MANKATO — In Somalia, where Amina Salim was born, there was basically one reaction regular citizens had when a police officer came looking for you: get out of sight as quickly as possible.
That was the same reaction a group of her immigrant friends initially had one day while eating lunch in the East High School cafeteria a few years ago. Tom Rother, a Mankato police liaison officer at the time, walked toward her table to talk to Salim and her friends. Everyone around her got up and scattered quickly. They didn't realize she had developed a relationship with Rother and considered him a friend.
"Back in Somalia, the officers are so mean," she said. "You don't want to stand next to them. They will beat you. In any African culture you don't just invite police officers over to have tea and just talk to them like regular people."
Now Salim is well known by many of the officers in the department. She has also helped break down barriers between police officers, refugees and other Mankato citizens through the Tapestry Project, a program created in Mankato being highlighted as one of the main reasons the city will be honored with a Community Policing Award Monday.
Representatives from the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Cisco will travel to Mankato to present the award, which was for cities with populations between 20,000 and 50,000.
Those barriers weren't easy to get through, said Cmdr. Amy Vokal of the Department of Public Safety. When the project was first started through a collaboration between the department, Lloyd Management and the Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services, there wasn't much interest.
It took awhile for organizers to figure out they would have to deal with transportation and child care issues before members of the city's Somalian and Sudanese communities would be able to participate. They also learned they would have to let those citizens set the agenda for meetings.
It also took awhile to convince police officers that participating in Tapestry events, which include talking sessions where older refugees tell shocking stories about what their life was like before they arrived in the United States, would be worth their time, Vokal said. Now there is a waiting list of officers who want to join the seven-week sessions that start each spring and fall. There have been a total of five sessions so far.
"I've learned there were a lot of horrifying stories, but the parents didn't want to tell their kids because they didn't want them to have to think about what they went through," Vokal said.
Those stories are also one of the reasons Salim and other younger refugees have been convinced to participate. Like most young people, they thought the meetings would be boring, she said. But they've found out they could learn a lot about their African culture as well as their new neighbors in Mankato.
Police officers and other community members participating in the Tapestry events also tell stories about themselves. That's also created a bond between Salim and Vokal, which has evolved into dinners with each others families, summer outings and a growing respect between police officers and the refugee community.
"When you meet people and hear their stories, you see their hearts," Salim said. "I see Amy as a role model. She's opening the community up."
Vokal has similar praise for Salim, who became a Tapestry leader in training and has decided to start the process of becoming a volunteer police officer. Salim admits she used to be closed minded about other refugees and white Mankato residents. Now she's learned to listen more and wait to express her opinions about someone she doesn't know.
"Amina has built so much trust between us and the refugee community," Vokal said. "They really do go to her. She's really used this to channel her talents — she has a lot of charisma — into doing good. She has something to offer the whole community."
The program has also helped lifelong area residents get a better understanding about the city's latest wave of immigrants, Vokal said. Residents are recruited or volunteer to serve as "connectors" with the project. They also listen to stories, share information about themselves and build their own relationships with new friends.
"They sit in a group with refugees and participate like everyone else," she said. "That's been amazing because they take these stories back to their work places and families."
The Tapestry program has caught the attention of other law enforcement agencies in the area. Vokal said she has presentations scheduled at several agencies in Steele and Rice counties.
If you go What: Ceremony honoring the City of Mankato for winning the 2013 Community Policing Award from the International Association of Chiefs of police When: Monday at 6 p.m. Where: Downtown's Verizon Wireless Center Additional information: Two new police sergeants will be sworn in and officer Audrey Burgess will receive an award for saving someone's life