That same year, the neighborhood experienced its worst year of violent crimes, with 97 incidents that included aggravated assault and robbery. Authorities attributed the surge to rival Somali gangs in the area. Bihi says an absence of sufficient activities for the community’s young population is also part of the problem. (Half of the U.S. Somali population is 22 or younger, according to the Census Bureau.) In the last two years he and some partners have provided 400 bicycles to young people. “It’s very important that we are friendly to persuade young people away from bad things,” he says.
Down the street, the Brian Coyle Community Center also serves as a central gathering spot for the youth. Young people have access to an open gym on Friday nights, weekend nights-out, and a new teen tech center.
Ahmed Mussa, health and wellness coordinator at the center, told me some of the older women in the community run a motherhood program that keeps an eye out on the youth late in the evening until about midnight.
Some 60 miles away in St. Cloud, several Somali American families have also found a home.
I met with Jama Alimad in a coffee shop in the city. He fled Somalia after the war, where he lost his first wife, several relatives, and his thriving import-export business.
“I never thought I would be a refugee in the United States,” he told me. “I was thinking to come here as a tourist maybe to enjoy, but not as a refugee.”
He arrived in San Diego in 1997 and trained as a computer technician, and he still remembers how the climate and the ocean reminded him of home. But after nearly two years, the cost of living in California sent him searching for somewhere else to live.
He moved to St. Paul and finally settled in St. Cloud in 2004. “Most of the Somalis that are moving here, it’s just for that reason,” he explained. “They moved from another state to here just looking for a job.”
Alimad, 67, is now retired but works as a consultant with the Initiative Foundation. He serves with the program’s Enterprise Academy, which runs a five-week training session to help participants understand the ropes of running successful businesses in the United States. They learn how to handle taxes, write a business plan, and apply for loans.
The program includes participants like Fartun Jama. She is pursuing a degree in community health at St. Cloud State University but was inspired by her mother to set up her own business. She runs a clothing store that displays her self-designed clothing items. As Jama works on her business plan, she hopes her store will have branches across the United States and back in Somalia: “It’s going to happen.”
The Somali community here faced one of its own darkest times in 2016, when 22-year-old Dahir Adan staged a mass-stabbing spree at the Crossroads Center shopping mall. Ten people sustained injuries before an off-duty police officer shot Adan dead.
Alimad said he knew Adan’s family and said the community’s interfaith leadership group came to their support and stood with them.
As a community, they also embraced the responsibility of watching their children better and noting their struggles. “If something happens,” said Alimad, “the only thing we can do is look at what happened and try to prevent that from happening again.”
In 2010, vandals painted graffiti on a Somali store that read, “Go back home.” Alimad said he volunteered to clean it off. When passersby asked him what he thought about it, he replied simply that he’s already home.
Yet Alimad still holds dreams of returning to Somalia. His eldest daughter, Fadoumo, is leading the way.
She first went back to Mogadishu after high school in 2013 to visit her grandmother. She was inspired to return after she saw the rising Chinese influence across the country.
She completed her degree in economics and international trade from the Wuhan University in China and plans to return to Mogadishu before the end of the year to start a solar energy business with four other African schoolmates.
Alimad approves of the decision: “There’s a brain drain from Africa that needs to go back. I was really proud of her.”