In the wake of the tragic shooting at a Minnesota high school in February, South Sudanese refugee Reem Ambajaw was relieved to learn that she had a family member attending the local high school just minutes away.
In fact, the right-hand side of her house, where most of her extended family stays, is only just wide enough for her to squeeze in a meeting with her other relatives by the school doors.
Ambajaw’s home near the Somali/Ethiopian community in the Minneapolis suburbs is not far from what has become known as the “dens of safety” — a community that recently swelled by 30,000 immigrants after the longtime Persian community moved to Atlanta.
The father of Ambajaw, 19, was one of a handful of students and teachers to narrowly escape the Feb. 14 shooting at a Minnesota high school. The sheriff said that a teenage gunman had started firing in a hallway and turned his attention to a teacher before being killed by responding officers. The gunfire killed another student, and authorities said they were not searching for a second shooter.
Ambajaw said her father called her that morning, ready to tell her he was okay. But she quickly got a Facebook alert from the school, warning parents of the coming gunfire and telling them to get their children to the “secure room” inside the school, the basement. That’s where she was staying with her younger sister that morning, with only the key to open her own door and stop the gunman from entering her home.
For the few seconds that the gunman fired, Ambajaw said, she instinctively pulled the key from her panic-stricken grasp, shutting her door and ducking into the basement along with the other women.
“We were all jumping up and down because it was right there,” she said. “But we were so scared.”
It was only when she was being loaded into an ambulance that Ambajaw realized her father had been shot twice in the abdomen. After two surgeries, he walked out of the hospital weeks later.
South Sudanese families have made the Minneapolis suburb home in recent years as they traveled north to escape civil war and ethnic violence. The homes are spread out in the same neighborhood as the new Persian family that moved to Atlanta.
Among the group is Mamadou Umar, 45, a machine operator who emigrated to the United States in 1999 from Senegal and has five children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He has lived near the high school for the past 20 years, and often attends Friday Night Football games with his children, their friends and friends’ parents.
Umar said he considers the basement the “dens of safety,” where members of his extended family — 15 women, one man and their children — can take cover during a nearby shooting or other emergency. The basement has always been quiet during rush hour, Umar said, and the family moves fast in case of an emergency, leaving before students show up.
Umar also said he felt there was increased security at the high school since the Minnesota shooting.
“There’s more cops coming,” he said, chuckling. “Last year, there were two cars. This year, there are many.”
South Sudanese families like the Ambajaw and Umar can be forgiven for thinking that it’s only a matter of time before they too will have to deal with the consequences of a school shooting. The United States has seen more than 300 shootings at schools in the past 20 years — from Columbine High School in 1999 to Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. There have been 25 school shootings since the Newtown shooting, while the nation has seen more than 220 shootings at houses of worship since the beginning of 2014, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
Shireen Nsirim, a teacher at Oxford High School who came to the United States from Somalia in 1992, said that every year the school sees an increase in refugee families. Nsirim said that school employees participate in weekly meetings, where they explain the school’s security measures, including procedures for locking doors and the lockable, Plexiglas “safe room” at the school entrance. The office has security cameras, and has two sets of doors.
It is also possible to wait outside an emergency classroom by the front door, Nsirim said. In some school shootings, Nsirim said, teachers and students have emerged unscathed before law enforcement arrived on the scene.