Too often young Somali-Americans have made news for all the wrong reasons.
Some young people have fallen victim to drug abuse or the appeal of gang violence. Others have turned to extremist ideology.
But youth organizations in the American state of Minnesota are trying to change that. Somali groups there have taken steps to keep young people away from bad influences.
One such effort was a basketball tournament for Somali-Americans living in and around the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The competition was the idea of 12 youth organizations representing Islamic centers. It gives the players a chance to build up their basketball skills and gain self-esteem.
Zakariye Ibrahim played for the al-Rawda team, which won the competition.
“Today we have succeeded in winning the cup after beating the finalist Umatul-Islam club. We had worked very hard for this and we are so excited about it.”
Minnesota is home to 20,000 Somalis, more than in any other state. More than 80,000 Somalis live in the United States.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation says about 12 people have joined militant groups in Syria in recent years. The FBI adds that more than 20 men have joined al-Shabab militants in Somalia since 2007.
Recently, nine Somali-American men were accused of plotting to join ISIS, the militant group also called ISIL. A federal judge in Minnesota sentenced them to prison.
Beza Tesfaye is the conflict and governance research manager for the aid agency Mercy Corps. She has done research in Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland on why young people join extremist groups.
Tesfaye found that, unlike what many believe, it is not poverty or unemployment that are the main reasons Somalis join extremist groups. Instead, the strongest influences are young people who feel their interests are being ignored, especially in political decisions. They also feel discriminated against based on their tribe or ethnic group.
Tesfaye said it is important to give young Somali-Americans chances to do something meaningful in their communities.
“This included activities like volunteering, doing awareness campaigns around salient issues that young kids cared about,” she said. “Essentially just giving them a platform to express themselves in addition to giving them the skills they need to express themselves through education.”
Tesfaye said that a combination of civil involvement and civil society reduced the number of Somali youth taking part in extremist and political violence.
“The key takeaway is that civic engagement and civil society is a real need if we are trying to address the root causes of violence and we have evidence to support that,” she said.
Programs like the basketball tournament are designed to provide activities to help young Somali-Americans stay away from negative influences.
The organization “For Youth by the Youth” created the tournament. Yusuf Mohamed leads the group.
“The reason we started this program was when we saw what the youth are going through and how they were involved with gang fights among themselves, when we saw how they are suspected or labeled as extremists, we started to bring them together in order to prevent them from getting involved with drugs. We found a place where they can stay fit and stay busy and avoid negative influences.”
One of the basketball players, Abdullahi Bare, agrees that sports can help young people like him.
“This kind of tournament brings us together as brothers. We come together and when we finish the games we eat together and communicate as well.”
The basketball event in Minnesota has been taking place in each of the past three years.
I’m John Russell.
Words in This Story
gang – n. a group of people, often criminals
self-esteem – n. a sense of one’s worth or importance
cup – n. a prize or award given in recognition of one’s success
salient – adj. relating to a striking point or quality
platform – n. a vehicle used for a purpose; a surface, usually raised
takeaway – n. a finding based on presented facts or information
civic – adj. of or related to a citizen or citizenship
negative – adj. marked by denial or refusal; having disagreeable qualities
labeled – v. identified; named
fit – adj. physically or mentally sound