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Young Somali men escape homeland, but not violence

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Scene of the stabbing
Abdulkadir Sharif shows the site where a rival gang member stabbed him and left him for dead. Sharif says it was his lucky day -- 7-7-07 -- and put him on a path to religious conversion.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Since December 2007, eight Somali men, all 30 and under, have been killed in the Twin Cities. The slayings represent a tragic irony for a community that escaped the bloodshed and clan warfare of its home country.

When you first meet reformed gang member Abdulkadir Sharif, you can't help but notice his constant struggle to breathe.

Scars of violence
Former gang member Abdulkadir Sharif of St. Paul reveals a scar down his chest where doctors operated to save his life. Sharif was stabbed in the neck in 2007 and slipped into a coma. He says he later got clean, left the gang life and became a devout Muslim.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Those strained breaths tell the story of how, two years ago, a rival gang member stabbed Sharif in the neck, forever altering one of his vocal chords. A Y-shaped scar that goes down Sharif's torso shows where doctors operated to save his life.

Now 30, wearing a button-down shirt and an African cloth hat, Sharif is standing on a sidewalk in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. 

Looming behind him are the high-rise towers where thousands of Somalis live. It's the spot where, Sharif recalls, his would-be killer walked toward him with the greeting, "Somali power."

"When he walked past me, I make only three steps: One, two, three -- and the knife goes to my neck," Sharif recalled. "I felt like something bite me."

It was July 7, 2007. He likes to think of it as the night of his "lucky sevens." Sharif slipped into a coma and almost died, but the incident led to a religious awakening. He has been spreading his message of repentance and recovery ever since.

"A lot of people, they don't have a chance to better themselves," he said. "But I have a chance to better myself, so I'm taking advantage of it."

SELLING DOPE, STARTING GANGS

Today, some of his old buddies in the neighborhood high-five Sharif like a long-lost friend. Warsame Warsame, 25, knew Sharif when his friend was selling dope and driving fancy cars.

Neck scar
Abdulkadir Sharif still has a visible scar on his neck showing where a rival gang member stabbed him on July 7, 2007.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"He used to be wild, a wild man," Warsame said.  "We got in trouble together. I'm glad to see he's changed. I think religion changed him. See, he's got that peace hat -- I like that."

Sharif now spends most of his time at a St. Paul storefront mosque known as the Minnesota Da'wah Institute.

A long and circuitous path brought him there. Sharif first landed in the United States in 1996, at the age of 17. With his father still in Africa, Sharif rebelled against his older sister who was caring for him. He dropped out of school. To this day, he still cannot read.

Sharif says he started fighting African-American kids who were beating him up because he was Somali. His civil-war survival instincts kicked in. 

The gang life also enticed him with the money -- and the jewelry and hip-hop clothing it could buy. Sharif says he helped establish the Somali gangs known as the Hot Boyz and the Somali Mafia, and rallied them to violence.

"I would tell them, 'We are an organization --  strong, wise, powerful. We fight, we fight, until all of us dead or all of us win,'" he said.

While Somali gang members only make up about 1 percent of known gang members in Minnesota, they still are a concern to law enforcement. Last October, Minneapolis police created a position for a Somali liaison officer who focuses solely on these issues. 

A NEW KIND OF TRIBAL WAR

The shootings have cooled off in recent months, but police say they've picked up on a disturbing trend: Somali gangs are beginning to divide themselves across the same clan lines that destroyed their homeland.

Riverside Plaza
Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis is home to about 1,300 units -- many of them occupied by Somali-Americans.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Officer Jeanine Brudenell, the department's Somali liaison, said Somali gangs are more fluid than traditional African-American gangs, which are known for adopting specific rules and codes. Somali gang members may change alliances and join different gangs.

One early gang, the Somali Hot Boyz, started as a singing group, Brudenell said. 

"Then they started to commit small crimes," she said. "There were rumors in the community about them, so they started to commit more crimes to protect their reputation."

Over the past couple of years, some Somalis have blamed police for not acting quickly enough to remove criminals from the streets, Brudenell said. She said some native Somalis don't understand the evidentiary threshold for police to make arrests.

"Their assumption was, 'Well, you know who did it. Why aren't you arresting them?'" she said.

And many of them remain fearful of cooperating with police -- even if they were victims of a crime, because of the oppression they faced in their old country. Brudenell said she has made strong contacts within the community -- most of whom, she stressed, are following the law and want peace. 

"There are more people wanting to make police reports, more people calling police," she said. "It's baby steps."

EARLY SIGNS OF TROUBLE

There were early signs that the streets of Cedar-Riverside would be ground zero for bloodshed.

Abdulkadir Sharif talks with a boy near the mosque
Abdulkadir Sharif makes small talk with a boy on his bike in front of the cinderblock Da'wah mosque on University Avenue in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Shukri Adan studied Somali youth issues as a community organizer back in 2006, for a report she authored for the city of Minneapolis. At the time, people were worried about a series of armed robberies in Uptown. 

While doing her research, Adan remembers seeing groups of Somali kids idly hanging out in Cedar-Riverside.

"You could see that they had nothing to do, and there was all this tension that something was going to happen. You just didn't know when," said Adan. 

Many of those kids quit school and formed cliques because they wanted to belong to something, Adan said. They didn't have jobs. But they took care of one another. The cliques eventually evolved into gangs, with their own initiation rites. They carried guns and robbed Somali-owned businesses.

"What really got me concerned was that they had attachments to each other above anyone else," said Adan. 

She said some gang members have since cleaned themselves up, and spend all of their days at local mosques.

Adan sees a connection between Somali gangs and some of the missing men, who are believed to be fighting with an Islamic militia in their homeland. She says some of the missing were troubled youth who replaced one obsession -- gangs -- with religion. 

"This extreme prayer is not good for them, and everyone in our community knows that," she said.

"[Sharif] used to be wild, a wild man. ... I'm glad to see he's changed. I think religion changed him.

For her research, Adan scored a number of key interviews with young gang members with the help of Mohamed Jama, who worked as a youth mentor at the nearby Brian Coyle Community Center. 

Last year, Jama was gunned down in Brooklyn Center. The shooting still brings Adan to tears.

"I just feel like his death has no meaning," she said. "I stood out with him at Cedar-Riverside talking to all these gang kids. ... He knew what was coming. He was shouting about it and nobody was paying attention. Nothing has changed."

Even Somalis in the suburbs were wary of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Hindia Ali of Columbia Heights recalls her mother worrying when she learned her son -- Hindia's younger brother Ahmednur -- had applied for a volunteer job as a youth mentor at the Brian Coyle center last year. 

"She thought it was really dangerous, being a mom and hearing there was violence around that area," she said. "No mother would want to send her kids over there. But he was a man, and he really wanted to help the community. So for her, it was, 'How am I going to stop my son from helping his community?'"

'WE NEVER THOUGHT IT WOULD HAPPEN TO US'

Ahmednur was never one to shy away from big dreams. The third-year political science major at Augsburg College even created a Facebook page,  announcing his plans to one day run for the president of Somalia and reunite his fractured homeland.

Hindia Ali
Hindia Ali decided to go back to college and follow in the footsteps of her younger brother. Ahmednur Ali, an Augsburg College student, was mentoring youth at a nearby community center when he was shot to death last fall.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Last September, he was shot to death while working at the Brian Coyle center. The teen charged in the crime allegedly gunned down Ahmednur because he wouldn't let him play basketball.

Hindia Ali says her parents felt a painful irony that their son would be killed in the United States.

"We never thought it would happen to us, that our son would be killed with violence in the Twin Cities, when we left our home because of violence," she said. 

Ali thinks her brother's death also took a toll on one of his best friends, Mohamoud Hassan. He helped bury Ahmednur Ali. A couple months later, the University of Minnesota student left for Somalia. Hassan is now on the list of missing young men believed to be fighting in Somalia's civil war.

Some experts say schools and Somali community leaders need to do more to help troubled refugee kids integrate and stay in school. Community leaders blame cuts in education, resulting in fewer bilingual teachers who could help Somali students adapt. 

A SPEED-WALKING, CRIME-FIGHTING IMAM

One spiritual leader thinks his hands-on approach is working. Around 11 p.m. on a Wednesday in St. Paul, a small pack of young men and high-schoolers are speed-walking and jogging along a gritty stretch of University Ave. 

Their bearded imam, Hassan Mohamud, is wearing jogging pants and leading the pack. One of Mohamud's missions is to save the streets -- one physically winded young man at a time. Men from Mohamud's mosque run every few nights right after their prayers. Sundays are reserved for soccer.

"We say the religion of Islam is balanced religion," Mohamud said. "We balance between spiritual and physical exercise and mental exercise, which means to read."

Mohamud also leads his students on hospital visits. That's how he met Abdulkadir Sharif. 

It was right after the stabbing, so Sharif couldn't talk; the imam honestly didn't think Sharif would survive. He says he wanted to make Sharif a cautionary tale of what would happen to his students if they made poor choices.

Mohamud then read the Quran, held Sharif's hand and asked him to make a covenant.

"I said, 'OK, you are promising me this: In case you survive, will you join the mosque? Will you be a part of us? Then we'll save the rest of the gang people. We'll try to clean the streets.'" 

Sharif nodded, accepting the imam's proposition.

After Sharif got out of the hospital, he showed up at the mosque, using his own version of sign language to communicate with the other young men. He became a youth counselor and one of Mohamud's right-hand men. 

The imam says he can work with Sharif's principles of order and obedience -- skills he picked up while running with the gangs.

"They have a leader that everyone must listen to," Mohamud said. "If the leader asks them to shoot, they do it. But we command them to do good things. He listens to me as an imam. Whenever I ask him to do good, he says, 'Yes sir. I'll do it. Right away."

Sharif has been receiving tutoring at the mosque and is learning basic bookkeeping skills. Mosque leaders are encouraging him to get his GED and are even working to find him a wife.

But Sharif's divorce from the gang culture hasn't been entirely smooth. In his low points, he has thought of returning to the streets.

"Now I'm a soldier," Sharif said. "Before, I was a leader."

Yet he reminds himself he's a soldier on a mission to do good. Sharif says he has already persuaded five young men with troubled pasts to follow him on his journey.