It was five years ago, and Somali youth from the Twin Cities were making headlines for all the wrong reasons. If not gang-related violence, it was the news that dozens of young men were secretly recruited and returning to their war-torn homeland to fight alongside a terrorist group.
Mohamed Farah, 28, his younger brother Abdifatah Farah, 25, and a group of high-school- and college-age buddies gathered at a coffee shop on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. This was a crisis leaving a dark cloud over the largest Somali community in the U.S. They vowed to do something to keep their peers from falling prey to gangs and radical teachings.
On Wednesday, Oct. 24, the FBI celebrated their efforts. Ka Joog, the nonprofit the young men founded over coffee on March 9, 2007, was recognized as the local recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award during a ceremony at Augsburg College.
Ka Joog, which in Somali translates to “stay away,” has developed mentorship programs and activities to expose Somali youths and young men to the benefits of education, music and the arts while speaking out against the violence and radicalization that has claimed too many of them in recent years.
“It’s tremendously impressive to take ownership of your community,” Chris Warrener, FBI special agent in charge of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said before presenting a certificate of recognition to the group. The actual award will be presented to the group next spring by FBI Director
“I’m so impressed with these young men — taking control of a bad situation.”
They are impressive. On a shoestring budget without the shoestring, the group and young volunteers produced a play that highlighted the clash of generations, social alienation, marginalization and quest for identity that many Somali youths — like immigrant groups before them — encounter in a new land and culture. They organized a conference on the radicalization of youth.
A year ago, they spearheaded a walk and benefit to raise funds and awareness of the armed conflict and devastating famine that have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, women and men in Somalia.
Abdifatah Farah, a spoken-word poet and Minneapolis Community Technical College graduate, returned to the refugee camp in Kenya where his family fled in the midst of the civil war. He helped deliver food and shot gripping videos about the plight of countrymen there.
Through a partnership this past summer with Augsburg College, Ka Joog organized a camping trip for more than 40 inner-city Somali youths and exposed them for the first time to an outdoors experience.
“Somali youths here have little resources and are mostly confined to this concrete jungle,” explained Abdul Mohamed, who is pursuing a degree in marketing and international business at Augsburg. “We wanted them to experience something outside their comfort zone, and it was amazing to see.”
It may be ironic that the law enforcement agency that bestowed the award is the one conducting the criminal probe into recruitment of roughly 20 Somali young men by al-Shabaab, a terrorist group with links to al-Qaida. The group, which wants to overthrow Somalia’s fragile transitional government and seize power, used the presence of Christian Ethiopian troops in the conflict as a way to ignite homeland pride and religious outrage.
Of the recruitment exodus, nine are believed dead, including two killed in suicide missions. The whereabouts of eight others are unknown. Three who returned to Minnesota were indicted on terrorism charges. One of them, Mahamud Said Omar, was convicted last week in Minneapolis and could face life imprisonment.
Although radicalization is a main concern, Ka Joog’s primary focus rests in spreading the message of education and empowerment to the thousands of other youths in the community who have the potential, as one staffer described it, to become tomorrow’s leaders.
The Farah brothers, along with three siblings and their parents, escaped by boat from Somalia to the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya during the early 1990s as civil war raged. A baby sister died of malnutrition along the way.
The family spent five years at the camp. It reunited with relatives in New York City before relocating to Minneapolis in 1998. As the Farah brothers repeatedly note, their story is no different than that of thousands of other young men in the community. They credit positive role models and the insistence by their mother, a house cleaner, to pursue a good education and keep the lure of the streets and radical ideology at arm’s distance.
Last year, with a budget less than $6,000, Ka Joog made contact with or provided services to 2,500 youths. This year, they’ve served 3,000 area youths and plan to open an office in St. Paul.
The Farah brothers know there could be pushback from some elements in the community who will look at the FBI award as proof that the young men are either sellouts or government snitches. But the brothers are willing to take that hit. They believe it takes private and government partnership to make the quest of education, empowerment and social integration into the American fabric a reality.
“This is a country with limitless opportunities to those who are willing to work hard,” said Mohamed Farah, a University of Minnesota graduate.
“We want to become the vanguards of our community and our people,” said Abdul Mohamed, 22. “We want to stand up against the darkness of evil.”
Abdirizak Ali Bihi, co-founder of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center, looked on as the two young men spoke at the event in the college’s main auditorium.
Bihi knows from personal experience how disaffected young men could easily be manipulated into seeking identity or a sense of purpose through a false or corrupt cause. One of his nephews, Burhan Hassan, then 17, left Minneapolis for Somalia and was reportedly killed in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in the spring of 2009.
“These young men are one of the best things to happen to our community,” he said. “I admire what they are doing. They’re my dream team.”
ON THE WEB
To learn more about Ka Joog, go to www.kajoog.org.