Two weeks, ago I mostly avoided the news coverage about the 9/11 Anniversary. That first week after it happened, I was having nightmares about Osama bin Ladin and charred corpses buried in the rubble, and a lot of intrusive thoughts when I was awake, mostly involving that gaping hole in the second tower before it collapsed. I didn't see any value in having all those images flashing in front of me again. What I did spend a lot of time thinking about is the ten years after 9/11, and how America has changed since then, not just for me, but also for my Muslim neighbors, most of whom are from Somalia.
When I tell people that a large number of our clients are Somali, I tend to get one of three responses:
*A lame joke about pirates (because all Somalis are pirates! Get it?)
*"Have you seen Black Hawk Down?" (nope. I'll take my real-life experience over your Hollywood any day of the week)
*You be careful, girl. I heard about them 20 Somalis who went back to Somalia in 2008 to fight for Al-Shabaab, and..." (yeah, you get the idea)
Now, I realize I'm being a little snarky, here. I also realize that when your only source of information about the Somalis in Minnesota is the six o'clock news, your idea of what's going on here is going to be skewed a certain way. Of course, the suburban self-segregation that leads to middle-class Euro-Americans getting all their information about immigrants from the six o'clock news is it's own issue, but that is another soapbox, and shall be posted another time.
So, from a refugee resettlement perspective, here is my take on those 20 young men who went back to Somali to fight for Al-Shabaab:
Being a newly arrived refugee in America is difficult in a way few of us can imagine. They arrive here with nothing but what they can carry, limited English skills, limited understanding of the cultural differences here, and thousands of dollars of travel debt to the U.S. Government. To that, add the unspeakable pain that comes from war, torture, rape, the death of loved ones, culture shock, and the heartache of being uprooted from everything you ever knew, and cast into another country that might as well be another planet. That the refugees of Minnesota have taken root and contributed so much to who we are as a community is a testament to their strength and courage--these people are my heroes.
But not all of them are able to keep above water. They often live in low-income, violence-prone neighborhoods, where they are subject to the same economic, educational and familial systems that keep even natural-born citizens stuck in cycles of poverty and powerlessness. Their children, many of whom don't fully appreciate the situation their parents fled from, and the effort it took to bring them to America, look for hope and validation wherever they can find it. Young men join gangs in search of a family; I believe that the 20 young men from Minneapolis got on that flight to Mogadishu in search of the meaning and purpose they failed to find here in Minnesota.
How does this happen? How do people fall through the cracks like this? And the real question--how does someone become so disconnected from their neighbor to think that terrorism and violence are the path to new life?
It's amazing the impact that relationships can have on how we see the world--how they can give us hope, and bring us joy even when circumstances are difficult. When you form friendships with people who are different from you, something happens. Suddenly, when you hear the word "Muslim", you no longer think of the Twin Towers collapsing on September 11, you think of the Somali coworker who bravely and cheerfully celebrates the Ramadan fast while his Christian coworkers are busy throwing a potluck. You think of the father and his three children you helped pack food with at a charity event. And when they hear the word "Christian", they no longer think of Abu-Ghraib, or the Rev. Terry Jones bloviating on CNN, or of modern-day Crusaders in fighter jets out to destroy their religion. They think of that nice person who helped them study for the citizenship test, or drove them to a doctor's appointment, or invited their family over to dinner.
And it becomes much, much harder for us to dehumanize each other, and see each other as "the Enemy."
So here is my strategy for keeping young Somalis in Minnesota from turning to terrorism:
Instead of complaining about their lack of English, offer to help them learn.
Instead of complaining about them being on public assistance, help them fill out job applications, and offer them rides to interviews, and help them develop job skills.
Instead of complaining about them not integrating with American society, become their friend and give them a reason to do so.
Hope does a lot to keep people from turning down a dark path, and in many cultures "poverty" is defined not by a lack of money, but by a lack of access, and a lack of community. When we invite the Somalis to join our community, and value the contributions they make, there will be fewer young men who feel they have to run off to war zone to find meaning in their lives.
And if you're interested in taking part in this process (and are in the Twin Cities area), here are some good places to start:
World Relief Minnesota (Evangelical) www.worldreliefmn.org
International Institution of Minnesota (Non-Sectarian) www.iimn.org
Lutheran Social Services (Lutheran) www.lssmn.org
Minnesota Council of Churches (Mainline Protestant) www.mnchurches.org
Catholic Charities (Catholic) www.cctwincities.org
American Refugee Committee (Non-Sectarian) www.arcrelief.org
Center for Victims of Torture (Non-Sectarian) www.cvt.org
Islamic Center of Minnesota (Muslim) www.islamiccentermn.org
MORE Multicultural School for Empowerment (Non-Sectarian) www.more-empowerment.org
And there's a bunch more here: