The surveillance, arrest and conviction of Mohamed Osman Mohamud for domestic terrorism has created a watershed moment for Oregon's Somalis. Before the case, the community was scattered, made up of many small groups, each with different regional, tribal and religious traditions.
Now the community, estimated at 10,000 people, is coming together through the Somali American Council of Oregon.
"We want to bring everyone together to build trust and faith in one another," says Mussé Olol, (pictured) chair of the council.
"We have to create an environment where our youth can thrive. They need a sense of identity and hope for the future."
Right now, many Somali-born parents fear their children cannot thrive in America. Their challenges include the unique problems that come with being refugees from a war zone. But they also face more familiar barriers of unemployment, poverty, racism, school failure and the school to prison pipeline.
The council aims to offer Somali families a community center where everyone is welcome, and a way to make their voices heard. A new Somali community center, at the intersection of North Vancouver Avenue and North Killingsworth Street will become a base for community gatherings and events that feature food, music and dance.
"We want to invite artists to teach traditional dance and hold cultural events where adults can talk to young people, and give them that sense of identity," he says.
In 2010, the Coalition of Communities of Color and Portland State University released a report noting that more than half, 56 percent, of Multnomah County's African Immigrant and Refugee children live in poverty.
According to Ann Curry Stevens, the Portland State researcher who authored the report, "That number has deteriorated and today two-thirds, 67 percent, of African children live in poverty."
"Our belief is that the community is deeply imperiled and faces challenges that often place it in the most marginalized of all communities of color," the 2010 report said.
"Whether one arrives as an immigrant or a refugee, Africans moving into Multnomah county are settling in what is portrayed as an idyllic and progressive region in the USA. Disillusionment settles in quickly, as one learns of the American versions of racism that manifest in job limitations, lack of recognition of foreign experience, deeply flawed income supports, housing discrimination, and system after system that does not respond to their needs with attention nor resources…
"Recently, the school and criminal justice systems have expressed difficulty dealing with African youth ages 13-21. Many African juveniles are already imprisoned in Oregon. With this growing reality, the community is in a state of shock."
Newcomers Face Barriers
Olol arrived in the United States in 1981 as one of the first Somali immigrants to Oregon. He left the country just after it erupted into civil war. Aged 19, he was one year out of high school, and had $500 to his name. But he had attended a special technical school, and already had some work experience. After learning English he was prepared to succeed at Portland State University.
Today, 32 years later, Olol is happily married with a five-year-old son, and a good job as an engineer with a company in the water and wastewater industry. But other members of his family were less fortunate. His younger brother grew up in Mogadishu, listening to bombs exploding and hoping the next one wouldn't hit him. Hand grenades were cheaper than bottled water, Olol says.
"When my brother came here, he knew more about bombs and guns than he did about ABCs."
Olol's father, a police administrator, and his mother, used to managing a large household, were forced to gather up the family and flee to a refugee camp. One member of his family spent 10 months in hospital because of the trauma, he says. Their experiences were not unusual.
"Losing everything to being in a refugee camp: it's a trauma," Olol says. "The kids have to fend for themselves."
Olol believes most families need counseling, but don't get it.
"All of the newcomers: they need therapy," he says. "They need someone to talk to—especially when they come from a war-torn place like Somalia."
Families typically wait years for a sponsor before they are accepted into the United States. Meanwhile, the children are missing years of education. Living in a refugee camp can be dangerous and leave scars on survivors. Once in America, Somali youth, who pick up English quickly, often must bear the added burden of having to translate American language and culture to their elders. Somali parents may have no experience of education and little idea of what schools expect from students, or how to support their children in this new world.
"They are maybe 14 or 15 years old and they have maybe a second grade education," Olol says. "So what do the schools do? They place them in the 8th Grade. That's not going to work. You're setting them up for failure.
"And when a child fails in this country they are going end up in the criminal system. It kills their future prospects."
Mohamud Bilal, a Somali man from Beaverton, worked as an interpreter. But he also volunteered countless hours, visiting family after family to explain to new arrivals how America works. Tragically, he died from a heart attack in 2011. He was just 29 years old, Olol says. "We need more people like him – God Bless his soul."
Olol says many Somali American youths have not been able to find a legal way to earn money and make lives for themselves.
"There are a lot getting diplomas, but have no prospects," he says. "It is scandalous. With employment as bad as it is, a lot of them end up in our living rooms."
Now Olol knows of dozens of youth who resorted to committing crimes and now have felony convictions.
"Some kids are just 18 or 19 with a felony," he says. "It's really hard to give hope to kids like that. That's why we're trying to get them earlier."
African-born youth are now also at risk of getting involved with gangs. In April, 2012, Abdalla Burey Sheikwali, 23, and Fahad Abdalla Abdiaziz, 24, were arrested in a shooting near Rose City Elementary school.
The Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization is just one of several nonprofits that run gang prevention programs, using city-funded outreach workers. Currently IRCO has unspent money for an Asian Pacific Islander outreach worker, and the city has agreed to use those funds to hire a worker for African-born youth.
Antoinette Edwards, director of Portland's Office of Youth Violence Prevention, says she's excited about the partnership, with IRCO and with Portland's African community.
"We had a meeting at Africa House and 40-50 youth came out," she said. "We listened to them and we let them know we understand their problems and we want to help.
"And we met with the parents, who just want their children to be safe."
Targeted By Violent Extremists
The vast majority of ordinary Somalis have no sympathy for terrorist violence, Olol says. In fact, the ultra-conservative form of Islam promoted by terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda and al Shabab, is not based in traditional Somali culture and religion.
Somali women had a valued role in earning money and feeding their families, Olol says.
"It's a new version of religion that they are trying to export to vulnerable countries. It makes men the king of the house."
Yet at the same time, Somalis know that extremists are targeting Somali youth aged 15-25, seeking to turn them into fighters for their cause. It was al Shabab, for example, that recruited 20 young men in Minneapolis and flew them to Somalia to become suicide bombers. The men's parents, who knew nothing about the radical messages aimed at their children, were devastated.
"We have a problem with fundamentalists radicalizing our youth," Olol says. "And the youth who are affected are the ones who came here at a very young age. The first suicide bomber was a kid who came here as a toddler. He was raised here and he was a product of America."
Olol doesn't want to see any other troubled teens end up dead in a suicide bombing or staring down years of prison time like Mohamed Mohamud.
So what can offer youth protection against the violent plans of extremists?
Somali American youth need to learn about, understand and celebrate their cultural heritage so they can build a healthy and positive sense of self, he says. They need adult support to deal with the challenge of living in an America that often feels hostile.
If the Somali community unites now, Olol believes, it will be able to prevent young people from falling for the propaganda that incites them to violence.
Olol has been part of a community effort to build relationships with law enforcement. He's met with former local FBI Special Agent in Charge Arthur Balizan, current Special Agent in Charge Gregory Fowler, former U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton, current U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall, the Multnomah County District Attorney, and Portland Police Chief Mike Reese. He attended the FBI's citizen academy, a seven-week program, designed to train citizens to understand how the agency works. In 2012 he was awarded the Director's Community Leadership Award, in recognition of his 20 years of volunteering with the community, assisting new refugee families as an interpreter, facilitator, counselor, and co-sponsor.
Olol believes that if the community builds relationships with law enforcement, it will be offered a way to intervene before another youth crosses the line into terrorist activity. After all, it was Mohamed Mohamud's father who called the FBI because he didn't want his son to cross that line. Olol believes a stronger community could help parents save their children. Surely, he says, the FBI will work with community members next time.
"I want to make sure the next Osman (Mohamed Mohamud's father) doesn't call an 800 number," he says. "Once you have that one-on-one talk, you break down that wall. I think we have succeeded in doing that."\\See more about the Somali American Council of Oregon on their website www.sacoo.org Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org