On any given Friday night, even in the bone-chilling cold, Abdirahman Mukhtar stands at an outdoor plaza in Minneapolis, offering young passersby free pizza and hot Somali tea thick with spices.
His aim: Making a connection with youths who are all too frequently alienated from their community.
"Zack, Adan, pizza?" Mukhtar called out to a group of teens in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood on a recent frigid night. They told him they were headed home. He gave them a box of cheese pizza and a few words of advice: "Stay indoors, OK?"
Mukhtar, 37, works by day as Minneapolis parks' community outreach and access coordinator. Ten weeks ago, he started his second, volunteer job doing street outreach on Friday nights. His group, called Daryeel Youth (daryeel is "care" in Somali), wants to meet and help East African youth who are homeless, hooked on drugs or maybe hanging out with the wrong crowd. Mukhtar said some members of their own community might neglect these youth, or label them gang members or criminals.
"We really act like they don't exist," he said. "That really bothers me."
It's personal for Mukhtar. He knows nearly all the names of Somali youth in this neighborhood. He grew up here and worked as a youth program manager at the Brian Coyle Community Center. He has seen the best and the worst. He has seen young people he mentored succeed in life.
He has a 15-year-old son, and he's known youth around that age who are addicted to drugs. He has seen others stranded out in the cold, with no one coming to their aid. He's known some who have been shot to death.
"A lot of times I see young people who are crying for help," Mukhtar said. "I see mothers and parents who are really struggling who don't know what to do and how to help their kids."
Rising concerns over crime
Mukhtar's street outreach comes at a time of rising concerns over crime in the Cedar-Riverside area. Violent crimes rose from 54 in 2010 to 84 last year, largely driven by a surge in robberies and assaults, according to Minneapolis police statistics.
Authorities point to a simmering rivalry between St. Paul and Minneapolis East African gangs as a cause of much of the violence.
In recent weeks, a group of Cedar-Riverside-based businesses have pooled money to hire security officers to keep peace in the area.
"Our youth don't have a place to go and hang out around Cedar Avenue," business owner Fartune Del said at a Minneapolis City Council public hearing on Dec. 6. "So they choose to come in front of the businesses and the only thing they do is to do drugs. And when they do that, they are not holding anything. They are just going to rob and kill."
So Del went to businesses in the area and collected $9,000. Eventually, she hired Somali-speaking off-duty officers for four hours every week. "That had made a lot of difference," she said.
Mukhtar offers a different solution. Business owners want more police on the street, but local youths want less of a police presence, Mukhtar said. Daryeel Youth gets support from Somali-owned businesses such as Deg Deg Grill and Capitol Cafe, which donate pizza and tea.
Council Member Abdi Warsame, who represents the area, said he learned from his ongoing conversations with youth that they want more athletic, mentorship, after-school and youth programs.
"When there's no programming in a neighborhood such as Cedar-Riverside, which has a high density of youth … you have a recipe for disaster," Warsame said. "What Abdirahman is doing here is actually addressing one of the key issues.
"Instead of saying, 'We don't have a grant, we don't have funding, we can't do nothing,' Abdirahman is saying: 'We can actually do things because we have it within ourselves. We can volunteer time. We can volunteer food. We can donate within the community,' " Warsame said.
Mukhtar's street outreach was sparked by what he heard and saw at the funeral for Salad Sahal, a 32-year-old man who was shot 11 times in September as he sat in a car parked outside a south Minneapolis apartment building. A video of Sahal gasping for air as he bled from the gunshot wounds circulated on social media. It was the culmination of a violent summer for some Somali youth.
Hundreds showed up to Sahal's funeral. Mukhtar said he saw SWAT team and police officers deployed at the cemetery. But what angered him most was what he heard from religious and community leaders, who prayed to God to save the community from criminals and gangs, instead of showing any sympathy or responsibility for the deceased man's friends.
"At that moment all [Sahal's friends] can think about is their friend who died," Mukhtar said. "Seeing an imam or a scholar calling them gang or criminal, seeing your elders and community members not really taking responsibility and admitting that we are not doing enough to help our kids or young people, that really bothered me."
The incident also laid bare the widening cultural and language gap between older people and younger generations, he said.
Mukhtar, who came to the United States when he was 17, said he knew the language and expectations from his elders. He also understands the struggles that young people go through.
"I'm one of the few people that can bridge that gap," Mukhtar said, "that can communicate with parents, but at the same time communicate with young people and give them … tough love."
'No judgements. Just help'
At Daryeel Youth's Dec. 21 outreach night, Mahdi Abdi, a volunteer with the group, asked three older men who walked nearby if they wanted pizza and tea. The men thanked Mahdi as they kept walking. That doesn't bother him. He said he just wants to meet those who are trying to find a path to better their lives.
When he talks to some of them, they tell him they want to get a job, get rid of their drug addiction, go to college.
"They are looking for some type of help or support," he said. "They are looking for some type of a direction. I believe they need that doorstep. Once you help them get in the door, I think they will figure out the rest on their own."
Daryeel's motto, as printed on the group's T-shirts, is: "No judgements. Just help."
"The only thing we charge is a two-minute conversation. If you come and get pizza and tea, we can conversate," said Abdullahi Farah, a volunteer. "If we take two minutes away from their time, we can try to convince them."
A few minutes after the three teens left with the pizza, a man comes up to Daryeel group.
"Is shaah here?" he asked, using the Somali word for tea.
"Shaah is coming," Mukhtar said.
"How many slices?"
"I have two more guys in the car."
"I will give you a box."
"I will come back for the tea," the man said.
Mukhtar probed no further.
"I really don't question what they are doing," he said.
If the pizza keeps them in an apartment, they won't be on the streets.