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Overcoming the headlines

The Somali-American community in Minneapolis—one of the largest in the West—takes on militancy and bad news from Somalia, even as terrorists work to recruit immigrants from afar

Overcoming the headlines

GROWING INFLUENCE: Somali men pray inside a Minneapolis mosque. (Jonathan Alpeyrie)

Jonathan Alpeyrie

Other Somalis watch news from the Middle East in a local coffee shop.

Jonathan Alpeyrie

A Somali woman waits to cross the street in Cedar-Riverside.

Jonathan Alpeyrie

City Councilman Abdi Warsame speaks to fellow Somalis.

Jonathan Alpeyrie

BECOMING MORE VOCAL: Mohamed Amin Ahmed launched a website to deter young Somalis from terrorism.

Jonathan Alpeyrie

‘We need to eliminate the vulnerability of these young people by fighting poverty and unemployment, because al-Shabaab takes advantage of them.’ —Abdirizak Bihi

MINNEAPOLIS—Minneapolis is home to over 18,000 Somalis, according to 2010 U.S. Census data (and Minnesota has up to 120,000 residents of Somali descent, according to FBI estimates)—making it one of the largest Somali immigrant communities in the West. The group’s influence is growing: Last year Somali-born Abdi Warsame won election to the Minneapolis City Council, becoming the first Somali-American to hold office in the United States in this city of about 393,000. 

Another Somali-American, actor Barkhad Abdi, is attracting attention this month for his Oscar-nominated role in Captain Phillips. It’s not unusual to bump into Abdi in the city’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, known as “Little Mogadishu.” 

But rising stars haven’t yet overcome a legacy of militancy and terrorism that dogs Somalis living in the United States. Last September gunmen from al-Shabaab, a Somali Islamist militant group linked to al-Qaeda, killed at least 67 people and wounded over 200 at a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Via Twitter al-Shabaab named Somali-Americans from the Twin Cities—Ahmed Mohamed Isse and Abdifatah Osman Keenadiid—along with Mustafe Noorudiin of Kansas City, Mo., as attackers, according to U.S. law enforcement.

Reports of al-Shabaab recruiting out of the Twin Cities proliferate. The group circulated a YouTube video last August targeting young Somali men in Minneapolis. Forty-five minutes long, “The Path to Paradise from the Twin Cities to the Land of Two Migrations” featured three young men from Minneapolis, two Somalis and a U.S.-born convert to Islam. All have since died in East Africa in so-called “martyrdom operations.” On the video one of the men, U.S. native Troy Kastigar, laughs: “If you guys only knew how much fun we have over here, this is the real Disneyland! You need to come here and join us.” The video has since has been removed from YouTube.

Minneapolis Somalis say for every al-Shabaab recruit, though, they know many young Somali-Americans who’ve declined the invitation, wanting to make the most of their opportunities in the United States. Mohamed Amin Ahmed, a Somali who arrived in the United States 20 years ago with his parents and siblings to escape Somalia’s civil war, said he’s “frustrated” by the negative perception. “I’ve got tons of nephews and they kept asking me, ‘Is that our religion?’” said the husband and father of three. 

Shirwa Hersi, 27, a Somali-born former U.S. Marine with a neatly trimmed beard, said he’s sometimes bitter about the climate of distrust in the United States, having himself served in the U.S. military fighting terrorism. “It’s difficult to be proud of who you,” he said. 

AFTER DECADES OF watching its population drop, Minneapolis welcomed refugee communities, first Asian Hmongs following war in Vietnam and Cambodia, and later Somalis, starting with a 1991 civil war in the Horn of Africa nation. Somalia has been without a legitimate government much of the time since, with estimates of 350,000 to 1 million having died in the ongoing conflict. With that comes a steady stream of refugees seeking safe haven outside the country.

In Minneapolis resettled Somalis have discovered frosty weather but also jobs in poultry slaughterhouses and assembly lines, with subsidies for housing and other necessities. 

The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, along with local Lutheran charities and other groups (see sidebar), has worked to provide assistance and help integrate what’s widely known as one of the most closeted ethnic communities of refugees. Somali-Americans, too, are becoming more vocal about the need to counter the al-Shabaab message. 

“It takes an idea to kill an idea,” Mohamed Amin Ahmed likes to say, “and I’m full of ideas.” Ahmed manages a gas station in Minneapolis and hopes one day to own his own food business. He launched a website, averagemohamed.com, to deter young Somalis from terrorism and provide alternatives to al-Shabaab’s propaganda. On the internet he posts short cartoons in English and Somali explaining that suicide bombing is against Islam.

Abdirizak Bihi, director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center in Minneapolis, welcomes the initiative. “We need to redouble our work to make sure that people know al-Shabaab for what it is. ... Above all, we need to eliminate the vulnerability of these young people by fighting poverty and unemployment, because al-Shabaab takes advantage of them.”

Bihi’s own life has been rocked by radicalization. His nephew, Burhan Hassan, 17, returned to Somalia in November 2008 and joined al-Shabaab with five other Somalis from the Twin Cities. Eight months later, when he wanted to quit and return to his family in Minneapolis, militants killed him with a bullet to the head.

“We were the first parents who spoke out,” Bihi says, remembering the weeks that followed the youngsters’ departure. “We found out that the last three to six months, they all had changed ... they were not eating the food, they would be lying in their bed, they had changed their appearances, they had cut off from their friends, they had stopped playing or watching their favorites games—hockey, basketball, or football. They had completely shut down.” 

As soon as the family realized that Burhan had flown back to Somalia, they phoned relatives in Kenya where the teenager was supposed to connect flights. “We missed him by only 10 minutes at Nairobi’s airport,” says Bihi. Eight months later, Burhan called his mother and told her he wanted return to the United States. But he never did.

 

FOR SIX YEARS the jihadist threat has been the FBI’s top priority in Minnesota, with an ongoing investigation dubbed “Operation Rhino,” according to Kyle Loven, the FBI’s chief division counsel in Minneapolis. He said Somalis first approached the bureau to look into the disappearance of young men from the Twin Cities area: “We believe the number to be somewhere between 20 and 40 individuals.”

Somalis like Bihi question the sincerity of some Minneapolis mosques and accuse clerics of recruiting young jihadists on behalf of al-Shabaab. But they also say that for more than 20 years many Somali immigrants have worked hard to build a community with their own slice of the American dream—and that Somalis have integrated far better in the Twin Cities than they have in cities in Europe.

Former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who now runs the Center for Somalia History Studies, admits that “they don’t want to integrate religiously or wear Western clothes, but if you go beyond the head covering, they really want to succeed, get a job, and have highly educated children.” Many want to start their own businesses, he added.

One of those is Abdi (who asked that his full name not be used), 26, who now runs a medical care transportation business with his brother. Abdi fled Somalia in 2005, and landed in Minneapolis, where he started work in a Cheesecake Factory. After nine days he quit the restaurant chain to join a patient transport company owned by a Chinese woman. She promoted him, but before a year was out, he said to himself: “Why do you work for this lady and not for yourself?” Abdi now hires hundreds of drivers who make 400 to 500 trips a day. “It makes money,” he said, but it doesn’t make an easy life. “I send almost 70 percent of my income to my siblings in Somalia and Kenya. … They count on me, every month. If I don’t send money, they can’t eat. It pushes me to work and not to be lazy.”

At a glance

Arrive Ministries (formerly World Relief Minnesota)

Richfield, Minn.

worldreliefmn.org

Arrive offers resettlement services that begin with welcoming families at the airport and extend to helping refugees find housing, set up a household, address medical needs, connect with assistance programs, and register for school and English classes. Under Arrive, two ministries specifically serve the Somali community:

S.A.L.T. (Somali Adult Literacy Training): Volunteers at 14 locations provide English language classes.

Rajo (Somali for “hope”): Volunteers in this church-based outreach meet refugees’ needs through opportunities including after-school tutoring, community gardens, and sewing, quilting, and baking classes.

Bethlehem Baptist Church

Minneapolis, Minn. 

hopeingod.org

The church offers English language classes.

Lutheran Social Service Refugee Services

Minneapolis and St. Cloud, Minn. 

lssmn.org/lss/refugee_services.htm

LSS offers refugees financial assistance, family reunification, immigration services, and help securing employment. It works alongside local churches, whose volunteers are helping to secure housing and household supplies, serving as mentors, making quilts for new arrivals, and holding donation drives for items like winter coats and school supplies.

Dorothée Moisan

Dorothée Moisan