With the U.S. State Department as his sponsor, Abdi Warsame had just spent several days traveling around Morocco, talking to other Muslims about the reach of radicalization on Somali youth, Islamophobia and the life of an immigrant in today’s America.
Mostly he told a positive story — his own — about fleeing a war-ravaged country to a refugee camp in Kenya and then on to a college education in London. Finally, Warsame talked about his efforts to train, educate and employ his fellow Somalis as a member of the Minneapolis City Council.
But when he landed back in the United States, after a stop to visit family in London, Warsame learned of possible terrorist bombings in New York and a knife attack on 10 people at a St. Cloud mall by a Somali man. He knew people would expect, perhaps demand, that he speak out against the attacks. As the first Somali elected to a City Council in the country, his role is often chief apologist and peacekeeper for an entire country and a religion.
So, still jet-lagged from his trip, Warsame wrote a letter to the editor of this newspaper, calling for unity against the violence. That voice is one of the reasons the State Department sought him out.
In Morocco, Warsame spoke to nongovernmental agencies and at a university. They were fascinated by his American success story.
“We went from being an affluent family to being on welfare, that was a shocking thing,” Warsame said in an interview in his office, decorated with African artwork and a Swedish Institute poster. “But we got out when we were young and we were very fortunate; my mom always reminded us of that. We didn’t have much, but we had each other and we had the hope that tomorrow would be a better day.”
Warsame told them about being the man of the family at 8 years old. He knew the family budget by age 10, and took his siblings to school conferences, even paid the bills. Though poor, his siblings all succeeded and graduated from college.
“It was expected, no ifs or buts,” Warsame said. “We would go to the university, we would work and we would be responsible members of society. We were on welfare, but I didn’t feel poor. Poverty is a state of mind. I always knew I would work and I would do well and get out of it.”
Before his trip, Warsame discovered that Morocco, a largely Muslim country, was the first in the world to recognize the United States as a nation.
“That’s a very compelling story,” he said. “Then when I got there, I found Morocco to be very pro-American. Yet, the whole narrative we are having now with the rise of isolationists and anti-Muslim rhetoric, they are simplistic arguments.”
Moroccans who are themselves grappling with radicalization and jihad wanted to hear about expanding Islamophobia in the U.S.
“I felt very gratified to say I do not experience this,” Warsame said. “What you are seeing on American TV is not my daily life. What I see is a very welcoming place, especially my state, my city.”
Moroccans asked what he was doing to combat radicalization at home. He talked about building the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center, where four anchor partners are working to provide counseling, career information, training and education to employ the area’s East African population, where the unemployment rate reaches nearly 20 percent, according to Warsame.
The center, which gets funds from Minneapolis and Hennepin County, will also serve as a recruitment center for area employers such as the county, HCMC, Fairview Health Services, the University of Minnesota and Augsburg College.
A good education and job are the best antidotes to radicalization, Warsame believes. The goal of “the hub” is to reduce unemployment in the East African community by half within two years.
People in Morocco were aware that Minnesota is a focus of terror recruiters, so they were eager to hear success stories of how Africans were assimilated into the state.
“I told them I am the physical representation of that success,” said Warsame. “I felt like an envoy for my country, and I’m very proud of that. For me, it gave me the time to reflect on what I’m doing here. When you go to another country and see the difficulties there, see the inequalities, you start thinking, ‘This is not so bad.’ ”
When talking about radicalization in Morocco, “I told them there is no easy answer, there is no panacea, but my story is one of hope. America is still a beacon of light and the vast majority of my people who came here have done very well.”
In a news cycle filled with fear, hostility and Skittles, it’s a good story to hear.
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