Twenty years after Somali government collapse, Minnesota youth reflect on ongoing war

Kids who play soccer in Mogadishu know what to do when a fight breaks out near their playground.

"We will lie flat on the ground and then start playing right away when the fighting stops," said Hussein Elmi, 23, who grew up in Somalia's troubled capital city and came to Minnesota three years ago.

Everyone was used to the fighting, and nearly everyone had a gun.

"Carrying a gun is part of your dress," said Mohamed Ali, another Mogadishu native, and now a senior at the University of Minnesota. "You don't go out without a gun."

Ali and Elmi are part of a generation of Somali-born youth left with a dark legacy of unresolved conflict stemming from a civil war that has disrupted their lives.

Twenty years ago today, on Jan. 26, 1991, Somalia's central government collapsed after rival clans ousted President Mohamed Siad Barre from power. Somalia today remains at war with itself and young Somali refugees across the globe have only known their homeland as a failed state.

"Carrying a gun is part of your dress ... you don't go out without a gun."

Although about 15 national reconciliation conferences have been held outside Somalia, none has succeeded. And there is still a question mark over the chances of peace for the people of Somalia. Since the war started, the country has continued to spiral downward, every year ending with the specter of another year of bloodshed.

"It is really painful to see Somalia right now without peace," said an emotional Ali, staring into his coffee cup. "When you sit and think about it, you really feel deep pain."

Born in 1980, Ali has a story shared by many of his generation. He finished high school in 2001, at the height of the conflict in Mogadishu and then fled to Egypt in 2002 where he studied agriculture at Cairo University.

Ali said he struggles with flashbacks related to his experiences from Mogadishu.

His generation inhabits two different worlds. In one world, their childhood country still exists in their memories, and in the current one, they've started new lives in foreign countries.

"There is no connection between me and my childhood," Ali said. "There are a lot of potholes in between."

"In Somalia, the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning is [your] security," Ali said. "Everything else pales in comparison. And here in Minnesota, the first thing you think about is how to be someone valuable in the community, how to do well in school and how to build your life."

An undocumented number of people have died in Somalia of warfare, starvation, famine and diseases. Many others escaped to neighboring countries as refugees. Some, like Elmi and Ali, found their way to Minnesota, home to the largest Somali-American community.

Elmi said he never dreamed of leaving Somalia. He finished his primary school there, enjoyed playing soccer in the numerous playing grounds in Mogadishu, and would have liked to continue his education in the troubled capital.

But Elmi said he could not stomach the horrors that resulted from the war: he saw young people like him joining militia groups, his best friend died in a crossfire, and random fighting between militia groups constantly interrupted his education.

When he was 15, Elmi ran away from the mayhem of Somalia's civil war to seek refuge in neighboring Kenya. He left his family back in Somalia. His intended destination was America, and by the time he was 21, Elmi ended up in Minnesota, where he had family and friends.

But Elmi's journey, which took him through six countries, was not an easy one. He was detained in Mexico for 10 days and was told to leave the country within 30 days. Elmi crossed the border to the U.S. and turned himself in to immigration officials at the border. He was in a detention center in San Diego for five months.

"In the center, we were freely practicing our religion," Elmi said. Elmi gave Friday khutbah, or sermons, in Arabic to the Muslims in the detention center. He had three meals a day.

"In Somalia, it is not even guaranteed that some people may get three meals a day," Elmi said.

He told authorities he had run away from the violence in Somalia. He was granted asylum.

Unlike Elmi, Abdirahman Ikar, who came to Rochester in 1995, has lived most of his life in Minnesota. He left Somalia in 1991, when he was just 1. He lived for four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, before his family came to Minnesota.

"I was born as the war was starting, and every birthday that I have reminds me of how long this war has been going on," Ikar said.

Life outside Somalia has had its own share of problems for Somalis. In Minnesota, some young Somalis have turned to violence and gang life. In the latest incident this week, two young Somali men were shot and injured outside the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis, the same place where a college student was shot and killed three years ago. And one year ago, three men of East African descent were shot and killed inside the Seward Market in Minneapolis.

While acknowledging the problems, Ikar said he is grateful for the opportunities he has as a result of living in America. He said that Somali youth in Minnesota are becoming more educated, volunteering, and giving back to the broader community.

"We have our own unique Somali-American culture," Ikar said. "But we are definitely an asset to the communities we live in."

While Somali youth are integrating into their new communities, many of them still think about their home country. Hoodo Hassan, a psychology and English major at the university, wrote a poem on Mashriq Quaterly, an online magazine on East African affairs, that captures the situation in Somalia.

The poem, titled 'Dawn', portrays life in Somalia as "like [living] inside of a kiln." She describes how people with "jaundiced eyes look to heaven for mediation, while another woman dons the widow's white scarf."

Despite the gloomy reality, Somali youth like Ikar are optimistic that their country will eventually regain peace.

"I'm saying this to encourage other Somalis," Ikar said. "We have persevered despite the odds against us."

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