Somali Americans Under Media Siege

National headlines fall short of identifying how youth are marginalized in the United States.

By Michelle Chen Jul 15, 2009

Somali Americans in Minneapolis-Saint Paul have heard so much bad news lately that it’s become hard to separate fiction from fact. Encircled by tales of missing youth and violence at home and abroad, the tight-knit community is wrestling with outside scrutiny and internal strife.

“When you turn on the radio and you turn on the T.V., and there’s something bad about the community on, it kind of hurts,” said Zainab Hassan, an activist who emigrated from Somalia in the 1980s. “And people feel that they have the responsibility to do something about it.”

In 2008, media outlets raised alarm about a pattern of local youth abruptly disappearing and then turning up in Somalia, apparently engaging in military activities.

One of the youth, 26-year-old Shirwa Ahmed, reportedly departed for Mecca in late 2007, after he had grown increasingly religious and socially isolated from friends. Last October, according to news reports, he died in a suicide bomb attack in northern Somalia. This summer, Minneapolis teen Burhan Hassan and 20 year-old Jamal Bana were reportedly killed in Mogadishu after mysteriously leaving the city last winter. More than 20 youth have supposedly vanished over the past two years.

The circumstances and motivations behind the disappearances remain murky, but the dominant media narrative suggests the youth were recruited by Somali militants. Federal authorities are probing whether the young men, and by extension some in their community, are tied to Somali insurgent groups that have been labeled “terrorists” by the U.S. government. The FBI and some community members have speculated that nationalism may have driven the youth to fight in their homeland, in response to  internal conflict and an invasion from Ethiopia.

As the community tries to make sense of the disappearances, federal law enforcement has tightened its surveillance and many Somalis have complained of intrusive interrogations and aggressive targeting of local businesses and religious leaders. In July, a grand jury in Minneapolis indicted two Somali-American men, charging them with providing material support to a terrorist group. It’s expected to be the first of several charges.

The dual assault from government and media is also wearing on the community fabric.

“Young Somali men are being portrayed as terrorists right now. All the media love to have a story that is going to sell,” said Nimco Ahmed, a youth organizer in the Twin Cities. “But that is going to hurt those who live in this country, who actually want to contribute to this country, like me and many others.”

Mohamed Husein, a Somali-American writer from Minneapolis who now does advocacy work in Washington, D.C., said the climate of suspicion has stigmatized the whole community.

Recalling his own recent encounter with profiling (he was questioned at an airport upon returning from a visit to Kenya) Husein said, “unfortunately, what should have been—even if it is true—an individual crime, became a communal crime for Somalis.”

Negative stereotypes were fueled further by the clash earlier this year between Somali pirates and U.S. Navy ships off the East African coast—a media spectacle that again projected an image of a chaotic country.

There are roughly 24,000 Somalis living in Minnesota according to the U.S. Census, though community leaders estimate the number is much higher. Tensions with government authorities, are nothing new for this community, many of whom are refugees resettled in the state during the 1990s. Violent incidents involving high-profile youth gangs have strained relations with law enforcement over the years, and Sept. 11 spurred more systematic profiling of Muslims and immigrants.

The negative attention is breeding internal mistrust as well. The Star Tribune recently reported that since authorities began targeting leaders of the prominent Abubakar as-Saddique mosque, some families have distanced themselves from the religious institutions that traditionally serve as the community’s cultural anchor.

While fears about homegrown radicalism may be overblown, activists do see a connection between the turmoil in Somalia and the crisis ensnaring some young Somali Americans—just not the one the media suggest. They say the Somali community has long struggled with the marginalization of second-generation youth in the Twin Cities and that in recent years, violence of a more conventional sort has haunted local families. Teen gangs have become a growing concern for police and parents, with some rival groups polarizing along clan lines carried over from their home country.

A troubling generational disconnect threads through both the youths’ disappearances and violence on the streets, said Ahmed, the youth organizer.

Since many Somali youth grew up in single-mother households, Ahmed said, “many of our young men deal with identity crisis, due to not having a father-figure or a male figure in their family.” The quest for identity, she added, can make them susceptible to outside influence, be it a neighborhood gang or a Somali political faction.

Yet a recent report on Somali-American youth, published by the Minneapolis Civil Rights Office, traced youth behavioral problems, violence and homelessness to overlapping institutional and cultural issues, including trauma experienced as refugees, language barriers in the U.S., and inadequate educational and mental health resources. The alienation has been deepened by a lack of recreational programs oriented toward the Somali immigrant community.

Despite the negative press, Ahmed noted, mosques provide critical space for young people to be themselves, often fostering connections with peers and positive mentors.

Somali parents, who fled their homeland to escape war, are stunned that young people might have voluntarily returned to be soldiers, Hassan said, especially since more traditional families may avoid openly discussing such tense issues. But the disappearances, she added, have prompted public dialogue and soul-searching among families about “how to engage youth and build a healthy family, so parents can have a healthy discussion with children.”

Amid the generational, cultural and political gaps now testing the community’s resilience, activists say the latest struggles have also catalyzed a new political consciousness.

Community advocates are collaborating with the Minneapolis police and the Minnesota-based nonprofit MAD DADS to develop anti-violence intervention programs for Somali teens. In July, young Somali Americans from the United States and Canada were planning to convene in Washington, D.C. to develop a unified advocacy agenda, ranging from international aid issues to economic challenges facing youth in the diaspora and in Somalia.

Whether working to stem neighborhood violence or organizing around foreign policy, Ahmed said the goal is “creating awareness that there is a need for Somalis who are struggling in the U.S or back home in our country, and I think anyone that wants to help can actually be part of such a movement.”

Hashi Shafi, executive director of the Somali Action Alliance, a local civic advocacy group, said the community has grown stronger by confronting common struggles.

“The unity we see nowadays, we never had before,” he said. “When something happens, the people become very close to each other."

Michelle Chen is a freelance writer in New York City and a blogger at