Minn. Somali youth group Ka Joog builds bridges

Ka Joog
Young leaders with the Somali-American nonprofit Ka Joog listen to the FBI during a during a quarterly roundtable community meeting Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 organized by the Department of Homeland Security.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

A group of young Somalis in Minnesota is trying to tackle some big issues. The group — called Ka Joog — uses the arts, mentorship and discussions to build bridges and bridge gaps to help dispel negative images of the Somali community. The goals are lofty but Ka Joog is determined to make a difference.

In this latest installment of MPR's Young Reporters Series, Lolla Mohammed Nur tells us more. Lolla is a recent University of Minnesota graduate, where she majored in journalism and political science.

KA JOOG'S STORY

For some people the mention of the words 'Somali youth' conjures up negative stereotypes, like violent gangs and terrorists. Those stereotypes frustrate and disillusion many Somalis in the Twin Cities, especially 25-year-old Somali American Abdifatah Farah. His disillusionment sparked a vision that inspired Farah to blaze a path for social change in the Somali community. With his lazy gait, heavy-lidded eyes and soft-spoken voice, one would not immediately guess that Farah is a vocal advocate, a mover and shaker.

Farah is a Twin Cities spoken word artist, who's better known as Abdi Phenomenal. He helped create the Minneapolis non-profit group Ka Joog in 2007. That year there was a series of deadly shootings in the Somali community and the first of about 20 Somali men went missing to allegedly join the terrorist group al Shabaab in Somalia.

Ka Joog is a Somali term that means to stop or stay away from something. The group is founded upon the notion of avoiding negative influences. And it's an effort that's not going unnoticed. In fact, it was recently recognized for its activities. At an awards ceremony, Abdi Phenomenal said he uses his role as program director to help educate young Somalis through creative programming, mentorship and dialog.

"At the end of the day Ka Joog is a platform for youth expression, in general, when it comes to the arts, but also when it comes to issues that are facing us as Somalis, meaning when it comes to the famine, when it comes to al Shabaab, when it comes to Somali pirates, when it comes to 21 years of war. So we use this as a platform to speak out against things that affect us and create that platform for the youth," he said.

AbdiFatah Farah
Ka Joog co-founder Mohamed Farah makes comments after receiving the FBI's DCL Award.
Lolla Mohammed Nur for MPR

The Ka Joog board, made up of mostly 20-somethings, has worked to create events and programs to talk about those issues. The nonprofit survives on a budget of about $6,000 while serving 2,500 youth in the Twin Cities.

The Invisible Arts Workshop is Ka Joog's most high-profile program. Aspiring young poets gather every other week to hone their writing skills through interactive group activities. The group's newest program offers tutoring and mentorship to high school students in its new branch in Eden Prairie.

"It shows positive things that are happening in the Somali community"

The nonprofit's activities were recognized by the FBI with its annual FBI Director's Community Leadership Award.

The timing of the FBI's award to Ka Joog may seem ironic given that the award was presented just days after a Somali American man was convicted of helping recruit Twin Cities men to join the terrorist group al Shabaab. And it comes a year after two Rochester women were convicted of sending money to the group.

But the FBI's Kyle Loven says there's no irony. He says this award just recognizes good community work. "We're proud of our relationship with the Somali community here in the Twin Cities," Loven said. "Our hope is that through efforts like Ka Joog we can demonstrate that the FBI is not just interested in enforcing the laws but actually building a relationship of mutual trust between various communities and our organization as well."

Ka Joog member Abdul Mohamed agrees. He says the group works to counter stereotypes of the Somali community.

"I think honestly, often times, the issue is that whenever something about Somali people is in the news it's often times negative," Mohamed said. "I think as far as timing goes it's perfect timing because it shows there is [sic] positive things that are happening in the Somali community."

Ka Joog members say they nurtured the relationship with the FBI when they invited the agency to participate in a youth conference on radicalization last March. Ka Joog co-founder Abdi Phenomenal said he wanted government officials to address what some in the community perceived as federal harassment of Muslims and Somalis.

"At the end of the day we are trying to bridge the gap between government agencies and the communities, between the youth and the elders, between Somalis and the outside communities, the people that are not Somali, people that are not Muslims, people that have not been through what we've been through," he said. "We're trying to bridge the gap."

As part of efforts to continue bridging the gaps, Ka Joog is organizing a conference later this month on tribalism in the Somali Community. It's also getting ready to open a new Somali Arts Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. And it's working on a women's empowerment initiative and a project reaching out to homeless Somali families.

Toni Randolph produces the Young Reporter series.

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