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When Muslim controversies boil, Jaylani Hussein gets the call

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Jaylani Hussein spoke to reporters.
Jaylani Hussein, center, talked to reporters who were covering the resignation of Grant Nichols, right, outside Columbia Heights High School in Columbia Heights, Minn., on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015. A comment on Nichols' Facebook account sparked a student walk-out in September and ultimately Nichols' resignation from the Columbia Heights school board.
Mukhtar Ibrahim | MPR News

On a Tuesday morning in mid-October, Jaylani Hussein sat in his office in Minneapolis, the walls lined with posters of religious calligraphy, reflecting on the challenges that face Minnesota's Muslim community.

"In the last few years we have noticed an increase in Islamophobia," Hussein said. "That has built a level of hysteria, a level of fear in the community, so our work is becoming much more challenging." 

Since he took over the leadership of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in January, becoming the first Somali-American to head the Muslim civil rights organization, Hussein has been at the forefront of a number of high-profile cases related to Muslims.

The latest case involved a Facebook comment calling the bathroom habits of Muslims "unsanitary." The post, which appeared on the account of Columbia Heights school board member Grant Nichols, sparked a walkout in mid-September at the school, with students demanding the resignation of Nichols. Hussein sent out press statements, came to school board meetings and called for Nichols to step down. 

On Oct. 9, Nichols met privately with Hussein, two other Muslim leaders and two elected officials, and expressed his desire to resign. Nichols apologized for the comment, which he said was posted by someone else using his phone.

"His resignation will allow for this issue to end," Hussein said. "The story will come to be something that actually is much more positive than negative."

The incident touched Hussein personally. A 2000 graduate of Columbia Heights High School, he said he was shocked when he heard the news coming out of his alma mater.

"Immediately for me, I was like, Columbia Heights?" he said. "I would have assumed that if there's a school out there that is going to be much more accepting of diversity and willing to not offend and not know anything about the Muslim community it would be Columbia Heights High School."

While the Columbia Heights incident is resolved, Hussein faces other challenges, ranging from opposing U.S. Attorney Andy Luger's anti-terror pilot program to advocating on behalf of Muslims in Minnesota who feel they have been discriminated against in education and employment.

Hussein, 33, who stands 6 feet 4 inches tall, came to the Twin Cities in 1993, shortly after the civil war broke out in Somalia. He was 10 years old when the war turned a comfortable life in his homeland upside down.

As a young boy, he remembers hopping on the last military airplane that flew from the city of Hargeisa to Mogadishu in 1989. Hussein and his six siblings sat on the floor of the plane, vibrations numbing their feet. His father was away for a business trip to Egypt.

After staying about a year in Mogadishu, the crisis exploded into a full-blown civil war. Hussein and his family then found themselves as refugees in a camp on the Somali-Kenya border. At night, he heard the roar of lions.

"The life of a refugee or immigrant is very challenging, especially when you go through that entire process as a child," Hussein said. "While I was sheltered from the decision making or what's happening, still it has affected how I think."

"It provided me a sense of knowing that anything can change at any time," he said. 

When Hussein came here in 1993, Minnesota was less diverse. Now, the majority of students at Columbia Heights High School are people of color.

"I could recall in the early 1990s explaining Islam or Muslim to our school was a bit challenging," he said.

Over the last two decades, the Muslim and Somali population in Minnesota has increased significantly. Somali refugees who resettled in other parts of the country found their way to Minnesota to be closer to their fellow Somalis who established businesses, mosques and community centers, making the state home to the largest Somali population in the nation.

Last week at Columbia Heights High School, Hussein met with Muslim students who told him they don't have a Muslim Student Association at the school. "Oh, I already thought you had one," he said. He told them to use all the resources available to them, and to urge the school administration to give them a break when they want to pray.

"You've been a big help," one student told him.

Kashif Saroya, a senior manager at Target Corp., worked with Hussein for the last 15 years on community issues and youth summer camps. As someone who grew up in Minnesota, Hussein understands identity issues that the Muslim youth go through, Saroya said.   

Hussein is "connecting communities together, no matter if it's from Somali-American perspective, no matter if it's from Muslim perspective, from Minnesotan perspective, he's trying to bridge that gap," Saroya said.

Jaylani Hussein
Jaylani Hussein, 33, came to the Twin Cities in 1993, shortly after civil war broke out in Somalia. He is a 2000 graduate of Columbia Heights High School.
Mukhtar Ibrahim | MPR News

After he graduated from high school in 2000, Hussein went to Anoka Ramsey Community College and started the first Muslim Student Association at the school. Around that time, he became the president of Muslim Youth of Minnesota, an organization that provides youth leadership trainings and promotes understanding and outreach efforts between the Muslim community and non-Muslims.

"From the '90s til even now it's always the information that people didn't know about Islam and Muslims that really resonated with me," he said. "I felt that was where you could address a lot of the concerns because of our culture, especially the Somali culture which is so entwined with the Muslim culture."

Before becoming the head of CAIR-MN, Hussein worked for Metropolitan State University as a community liaison and for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture as a planner.

"What I do every day is a culmination of what I've been doing for a very long time," he said. "It gives me an opportunity to be a good bridge builder because I was raised here in Minnesota."

At times, Hussein longed to reconnect with his origin. That opportunity came when a massive famine hit Somalia in 2011. Hussein, who was a board member of the Twin Cities-based American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA), went to the region to help relief efforts on behalf of the organization.

As he traveled across the country to fundraise for ARAHA, Hussein said he felt he was being singled out.

"For nearly seven to eight years, I could not get on a flight without being extra screened," he said. "It got to the level where when they told me I didn't need to be screened, they literally were just mistaken because they would pull me from the airplane before the airplane get off and then screen me right at the door." 

He was taken off the screening list after he applied to the Department of Homeland Security's Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.

But that experience, and living in the post-Sept. 11 climate, had solidified his desire to become a civil rights advocate, he said.

CAIR-MN handles about 200 cases every year and has two full-time lawyers. Some people come to the organization when they have disagreements with employers over religious accommodations at work or when a local city council denies land for Muslims to use as a mosque.  After CAIR-MN fails to get a resolution with concerned parties, it files a complaint with various agencies such as the Department of Justice.

Hussein said the most challenging case so far involves an anti-terrorism program called "Countering Violent Extremism." 

The pilot project aims to provide social, mentoring and education services for Somali youth in the Twin Cities. U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, who's spearheading the effort, hopes that the program will dissuade Somali youth from being recruited by terrorist groups overseas. 

However, a group of community activists, including Hussein, argue that Luger isn't sincere in his motives. The anti-terror program, which is locally called Building Community Resilience, has sparked an intense debate in the Somali community.

Luger is also prosecuting a group of young Somali friends, some of whom were arrested at their homes one Sunday morning in April for allegedly attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIS. Hussein asserts that Luger's double role in prosecuting the cases and also trying to provide social services is problematic. He said that the help could be disguised as a way of intelligence gathering.

To win over the support of the community, Luger put together a task force, including Minneapolis City Councilman Abdi Warsame and several imams, to help him implement and shape the program.

One those imams is Abdisalam Adam, a St. Paul Public Schools teacher and a leader at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque who taught Hussein Islamic studies in the 1990s.

Adam praised Hussein's work during the 2011 famine in East Africa, when Hussein traveled to Somalia several times to deliver humanitarian supplies.

Hussein's appointment as the head of CAIR-MN, which coincided with the launch of the CVE anti-terror program came a critical time when people were forming their opinions about the program, Adam said.  

"The time he started and the CVE issue that kind of became divisive was a difficult time for him," he said. 

The debate over the legitimacy of the CVE became so divisive that in late August, one local imam, who was on a panel discussing the program on Somali TV, called on parents to not take their children to mosques whose imams are aligned with Luger.

"The clerics and others who are supporting this program should know that they are chasing people away from the religion," firebrand Minneapolis imam Abdighani Ali said on a Somali TV. "There'll be a time when people won't come to their mosques."

Ali said Luger's supporters have hidden agendas and claimed that the mosques will be used as spying grounds.

Luger has denied those allegations. "This pilot program, has nothing to do with spying on the community," he said last Thursday night at a Somali community town hall meeting on terror recruitment. "If we wanted to use these programs to spy on the community, why on earth would we be up here talking about them?"

Hussein isn't convinced.

On that night last week at Columbia Heights High School, after board member Nichols resigned and most people left, Hussein performed the last Muslim prayer in a corner of the school hallway. He joined a group of people who were waiting to talk to him. 

"Would you pray for me?" one elderly woman asked.

"What would you like?" Hussein said.

"Peace," she said.