Volunteer hopes McKnight award will bring attention to Somali issues

Abdi Ali
Abdi Ali launched a study to investigate the causes of homelessness for Somali youth and the cultural competency of organizations working with them.
Photo courtesy of the McKnight Foundation

Abdi Ali said he hopes his winning a McKnight award brings attention to the struggles of Somali youth in the Twin Cities.

Ali moved to Minnesota ten years ago, after a childhood spent in Somalia and Kenya. In 2004, he launched a study to investigate the causes of homelessness among Somali youth.

The study found that many local social service agencies had made few attempts to partner with the Somali community and lacked information about the Somali refugee experience, he said.

"You have to understand that these are youth who have probably never seen Somalia ... and were born in a refugee camp," Ali, 40, said. "So the best they saw is a hardened kind of life, survival of the fittest. The prime time of their life has been lost, when they could be held, be loved, and play and eat."

In response to the study's findings, Ali founded the Center for Multicultural Mediation and Restorative Justice Program. The Minneapolis-based organization holds restorative justice sessions with Somali youth who have been arrested for shoplifting and other offenses. Each session also includes the parents and a community member.

"The (community member) will say, 'It's not good for us. You're doing harm to the Somali community, to your family, to everybody in the neighborhood,'" Ali said.

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The group discusses the incident and decides how it should be resolved - usually with a written apology and community service. The program also requires that the parents participate in the resolution process.

"We are doing that to strengthen the institution of parents and family so the parents can also feel that they have a stake in their children's lives," Ali said.

Ali calls the Center an example of "a problem finding a solution," and said he hopes to expand to provide conflict mediation services to other African immigrants.

"I would like to see the Center as a place where dialogue can be promoted and as a place where communities can be united," he said.