Minnesota’s Somali community could gain financial support

Legislators want to invest $2M into communities to empower and educate Somali youth.

Kevin Beckman

State lawmakers have introduced legislation to invest $2 million in youth development initiatives for Somali Minnesotans with hopes that the initiatives will, in part, prevent terrorism recruitment in the state.
 
 
House minority leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, announced  plans earlier this month to fund community-based organizations that will work on engagement, mentoring, scholarships and job opportunities for Somali youth in Minnesota.
 
 
“We know that these programs are having a positive impact on our community, and we should continue that progress by passing this legislation,” Thissen said.
 
 
The bill’s sponsors worked with Somali community leaders to draft the legislation, taking special care not to emphasize counterterrorism in the bill’s language, said Mohamed Jama, chair of the West Bank Community Coalition and general director of the Cedar Riverside Youth Council, who helped craft the legislation.
 
 
“The bill is targeted to empower and educate young people in … not just the [Cedar-Riverside] neighborhood but in the district and across the state,” Jama said.
 
 
The initiative comes on the heels of the federal Building Community Resilience program, formerly known as Countering Violent Extremism. Launched in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Justice, the program aims to prevent radicalization by investing in community programs in areas often targeted by terrorist recruiters.
 
 
Minnesota leads the nation in the number of people who have left or tried to leave the country to fight with terrorists abroad, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee.
 
 
Since 2007, more than 20  Minnesotans have attempted to leave the country to join the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab.
 
 
The pilot program was met with skepticism in Minnesota from Somali and other community leaders who say a law enforcement approach to counterterrorism makes Somali and other communities feel stigmatized.
 
 
“We find fault with the whole premise of the program,” said Mohamed Mohamed, executive director of the West Bank Community Coalition. “It’s about the system treating those that are Muslim completely different than every other American.”
 
 
Mohamed said some Somali families struggle with unemployment and poverty and that state investments would be more valuable to the community if they were made without a focus on counterterrorism.
 
 
But Thissen said that while the prevention of extremism will hopefully be one of the plan’s effects, he doesn’t want de-radicalization to be the focus.
 
 
“Really, the frame shouldn’t be around terrorism,” Thissen said. “It also creates more opportunities for success in work and in education and building a stronger community.
 
 
All of those things come along with it and [are] maybe the more primary goal.”
 
 
Thissen and Kahn both said they wanted to be cautious that the bill’s language didn’t emphasize counterterrorism over community building.
 
 
“We tried to be very careful and clear in our intent that this is not a law-enforcement tool,” Thissen said. “This is about community building, and I think that’s a really important distinction.”
 
 
Kahn, who helped secure $250,000 in similar grants last session, said the bill’s sponsors have to walk a line between House republicans, who she said support the measures for counterterrorism reasons, and the Minnesota Muslim community, which could feel stigmatized by the legislation.
 
 
“This [bill] was not to be an enforcement issue. This was not to be something that was going to try and put traps out for people,” she said.
 
 
Jama said he doesn’t think the bill would stigmatize the Somali community.
 
 
“We don’t want any program that brings any type of stigma to the young people in the neighborhood,” Jama said. “There’s already enough stigma that has been brought to the community.”