Attorney General Holder reaches out to Somalis, hears from protesters

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 27, 2011 - 8:47 PM

The U.S. attorney general was greeted by protests -- and eagerness. It all depends on your perspective.

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Optimism. Skepticism. Distrust.

Depending on the perspective of those who came to hear, address and question U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Friday, any of those words could fit.

To the young Somali-Americans who helped organize an afternoon event at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Holder's visit is a sign of bridges being built and trust being cultivated.

"I'm very optimistic because, finally, they are talking to us," said Sharmarke Jama, one of the young organizers.

Some older Somalis, who watched 20 or so of their young return to their homeland to fight violent jihad, were more wary -- waiting to see if Holder's words will be matched by FBI and U.S. Attorney deeds.

Those holding protest signs outside the auditorium -- people who have been searched and investigated for alleged support to terror groups abroad? Holder's visit proved another frustrating example of not getting their concerns addressed.

Such is the complex intersection between the federal government and the people whose lives it enters.

Protesters shadowed Holder much of the day, from his morning appearance at the University of Minnesota's McNamara Alumni Center to his afternoon "town hall" meeting with Minneapolis Somalis. Several protesters were led out of the morning meeting after repeatedly standing to shout and interrupt his speech about preventing youth violence. Another 50 to 75 stood outside banging on drums and chanting for the FBI to stop investigating people who have met with groups the U.S. has defined as terrorist.

The contrast between those activists and the young people who emerged almost giddy from their meeting with the attorney general could not have been more stark.

"Having this engagement with us makes all this better for us," said Hidia Ali, a member of a Somali youth advisory committee.

At the same time, protesters were not engaged at all. Those who came to Augsburg to hear the attorney general were not allowed into the auditorium.

Common issues

In many ways, the drum-beaters and the children of refugees face similar issues.

Some young Somalis have been at the heart of a massive counterterrorism investigation in which several have been arrested, indicted and convicted for providing material support to terrorists. As many as 20 people left to fight with Al-Shabab, an Islamist group fighting civil war in Somalia that the U.S. State Department has labeled a terrorist organization.

Many of the antiwar protesters' homes were raided and searched by the FBI on Sept. 24, 2010, for alleged ties or association with State Department-defined terror groups in Colombia and the Middle East. Their questions Friday went unanswered.

"We have sent e-mails, letters, made phone calls," said Coleen Rowley, a former FBI agent and one of the protesters. "No one has responded."

But for Jaylani Hussein, one of the Augsburg organizers, Friday's meeting was another example of a Department of Justice engaging young people. It marks a new and positive ongoing relationship, a cause to feel good about the future of his community in Minnesota and the U.S., he said.

"The effort has been there for a while," he said of the youth council formed by U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones. "Holder being here is incredibly important. He wanted to meet some of the future leaders of the community."

Holder met with young people and elders, community leaders and students. He took questions and promised a commitment to civil rights, said Abdirizak Bihi, director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center, whose nephew was killed in the fighting in Somalia.

Overall, Bihi said, the meeting was promising. But how well Somali concerns are addressed, "I will have to see."

Organizer Jama, however, said it is time to write a new chapter for Somali youth and America. No more should young people look upon the government with suspicion.

"This wide veil of mistrust has to go away."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428

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