For Somalis, going home has its risks

  • Article by: By JAMES WALSH and PAM LOUWAGIE
  • Updated: November 26, 2008 - 10:30 PM

Many would like to return to their homeland someday. Some even do. But if they go, they say it's only to gain fresh perspective -- not to fight.

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Ali Hussein, left, and Mahad Isse listened as Ilyas Maye talked about the missing young Somali men and teenagers who have left the Twin Cities. About 20 have seemingly disappeared.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Ilyas Maye, 24, is one of the young Minneapolis Somali men who has returned to his homeland. He went back last year, for three months.

"I went outside to see what the world had to offer me," said Maye, who owns a clothing store on Lake Street in Minneapolis. "And I would go back again."

He did not, he insisted, go to fight. He went for a new perspective on his life in America. And others are doing the same thing, Maye and several other local Somali men said Wednesday.

Many have found only disappointment here -- lost jobs, trouble with the law, poor prospects. So, he said, they go back to Somalia for a fresh start or to reconnect with their culture. Or, he said, "to do something good."

But federal officials continue to investigate whether some young Somali men are returning to their homeland with more dangerous intentions, a source familiar with the case said, adding that several have left the Twin Cities in recent months. What authorities are trying to determine is whether they are participating in terrorist activities.

The source has confirmed that one of the men who returned to Somalia at the beginning of this year blew himself up in a terrorist-led operation there.

In a community of tens of thousands of people, the reasons for the reported disappearance of up to 20 young men has prompted many rumors. But what people believe tends to reflect how close they are to one of the missing men.

E.K. Wilson, a spokesman for the Minneapolis FBI office, confirmed Wednesday that investigators continue to meet with members of the Somali community to discuss the disappearances.

"Our activities are still evolving daily," Wilson said. "We know that some Somalis have traveled from the United States to fight. I would say that some have traveled from Minneapolis potentially to fight, because we just don't know yet."

While it's unclear what cause the men might have returned to fight for, Somalia has been caught up in civil war for more than a decade, and U.S. intelligence officials are concerned that Al-Qaida may have used the chaos to gain a presence in the country.

Osman Ahmed, board chairman of the Riverside Plaza Tenants' Association, said his 17-year-old nephew disappeared Nov. 4. The nephew called his mother a few days later and said only that he was OK and in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and would call back later. He never did.

The family didn't want the nephew's name used out of fear for his safety.

Ahmed said the nephew was a Minneapolis high school student who spent his time at school, at home, or at a local mosque.

"He was very nice," Ahmed said. "He was very connected to the mosque."

He said the boy's mother first went to authorities, then noticed his passport was missing. He said the family suspects the boy was being told what to say when he called home.

Afraid to go to authorities

Ahmed said he has since spoken to others in the community and believes that young men have been recruited to fight in Somalia during the past year or two, but that their parents were afraid to go to the authorities for fear they would somehow be blamed or that their children would be in trouble if they returned.

Ahmed encouraged other parents to step forward, though, saying that authorities will catch those responsible and parents "have a right to speak and tell that they are missing a child."

Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, said he's spoken to several parents of missing children and said others should feel assured that there's nothing to be afraid of if they speak out.

Concern is growing among those who have seen their sons disappear without even a goodbye note, said Saheed Fahia, executive director of Confederation of the Somali Community in Minnesota. It is being discussed in community meetings and in meetings with the FBI, he said.

"It seems that they are going back to fight," Fahia said of a handful of missing sons. "And parents ... think there are people here who are recruiting their sons because the young people just left without telling anybody."

Many people, however, are cautioning people to ask questions before they assume that men are missing.

Ahmed Abdullahi, 24, said he heard rumors that his brother, 23-year-old Abdul Abdullahi, was named as one of the missing men who may have gone to Somalia to fight.

"When they said one of the people was my brother, I couldn't stop laughing," Abdullahi said. "They said he was one of the people who was sent, which is a lie."

What those spreading the rumors didn't know, he said, was that his brother was spending three months in Somalia with his extended family because he suffers from depression during the winter months. His family has been in touch with his brother and is not concerned that he is involved in any fighting.

"Those who are saying my brother went there, I wish they would have come to me or my mother or his physician and talk to us," said Abdullahi, adding that he also made a trip to Somalia in 2006 for similar reasons.

Imam Hassan Mohamud, of the Islamic Da'wah Center in St. Paul, said he is reminding members of the Somali community that passing along rumors is against Islam. He said that the Qur'an states, "If you heard any news don't react; make sure that the news is genuine and true."

Some in the community have a hard time believing anyone would return to fight.

"I've never seen any family of mine, or any person, go back," said Muhamed Muhamed, 22, whose family came to the United States in 1995. "I won't believe it until I actually see it happen."

Abdulkadir Said, 47, said he didn't believe the rumors when he first heard them a couple of weeks ago. Going to fight with terrorists in Somalia is "totally unacceptable" in the local Somali community, he said.

Mahad Isse, 28, said that fighting convinced his family to flee Somalia. Why would others now want to seek out such dangers?

"I consider myself a survivor. We had a civil war, people were killed," Isse said. "I heard, a long time ago, that it was time to set the gun down, pick up the pen and educate yourself. And I believe it."

Maye said he believes more young Somalis should return -- if only to gain a clearer perspective about how much better life is here. But even he admits he wouldn't return soon.

"They shoot educated people," he said.

Lora Pabst contributed to this report. James Walsh • 612-673-7428 Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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