Young Somalis in Minnesota beating the odds

Mohamed Jama with his teammates
Mohamed Jama, 16, right, jokes with his teammates before a basketball game at The Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis December 30, 2009. Jama has taken an active role in leading the young people of his community.
MPR photo/Jeffrey Thompson

When you ask people to tell you a story of hope from the Somali community in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, they often point to a skinny teenager with glasses named Mohamed Jama.

"I used to be shy, but in 2007, I broke the glass," said Jama. "I learned how to speak properly with others. And it just happened -- voila!"

At 16, Jama -- or M.J., as his friends call him -- is the man of his house. He shares an apartment with his mom and two younger sisters in the high-rise complex, Riverside Plaza, also known as the Towers. The buildings are home to thousands of Somali families.

But just about every night of the week, you can find Jama at the Brian Coyle Community Center, located just behind the Towers.

Jama said mentors at the Coyle center helped him come out his shell. He does homework at the center, plays basketball, and helped raise money for a free clothing drive. He joined the neighborhood's youth council and started to take on big responsibilities.

Countless young Somalis like Jama in Minnesota are succeeding, despite grim statistics in their community. More than 82 percent of Somali-Americans in Minnesota are living in or near poverty. Somali adults are much less likely to have a high-school education, compared with other adults.

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Yet hundreds of young Somali-American refugees graduate from Minnesota colleges every year. They're entering careers ranging from medicine, to engineering, to public policy.

Mohamed Jama, 16, right, jokes with his teammates before a basketball game at The Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis December 30, 2009. Jama has taken an active role in leading the young people of his community.
MPR photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The kids who rarely make the news are staying out of trouble, embracing their Somali heritage, and are giving back to the broader community. There are far more successes than failures.


Jama and his friends live in an area that is home to the largest concentration of Somalis in the U.S. And the Towers -- six buildings in faded colors -- have become the landmark for the neighborhood.

His younger and much shorter pal, Salah Ali, is just 13. But he sounds like he has known his entire life what outsiders think of Cedar-Riverside.

"People say, 'Cedar is a bad place -- Somalians.' And they start comparing us to terrorists, like 9/11," Ali said. "They just look at us like, 'Why are those girls wearing headscarves? Why are gangsters all over the place?'"

Salah said he wants people to think his neighborhood is a good place.

The negative perceptions about the neighborhood are exaggerated, but not without reason. A Somali-American college student was shot to death in late 2008 just outside of the Coyle center.

Salah Ali
Salah Ali, 13, listens during a youth council meeting at Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis December 17, 2009.
MPR photo/Laura Yuen

The alleged gunman was a 16-year-old boy, of Oromo descent, who was upset because he wasn't allowed to play basketball. Two other young men were also killed that year in Cedar-Riverside.

Abdirahman Mukhtar, who runs the youth programs at the Coyle center, said young Somalis like M.J. and Salah face many more dangers than when he was a teen-ager here in the '90s.

Mukhtar points out that he had the benefit of Somali bilingual teachers in high school and the now-defunct General College, a gateway program at the University of Minnesota.

"When I was in high school, we did not have gang-related issues. We didn't know what the juvenile system was," said Mukhtar. "Nowadays, you have young people dropping out of high school. You have young people who are doing drugs. Teen pregnancies are a problem."

Abdirahman Mukhtar, left, and Mohamed Jama
Abdirahman Mukhtar, left, and Mohamed Jama joke with members of security officers' basketball team before a game at Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis December 30, 2009. Mukhtar's says his programs help kids stay off the streets and out of trouble.
MPR photo/Jeffrey Thompson

But one of the most visible problems in this neighborhood is inertia: Young adults outgrow the programs offered by the Coyle center and have nothing to do.

"The only thing I can do is keep them inside, so I can keep them away from getting them into trouble," Mukhtar said.

To Jama, the idle young men who hang out in front of the liquor store on Cedar Avenue are cautionary tales.

"I look at them. And it helps me because I don't want to end up like them. I want to be a better person living in this society, succeeding in life," Jama said.

Jama said his father is in Africa. He credits his mom with keeping him on track. She's the one who turns off the TV and prods him to read.


As president of the youth council, Jama leads meetings with an firm hand. He says to make it in his world, order is important.

Mentors in the neighborhood look out for him, and he looks out for younger kids.

A Cedar-Riverside Youth Council meeting
Mohamed Jama, upper left, leads a Cedar-Riverside Youth Council meeting at Brian Coyle Community Center January 15, 2010. Jama is the president of the youth council.
MPR photo/Jeffrey Thompson

At a recent meeting, Jama sparred with Ali, the council's "spokesman," about firing one of his friends from the position of vice president.

"I don't think this vice president wants to work hard for her position," Jama said.

Ali stood up for her. "Just because she missed one day?" he said. "Presidents do miss meetings sometimes."

"I'm not trying to put her down," Jama said. "I'm trying to send her a message. When I tell her to come, she doesn't do it. I understand her family is a priority --"

"Family comes first, " said Ali.

"Family comes first. So does the youth council," Jama said.

"No," Ali said. "Family comes first, friends second, and then --"

"Please," Jama interrupted. "If you want to defend someone, be their lawyer."

As the discussion continued, Jama kept pressing the younger kids, asking them if they were serious about taking the youth council "to the next level."

The adults in the room, including a couple of security guards, tried to suppress their smiles.

But Jama was right, in a way. Discipline and accountability can help move people up and out of poverty.


Raho Warsame ladeled batter into a pan in the kitchen of her south Minneapolis townhouse. She was making canjeero, which is like a Somali pancake, for the first meal of the New Year. Her two grown daughters and teen-age niece watched from the kitchen table.

"I'm the breakfast-maker and I make my dough, because they're not good at it," she said, laughing.

Warsame, who was a nurse in Somalia, moved her four children to Minnesota in the mid-'90s. Despite the challenges of being a single mom and refugee, she has sent three of her kids to college. They volunteer and are involved with the mosque.

Raho Warsame
Raho Warsame prepares a meal for her family in her Minneapolis home January 1, 2010. Warsame has raised four kids, three of whom have gone to college, as a single mom.
MPR photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Her family's first home was in the Towers. They lived on the 32nd floor, where Warsame used to plan for emergencies with military precision -- running up and down the stairs.

"I used to train myself, saying, 'OK, if something happened with the elevator, and it was not working, how would you carry your children (to safety)?" Warsame said. "I used to run down and try to climb up."

Warsame's daughter, Maryan Yusuf, is a freshman at the University of Minnesota. She said her mother carefully monitored their daily lives, and it paid off.

"My mom, she's like a lieutenant. It's scary sometimes," Maryan said. "Even when I'm leaving her message, she says, 'Leave me the time you called, your name, the time you're done with the message.' I rarely leave the house without her knowing where I am."

Warsame, who was separated from her husband while fleeing the war, says it wasn't easy raising four kids on her own. There were days when she was exasperated.

"When you come home from work, you don't want to talk. You've done your day. But when you have children, you don't have a way out," Warsame said. "You have to go to school and say, 'How's my child doing? Why did he receive this grade? How can he do better?'"

Maryan Yusuf watches her mother cook
Sisters Maryan Yusuf, 18, center, and Farhiyo Yusuf, 24, left, watch with their cousin Muna Mohamed, 13, as their mother, Raho Warsame, prepares a meal in their MInneapolis home January 1, 2010. Maryan and Fardiyo attribute their success to the active role and care their mother has taken in their development.
MPR photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Warsame took English classes and found a decent-paying job at the post office -- resulting in a brutal schedule that required her to do her homework while riding the bus. She said she set goals for herself and clawed her way to self-sufficiency. Today, she's a property manager with a nonprofit housing group.

She says coming to Minnesota, where good jobs were abundant, was one of the best things she ever did for her family -- even if they were ill-prepared for winters.

"We coped. Not wearing appropriate shoes, we kept falling down. We didn't break any bones, but we kept falling down," she said, laughing.


Abdirahman Mukhtar, the Coyle center's youth manager, recently helped round up a sea of kids holding signs to protest a recent suicide bombing in Somalia.

Among the dozens killed in Mogadishu were students graduating from a medical school. They were young people, too, considered to be their country's best hopes.

In the Coyle center gym, Mukhtar zipped up the young protesters' winter coats and made sure they were properly bundled up for the cold.

Nimco Ahmed and Abdirahman Mukhtar
Community organizers Nimco Ahmed, left, and Abdirahman Mukhtar, go over logistics in the gym of the Brian Coyle Community Center before a December rally condemning a recent suicide bombing in their native Somalia. The Dec. 3 suicide attack shattered many peopleOs hopes for war-torn Somalia because the bomber targeted young students graduating from medical school in a country that desperately needs more doctors. Ahmed and Mukhtar, both in their 20s, have been sending money to relatives in their homeland since they were young and would like to visit Mogadishu if and when peace returns to Somalia.
MPR photo/Laura Yuen

At times, he tears up when he thinks of the peers he left behind in Somalia. He knows he's lucky. But the tradeoff, he said, is that there's a missing piece of him that will haunt him for as long as his homeland remains a war zone.

"We are the most fortunate and unfortunate generation. We are fortunate because we are here in America, getting an education. We have food and shelter," Mukhtar said. "But we are also unfortunate because if I want to go back to Somalia, I cannot do that, because it does not exist."

Mukhtar says for civil-war kids like him, the best they can do is help raise a young generation of Somali-Americans the right way. He pushes them to do their homework and to stay away from drugs. He says maybe one of these kids can help rebuild a distant homeland.

But first, they have to beat the odds here.