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Somalis in Minnesota: A second chance to get it right

Here’s where the government should focus its money and attention to dissuade interest in extremism.

Dean Rohrer/NewsArt  - Star Tribune photo galleries

by Jamal Abdulahi
Wednesday, October 01, 2014

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Somalis in Minnesota are in the news again, and again the coverage is not positive.

The press is converging on Minneapolis and St. Paul, hoping to break stories of Somali-American youths traveling to the Middle East with the intention of joining terror groups, including the most reviled: the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

The media frenzy appears to be a sequel of sorts. Seven years ago, a group of young men went back to Somalia to fight Ethiopian troops invading Mogadishu, the capital. Somalia and Ethiopia have fought several wars over colonial border disputes. Ethiopian troops invading Somalia’s capital triggered deep emotions in the Somali community in Minnesota.

Al-Shabab emerged from the struggle against Ethiopia and later aligned with Al-Qaida. Al-Shabab overpowered smaller nationalist groups and consolidated power. Some of the young men who traveled from the Twin Cities ended up fighting for Al-Shabab, a violation of American law. The federal government amassed agents in the Twin Cities in response to the missing men. The concern was that young men of Somali descent would return home after receiving terror training and carry out attacks here.

Fear of young men coming back and carrying out terror attacks on American soil was in the minds of Somali community leaders, too. One community leader put it very starkly. He said: “Imagine, heaven forbid, a Somali-American young man with deranged thinking returns to the Twin Cities and engages [a] terror attack in a local icon like the Mall of America. The ramification [would] be disastrous for the community.” This community leader clearly shared the federal government’s concern but felt trapped by resource constraints.

The federal government was constrained not by money but by old habits. Old federal government habits of interagency territorial turf battles and artificial communication full of legal jargon and public-relations spin prevailed. Outreach was focused among federal agencies, one to another. Some agencies established recurring roundtable discussions continuously, with no tangible outcome.

Fast-forward seven years. The federal government is talking about allocating resources to the Somali community to stop the exodus of young people wanting to join terror organizations. The details are not all clear. However, a pilot project has been announced, and it is believed to include funds to support youth programming. Organizations working with Somali-American youths are already soliciting ideas for new programming activities.

It is imperative that the federal government get it right this time. Appropriately scoping the effort is the first step. Narrowing down the issue to youth programming completely misses the point.

There is near-unanimous agreement that a sense of disenfranchisement contributes to terrorist groups’ appeal to young people. But it is a symptom and not a root cause.

Larger root causes include weakened families and political alienation that result in fewer economic opportunities here in the United States. The federal government should invest in efforts to lessen the impact of both of these causes.

The family structure has been weakened in the Somali community by two main factors. A language gap between parents and their teenage kids has emerged. The parents have been slow to learn English, and the young people do not learn Somali. The two simply do not communicate. Consequently, the parents cling to hope of returning to Somalia, and the young people continue to search for belonging. Investing in an intergenerational dialogue will lead to a better return for taxpayers.

Another factor that has weakened the family structure is a high rate of divorce. The majority of dissolved unions are made in America, but they are contracted in subculture and often insulated from the legal process, which makes the dissolution of marriages cumbersome to track. This also further complicates the role of fathers in the lives of their children. Fathers often disappear from sight. Some return to Somalia believing a child on American soil is saved. An education campaign debunking this myth will go a long way.

Somalis in Minnesota continue to look to Somalia for political engagement. This attitude is encouraged by American politicians for political expediency. For instance, politicians campaigning in Somali neighborhoods appeal for votes by invoking current events in Somalia rather than in Minnesota. This type of politics hinders the community’s ability to form strong political bonds with America.

Additional revenue for institutions providing civic education that includes American politics will be well-spent. An educated populace will differentiate a mature civic leader from a charlatan. Also, participation in local politics will form the foundation for better economic opportunities that lead to the potential realization of the American dream.

The federal government will get the biggest bang for its buck by investing in these areas. It will also be a tangible outcome that the government can point to, demonstrating that it can get things right.

Jamal Abdulahi is longtime community organizer and an independent analyst based in the Twin Cities. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @fuguni.

This article originally appeared on the Star Tribine

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