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Overcoming the headlines

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“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.

Other Somalis watch news from the Middle East in a local coffee shop.
Jonathan Alpeyrie
Other Somalis watch news from the Middle East in a local coffee shop.
A Somali woman waits to cross the street in Cedar-Riverside.
Jonathan Alpeyrie
A Somali woman waits to cross the street in Cedar-Riverside.
City Councilman Abdi Warsame speaks to fellow Somalis.
Jonathan Alpeyrie
City Councilman Abdi Warsame speaks to fellow Somalis.
BECOMING MORE VOCAL: Mohamed Amin Ahmed launched a website to deter young Somalis from terrorism.
Jonathan Alpeyrie
BECOMING MORE VOCAL: Mohamed Amin Ahmed launched a website to deter young Somalis from terrorism.
‘We need to eliminate the vulnerability of these young people by fighting poverty and unemployment, because al-Shabaab takes advantage of them.’ —Abdirizak Bihi
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

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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

Refugee services focusing on Somalis and others in the Minneapolis region:

By Kristin Chapman

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

Dorothée is a freelance writer living in Paris.

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