’m good.
Woman: The FBI agent asks if she is being held against her will.
Mustafa: And K’s reaction was like, “I’m fine, I’m all right. I’m here on my own will.”
Woman: Did they believe her?
Mustafa: I don’t think he believed her.
Woman: The FBI agent offered to take her from her family, put her in a hotel, and get her out of Somalia.
K: I’m like, okay, like thank you but I’m good. As long as I don’t go back in that place, I’m good. The way that I came to Somalia, free willed, is the way I’m going to leave.
Woman: With added pressure and attention from the FBI and now the Somali police, K’s family decided to let her leave the rehabilitation center. K stayed with her family in Somalia for a few more weeks, trying to mend the trust that had been broken. She wanted them to redeem themselves, but some still thought they had done the right thing by trying to correct her sexuality. She was at an impasse. She couldn’t make the decision to leave her family in Somalia behind and return to Minneapolis. Joe was afraid she’d be put back into another center and urged her to come home. K then got a phone call from Nakessa.
Nakessa: So I got on the call and I said I’m going to buy you a ticket in three days. And we’ll, in three days you are leaving.
Woman: K was on a plane home within a week. K’s back in Minneapolis, still processing what happened to her. She fluctuates between a deep sense of relief but also disbelief at what she has been put through.
K: I think every day I wake up and I’m, I can’t believe I’m home. Just being outside right now sometimes and getting that air, it’s I can’t believe I’m here. Especially knowing there’s girls in, that you just left inside there that had been in there for four or five years.
Woman: K is navigating the world of her biological family and chosen family. She lives among queer community, but she hasn’t rejected her biological family despite the pain of the past.
K: We all have pain. Our parents have pain. Every day I’m trying to navigate life in the way that I can. And also acknowledging my pain. And that’s something I’m learning to do. You normalize it, but it’s not really normal. Like it’s like, shit, like I actually went through this. And, but then because your family makes it seem like it’s nothing. And I think that was the hardest thing for me was coming back. Mom, my mom was like, “Oh, I love you and this.” I’m like, yo, like do you not know like where you put me in? Like do you not know how much pain I was in? Like do you not know? But I’m still hugging you. I’m still telling you I love you.
Woman: K acknowledges the painful truth, which is that bonds meant to bind her to her biological family have brought an incredible amount of pain. And there is still no resolution to the pain she has been put through. But what strikes K as remarkable is the incredible way that queer family revealed itself to her through her ordeal. Strangers, acquaintances, and friends went out of their way to look out for her and take care of one of their own. And it’s that love that ultimately brought K home.
Charlie: All right, friends and family. Thanks for joining us this week on Tales of Your City. This show is produced by Netflix and Pineapple Street Media. Our music is by Hansdale Hsu. You can find us every Monday wherever you find your podcasts. This story was produced by the AfroQueer Podcast team: Selly Thiam, Aida Holly-Nambi, Maeve Frances, [unintelligible 00:23:34]. Music by [unintelligible], the Kenyan band Mya and the Big Sky and Tony the Drummer Queen. AfroQueer is a podcast focused on telling the stories of LGBTQ+ Africans. You can listen to more stories at www.afroqueerpodcast.com and find it wherever podcasts are available. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard, spread the joy. Tell a friend, your family, whether biological or chosen. Also don’t forget to rate us and subscribe to Tales of Your City on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts. You can watch me in Tales of the City now available on Netflix.