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Continued: Creating a safe space for young Muslims

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 31, 2009 - 12:04 AM

A plan to create what could become the first recreation center in the country designed to comply with Muslim religious beliefs is gaining steam in the Twin Cities.

The proposal for a $48 million Muslim Youth and Recreation Center comes from Somali Youth Action of Minnesota, a new nonprofit organization working to reduce youth violence.

Early sketches of the project reveal separate swimming pools for men and women, separate exercise rooms, an indoor soccer field and a large multi-purpose room for weddings and other events.

The group hasn't purchased land for the proposed center and is just starting to form a fundraising committee.

"We're going to go after it ... and we're going to hope that the local community and donors and foundations respond," said Matthew Palombo, secretary of Somali Youth Action (SYA). "If they do, then it will move forward."

Creating a safe place for Somali youth to meet has been at the forefront of community discussions on preventing youth violence.

A 2007 report on Somali youth violence commissioned by the city of Minneapolis noted a lack of youth programs available, and called for a drop-in center that would be culturally sensitive to Muslims.

Last year, seven Somalis under 30 were slain over a 10-month period. That, coupled with the deaths in Somalia of four local Somali men believed to have been recruited by religious extremists, has increased the community desire for youth programs and services.

"Fifty million dollars is a lot, but when you think about it, youth are disappearing, youth are dying, and people have really serious health concerns," Palombo said.

While his group sees the proposed Muslim youth and recreation center as a tool to combat violence, they also say it will give Muslim women better access to recreation facilities they may otherwise avoid because of modesty concerns.

In recent years, there have been several cases of Muslims seeking women-only hours at gyms and swimming pools.

A YMCA in Burnsville has started an aerobics class for women only, catering to the area's growing Muslim population. Other recreation centers in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the country also accommodate requests from Muslim women who want to reserve the swimming pools for private time.

Saciido Shaie, SYA president, says her vision for the youth center is modeled after the YMCA. It would be open to everyone but designed with Muslims in mind.

Her group has already received pro bono work from Mortenson Construction and Perkins+Will, an architecture firm that is building a Women's College in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

According to the concept design for the project, the building would measure 300,000 square feet and would sit on a 4- to 7-acre site. SYA leaders say they're looking for a site in Minneapolis, perhaps along Central Avenue or near the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Both areas are home to large numbers of Muslims.

Serving 150,000 Muslims

The proposed center would serve an estimated 150,000 Muslims living in the Twin Cities area. It would house a walk-in clinic, a teen center where young people could work, study and socialize, an art gallery to display Islamic art and projects created by teens. There also would be a coffeehouse and space for counseling and legal services.

Raising enough money to turn the dream into reality will be challenging, SYA leaders acknowledge, especially given the stagnant economy and poor fundraising climate.

"It's going to have to be a very broad, united effort for fundraising this," Palombo said. "It's going to have to come from a lot of places, definitely from the local Muslim communities first, through private donations and fundraising events, and local philanthropists. We're also hoping to do some corporate sponsorships, whether it's a room or a program."

The group also anticipates having to seek donations from individuals and businesses outside Minnesota, and maybe even outside the country. Palombo estimates it will take at least three to five years to raise the money and two years after that for construction.

Board members say money from membership dues would cover operating costs. People who rent the multi-purpose room for events or who use legal and counseling services also would help pay for operating costs, they say.

Minneapolis officials are supportive of the youth center idea but have stopped short of endorsing the plan. "I've been asking them to develop some sort of a master plan," said Bass Zanjani, youth violence prevention coordinator for the city. He's pressing for more details about what kind of programs the center will offer and who it will serve.

"Does it serve high-risk kids in the community or is it more for at-risk youth and more for prevention?" he said.

Hanan Osman has been personally affected by local Somali violence. Last year, her good friend Ahmednur Ali was shot outside the Brian Coyle Community Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Ali was a student at Augsburg College and a volunteer at the Coyle Center.

Osman, 22, and four of her friends were so fed up they started a group called Students Against Violence. Every week, they meet with teenage Somali boys and talk about their goals and lead them in activities to help them make good choices.

Osman, who is familiar with SYA's vision for a Muslim recreation center, says such a building would help.

"One of the things we've been advocating since Day One is having a recreation center," she said. "Having nothing to do will give you reasons to go do something else."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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